What Drives Men to Rape?

I have thought about this a lot.

5 years ago, or 2, or 10 — I can’t remember — a friend of mine stuck his fingers in my vagina when I was drunk and on the verge of passing out. We weren’t making out I don’t think, but maybe we were. I was blacked out at that point. Whatever. The details aren’t important.

What is important is that I wasn’t attracted to this friend and he knew it, but maybe lied to himself about it. What is important is that, emotionally, it felt like a major violation to me and had lasting repercussions. What else is important is that my friend, basically — usually — was a pretty good guy.

He was an old coworker. We’d hung out one on one a few times and he’d never expressed any attraction to me before; I just assumed he wasn’t. He did joke kiss me in front of a group of people once, and that felt weird. I just brushed it off as a bad gag, a decision I would later regret. I guess maybe I should have known then, I guess maybe I repressed it, but I tend to be open and honest about my attractions. At the time, the idea that someone would hide or be duplicitous about a romantic attraction seemed less likely than someone just not being into me.

And you know, maybe he wasn’t really that into me. I’m not really sure. What I am pretty sure of, is a desire to have a real connection with me was not his motivation.

I have asked myself, what was different about that night? Why of all those nights we hung out, did he pick that night? Maybe it was just opportunity, maybe I was drunker than he’d ever seen me. I’d made a joke earlier in the night about having an untreated STD (I hate to STD shame — most of that shit is curable/manageable so don’t get too down if you get some funk in your junk. Just get your ass to a doctor.) I was hoping to be sexually repulsive, but maybe he just saw me as slutty or damaged goods. I’m not totally sure.

However, there was one thing that was majorly different about that night; his mom had just died. And, like your average man in tech, managing and expressing his emotions wasn’t really a strong suit of his.

I think he was in a lot of pain. I think he was lonely. I think he wanted companionship, and didn’t know how to go about finding it. I think he wanted to use my body so he could stop feeling the bad feelings in his, and he was so desperate that he didn’t have space to consider how I would feel.

The thing is, on a smaller scale, this is something I’ve had to deal with regularly in a male dominated field. We don’t teach men how to emotionally regulate themselves in our society. We teach men to hide their emotions, but we don’t teach men to identify and respond to what they are feeling themselves. And, men often rely on women to manage this for them often without realizing it.

When I work in therapy with heterosexual couples, the disparity of training each gender receives in emotional management is stark. Often, the woman is aware of her male partner’s needs and feelings at the expense of her own, whereas the male partner struggles to identify and understand both his own and his partner’s emotions.

Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor

I remember telling one of my coworkers, who claimed engineers never cried, that I’d had 3 men cry (like, visible tears cry) to me at work before. He was flabbergasted. I have long known I’ve seen a side of my male colleagues that they will not show to each other, that I have to hold in secret, because it would shame them if I made this knowledge public.

Why do my coworkers feel entitled to burden me with emotions that they would not burden their male colleagues with? Simply stated, a man crying to me does not view himself as part of a one sided exchange. He views this as “us connecting” or “getting closer.” This is because, as a society, we do not consider the work women do to comfort people to be “real work.” We just see “being comforting” an innate feature of women that makes them more pleasant. Men just have some dim awareness that they’re comfortable sharing themselves with me and not with other men, but they view this as my personality. They don’t consider that I am actively doing something that requires energy to help them feel better.

I view my sexual assault, and at the extreme end things drifting toward violent rape, to be toxic outgrowths of this type of emotional entitlement. For my male friend, who had complained to me about his problems before and used me for other types of emotional regulation, from his point of view this probably seemed like a natural extension. When I feel bad about something, interacting with Emma makes me feel better. When he felt really bad about something, it made sense to try to interact with me in a more intense way than we normally did because he needed more comfort.

He didn’t consider my feelings or point of view because he has not been trained to be aware of my feelings. In fact, he’s hardly been trained to be aware of his own feelings which is why he’s leaned on me for emotional regulation in the past. He knows I will identify what he is feeling, and respond to it in a way that helps him sort through it. This is also why he didn’t consider it to be immoral or wrong to be sexual with me when highly intoxicated (or, if he did, he only did after the fact.) It’s why, culturally, people feel like it’s ok to have sex with women who are very drunk (although those views are changing.) It seems very natural for men to get their emotional needs met from women without ever considering the emotional needs of the woman. A very drunk woman is an opportunity for a man to get his needs met; what she needs is not considered.

