*see a couple editorial additions at the bottom of the post, updated March 6, 2012
You know what I think is fun? Watching an action movie and submersing myself in suspension of disbelief that the protagonist of the movie is totally capable of kicking all that ass.
A totally accurate portrayal of how much ass I kick every. Single. Day.
It's easy to imagine myself in the role of the good guy, and to imagine totally kicking ass if I were to come face-to-face with "real life" bad guys. Heck, if I talk to any one of my friends or acquaintances and ask them how they'd deal with someone threatening their family, a pretty standard response would be something to the effect of "kill them and poop on them and then go drink a celebratory beer".
Now, when it comes to the issue of how to reduce rapes, a common suggestion is to "kill rapists" or "imprison them for life", or some other serious punishment to match the grievous nature of the crime. And I don't disagree that in all-too-many cases, convicted rapists are given pitiful sentences that do nothing to deter recidivism or others from committing the same crimes.
My issue is that stating, "all rapists should be shot on sight", is not only unrealistic, but not helpful and actually is a big part of the rape myths that are culture perpetuates.
You might be asking yourself, "Huh? What the... whose side are you on?!!!!" Let me give some context to clarify why the "shooting rapists" stance is really unhelpful.
The message of, "all rapists should be shot" tells survivors a few things:
- If you had been targetted, you'd have fared better, and they're a "bad" or "weak" victim for not having gone all Rambo on their attacker. This all-too-often turns into victim-blaming, in a "Well, I would have just round-house kicked their skull off their shoulders, so clearly you didn't do enough to not get raped,"-sorta way.
- Given that the stakes are so high, their rape had better have been "rapey" enough, otherwise the survivor will be "ruining the life" of the perpetrator "for nothing".
- If they report their assault, the perceived validity of their claim is going to be weighed against the value of the life of the perpetrator. God help them if the perpetrator is perceived as having a greater societal value than them.
Back in January I talked about "Who are these "Hollywood-esque" rapists?", because I wanted to raise the issue that our cultural assumptions about rapists being these physically-deformed, drooling, caricatures is largely incorrect. Most rapists are known to their victims; they're friends, partners, family members, coworkers of the people they attack.
When you talk about "shooting rapists", you're more likely to be talking about shooting doctors, lawyers, dads, husbands, wives, Sunday school teachers, than about some homeless psychopath that lurks in alleys and eats rodents. This matters when we're already up against the seemingly insurmountable task of getting police, crown attorneys, judges, jury members, etc, to take charges against these people seriously.
One of the reasons why rapes largely go unreported is because survivors fear not being believed. If the assault was not violent and relied on coercion or incapacitation, then there's the stigma of the survivor not having had done enough to prevent the assault and "therefore" it's not "really rape". This isn't just an unsubstantiated fear. Who you are, who your attacker is, how much you or they drank, what you were wearing, whether or not you've had sex before, etc, are all things that are still used to excuse not laying charges or convicting a rapist of the crimes they've committed.
Take one circumstance under which rape happens that is still excused and brushed off as "not rape rape" - i.e., "date rape". Assume that the rape in question was non-violent, but facilitated by alcohol, or by relentless coercion, or by threats, or simply by a larger person using their mass against the victim. Now, imagine you're sitting on a jury and your job is to decide whether this rapist should be put to death. Not as simple as when it's the crazy stranger in the alley.
Another reason is the survivor's potentially complicated relationship with the assailant. Maybe it was their boss, their doctor, their pastor, their coach, or someone else who has an authoritarian role over them. Maybe it was a family member, and disclosure would cause family members to have to choose sides. Maybe it was a spouse, and disclosure could compromise the survivor's housing and ability to support their children. Maybe it was the partner of a sibling, best friend, etc, and disclosure could compromise the relationship between the survivor and the assailant's spouse.
Take any of the above scenarios, consider the difficulty of reporting an assault in those scenarios, and then add the threat of violent death of the assailant, and you may see why that rhetoric can deter survivors from seeking justice.
Basically, we need to open our understanding of the often messy relationships between assailants and their victims, and of how rape happens in order for talk of stern punishments to have any positive effect and not have the opposite effect of causing less rapists to be convicted of the crimes they commit.
Now, take that stance of "kill all rapists"-sort-of-attitude and combine it with "people who falsely report a rape should get as much jailtime as rapists", and you've got a double-whammy against survivors.
This isn't even remotely rhetorical. Remember when I posted about RINJ a couple times, and their bizarre, ally-alienating tactics? Well, it seems they've decided to shuffle off their thin veil of supporting survivors of sexual violence and have now dived head-first into advocating jailtime for the supposed huge numbers of false-reporters because, uh, that will encourage people to come forward to report the crimes against them? Even though not all true cases of rape have enough evidence to go to trial? Which means that someone could then be accused of fabricating rape allegations and be sentenced to jail time while their attacker goes unpunished? And, that encourages survivors how?
A group of anti-rape activists and people generally disgusted by RINJs tactics have come together to set up a blog to highlight some of the more insidious and sketchy aspects of this "organization" and its participants.
The ones that relate to victim-blaming and "false rape allegations" are here, here, and here. Read at your own risk of cranial trauma from all the /headdesking.
Long story short, just stating that punishments for rape should be tougher will do worse than nothing if we don't keep doing the hard work to dismantle this rape culture and change an atmosphere where victims currently are under greater scrutiny than the accused. This doesn't mean tossing everyone who is accused of rape in jail without trial, but it does mean we need to shut down the bullshit arguments that people make false rape accusations all willy nilly out of spite because they're just so easy to do. The "false accusation" argument is a rape myth, and combined with the reality of who rapists are, it does a lot of damage to survivors.
So, if you really do want rapists to be held accountable with greater conviction rates and longer incarcerations, there's more work to be done than just chanelling Liam Neeson.
Or, for that matter, Leslie Nielsen.
EDIT TO ADD: There are a couple of points that I don't think I was terribly clear on that I would like to expand upon. This post is largely aimed at persons who have not experienced sexual violence and who use the exaggerated threat of violence against "rapists" as a way to avoid having to do the hard work of really understanding how rape more often happens in our society. Survivors often wish death and all manner of grievous harm upon their assailants, and I do not begrudge them that emotion. They already live with the realities of surviving rape and with how inadequately the justice system often responds to reports of these crimes.
In regards to what exactly we can do to appropriately punish rapists who are convicted of the crimes they've committed, I don't exactly know. I just know that acquittal and house arrest and general slaps on the wrist serve neither justice for the survivor nor a deterrent to the perpetrator. I'm open to opinions from those more informed on reparative and reformative justice to adequately punish perpetrators and diminish the risk they pose to the public if and when they are released back into the general population.