At a more extreme level, men start exhibiting overt anger and hostility toward women and these types of men are the types from which violent rapists come from. Why do men start getting angry?

I think that these men are, effectively, the ones that are cut off from anyone who is trained in performing emotional labor (often straight men who interact with very few women.) They have no one to help them identify or manage their uncomfortable emotions, and will often turn to methods like substance abuse or heavy video game playing to avoid their feelings. (It is worth nothing that substance abuse problems tend to be more heavily male, and video game use is so disproportionately male it is almost a joke.) These types of coping mechanisms, however, do not actually help men get their needs met (if you’re lonely, playing a lot of video games will only make you more lonely) and so these negative feelings magnify until they are almost unbearable.

At this point, men start getting very strong feelings toward the people they could see as potentially meeting their needs. Like a man dying of thirst reaching for a glass of water that keeps jumping out of reach, these lonely men will rage against the women who keep rejecting them because they are so desperate for companionship. However, they will also never be able to see the world through female eyes. They have not been trained to even know what they are feeling, so there is no way they’re going to understand what a woman is feeling. They will not be able to read the fear in a woman’s eyes as she shrinks from their touch. They will not be able to identify when a woman finds them attractive, so they will hit on women they have a low chance of romantic success with. When rejected, they will bluster around in a blind rage, only feeling the pain at their own loneliness and never understanding why their rejection happened.

Here, things start getting very toxic depending on just how angry a man gets. Rape and other forms are violence are a possibility because they hold a hyper awareness of their own pain, and have no empathy towards the pain women may be feeling.

If, however, we taught men how to identify what they were feeling so they could begin to meet these needs for themselves before they went toxic, we could start fixing this problem at the root. If men understood they were lonely, if they found comfort seeking out platonic companionship when unable to find a romantic partner, I think the number of assaults would go down. Also, as men began to understand their own emotions, they would be better able empathize with the emotions of others. If they could see the pain they caused women, I think often they would not choose to inflict it. We have the myth of the “cruel” rapist, but I think far more common is the “clueless” rapist. Unfortunately, the pain inflicted is just as damaging.

So, what can you do if you’re a man who wants to fight rape culture? You can “get more in touch with your emotions.” What that means specifically, is you learn the physical sensations associated with emotions, and become more aware and able to identify what you are feeling at any given moment. As you become more aware of what you are feeling, you are more able to choose appropriate action rather than “uniform numbing” to address your emotional state.

This has a few benefits. 1) you can become a model of emotionally aware masculinity for the men around you 2) you do not condition the women you interact with to try to emotionally problem solve for you and 3) you will probably live a more fulfilling life as you figure out what you actually want. People who struggle with “knowing what they want” are often struggling with emotional awareness, because unless you’re aware when things bring you pain or when things bring you pleasure, how can you ever know your preferences? So often people drift toward the culturally acceptable rather than what deeply brings them joy because they don’t know what brings them joy.

It has a few downsides, however. Being emotionally aware may make it more difficult to perform at your job, especially if you’re in tech or the military (or, any other job where “emotional unawareness” is sort of a stereotype — typically male dominated jobs.) I’m fairly sure that, as a culture, we have developed techniques to keep men unaware of their own emotional state because it makes them easier for traditional power structures to manipulate them. If, for instance, we deprive men of emotional nurturance and present “marrying a woman” as the solution to that deprivation, men will be driven to marry women. If we then present “being successful in your career” to be a necessary criteria for getting married, we have now developed a strong incentive for men to be successful in their careers. And, you’d need a damn strong incentive to convince people to go get blasted with agent orange.

Anyway, this all ties together in some very tight ways. We have capitalist incentives to keep men emotionally numb, which has traditionally been offset by unpaid female emotional labor. It is crucial, by the way, that this feminine labor was historically unpaid, because it was what motivated men to be in the workforce. (Women, on the other hand, were incentivized to perform this labor because they were not allowed to provide for themselves materially and needed to satisfy a man to get their material needs met.) However, as women enter the workforce, their ability and motivation to perform emotional labor is dwindling as they can provide for themselves materially. However, men have never learned to provide for themselves emotionally. Consequently, many men are left unable to sate their emotional needs and try to take what they need from women. This desperately needs to change, for the sake of all genders.