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The Problem with The Notion of the “Decent Guy”

March 25, 2010

Recently both Amanda Hess of The Sexist and Thomas MacAulay Millar of Yes Means Yes have tackled a psychology study that, at least in part, addresses the myth that rape is all just one big misunderstanding.  As Amanda puts it:

The report, “If a girl doesn’t say ‘no’: Young men, rape, and insufficient knowledge” [PDF], identifies the “miscommunication model” as one of the dominant theories informing public thinking about how sexual assault actually happens.

In order to identify how the “miscommunication model” functions in everyday conversation, researchers interviewed two focus groups of college-aged men in the UK about their interpretations of sex and consent.  The young men who participated in the study displayed “sophisticated and nuanced understandings” of different ways people could indicate sexual refusal. But when it came time to talk about non-consensual sex, these same men were startlingly eager to explain away acquaintance rapes as communication failures instead of deliberate assaults.

The results are an incredible site to behold, and I encourage everyone to read both Amanda’s and Thomas MacAulay Millar’s accounts of the study (as well as the original paper itself, by Rachael O’Byrne, Susan Hansen, and Mark Rapley!).  But for me, the real revelation came when I read the comments over at The Sexist.  While I expected women from all corners to be weighing in, saying how glad they were to find that someone in the social sciences was paying attention to the language of rape excuses, what I actually found were a bunch of people (probably dudez??) making more excuses.

Some of the comments are truly gut-wrenching, and I’ll spare you any repeats.  But the one that really struck me is from a commenter who identifies him/herself only as “k”.  K says that

“I feel cruel saying this, but reading these conversations, it really seems like these guys know what consent is and should be. And yet at least in theory, they want to cling to notions like “a girl coming over to my house should automatically equal sex”. Maybe these are really decent guys who would never use the social license to rape in certain situations, but they still feel squeamish about the idea that that shield could disappear entirely?” (emphasis mine)

Maybe these are really decent guys?  Really?  What’s your definition of “decent?”  Because if squeamish rape apologists count, then our definitions are vastly, vastly different – so different that we aren’t even speaking the same language anymore.

And this brings me to a myth that I think haunts women just as much as the lies that “She asked for it” or “It was all just a big misunderstanding,”:  The Myth of the “Decent Guy.”

Listen up, everyone: if a man rapes someone, or if he wants to rape someone, or if he wouldn’t be too fussed over finding out that he had sex with a girl who really didn’t want it, he is not a “Decent Guy.”  K asserts in his/her comment that guys who “cling to the notion that ‘a girl coming over to my house should automatically equal sex’,” are actually “Decent Guys,” presumably because “rape” is not a part of their intent.  I don’t buy that logic.  Because if your intention is to have sex above all else – if you want sex so badly that you’re willing to take “this girl is in my house” as full-on consent, you do NOT have good motives.  Your motives are purely selfish.  You care about nothing but your own needs and desires.  That does not make you a “decent guy.”  It makes you a fool and a douche.  It makes you an enemy to women.

If you think you need a “shield,” a veneer of social acceptability to protect you in case you “accidentally” rape someone, you are not a “Decent Guy.”

Do you want to know how to be a “Decent Guy?”  Treat every woman you encounter as a person, not a walking blow job.  Even if that woman crosses your threshold and enters your domicile, she is still a human being, an individual with bodily autonomy (a fact that everyone just LOVES to ignore).  She is NOT YOUR PROPERTY.  She gets to make her own choices about what she wants to do with her body.  And if you pressure her or push her or ignore her voice, you have not treated her as a person. If your desire to have sex overpowers your ability to respect her body and her wishes, then you are not a “Decent Guy.”  You are a selfish prick.

A few months ago, This American Life ran a story about drinking on college campuses.  In the story, the producers make use of the phrase “unwanted sex” in the context of a study conducted at Penn State about college students’ sexual encounters.  Several listeners wrote in to complain about what seemed to be a direct omission of the word “rape” from the story.  TAL producer Sarah Koenig wrote a response and posted it to the TAL Facebook account.  I’m not so much concerned with TAL’s response (I’ll save that for another post) as I am with the war that erupted in the comments section of the post on the FB account.  Almost immediately, a wave of (mostly male) commenters rushed to talk about rape.  They wanted to defend their fellow men as “decent guys.”  They wanted to talk about why so many bitchy, awful feminists insisted that having sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent equals rape.  They (the men) liked drinking.  They liked having sex while drunk.  They really didn’t want to have to think too hard about whether or not their drunken sex was consensual.  It must be.  After all, they were “Decent Guys.”  Why did we keep harshing their mellow?  Couldn’t we all just take a pill and get over it or something?

A few brave souls (including a couple of awesome social workers from a rape crisis center) attempted to intervene.  But there was no stopping these boys.  They continued to defend their own “decency,” to proclaim that because they were “Decent Guys,” then the drunk sex they had with that girl that one night must have been consensual.  Because they were “Decent Guys!”  And Decent Guys certainly aren’t capable of doing something wrong!

Comments like those on the TAL Facebook, and those on Amanda’s post are nothing new.  The myth of the Decent Guy persists, and it’s time we addressed it right alongside the notion of the Nice Guy (TM).  We need to remind men that actions are what matter to us.  Labels don’t count.  You do not get to presume decency for yourself and then insist that, because you are decent, any and all actions that you commit are also decent.  (Note: This is a favorite argument amongst religious people!)  You don’t get to just tell a woman that you’re a “Decent Guy.”  She gets to decide for herself whether she thinks you are.

But then again, I forgot.  That’s what really scares you, isn’t it?  You hate it when we decide things for ourselves.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    March 25, 2010 8:11 am

    I’m really confused about the “shield” part of the comment. What is the shield here? Your house, which shields you from accusations of rape? Or the misunderstanding? Or (alternatively), is the point that the word “no” itself is a shield that will prevent them from raping, since, in these particular circumstances, their skills of nuanced behavior-reading-ability apparently break down?

    Interestingly, here in Canada, information like this has been made a part of the law–a Supreme Court finding (I can’t remember the year, but it’s within the last 20, or maybe even 10) ruled that only a “clear and unequivocal yes, either in words or actions” could be used to establish consent. Of course, this doesn’t keep defense lawyers from *trying* to bias trials with slut-shaming or victim-blaming (and it doesn’t help anyone who, for whatever reason, decides not to report/subject themselves to the crap of the judicial system), but it’s nice to have it officially recognized in law. And to have that law on your side when you do public education in universities, with these so-called Decent Guys.

  2. March 25, 2010 10:38 am

    The “shield” is the shield of being able to claim it was just a misunderstanding. They didn’t MEAN to rape anyone, she just wasn’t clear enough in saying no. You will note, however, that if someone is unconscious they really can’t say No.

    This is one of the reasons that rape prevention activists are moving to a “Yes Means Yes” or enthusiastic consent model, where instead of relying on a “no” the woman (or male victim) may not be capable of uttering, you rely on someone acting like they actually WANT to have sex with you, or empatically say YES.

    Trust me. You don’t want to get into the arguments against the Yes Means Yes model. They are truly fucking depressing. It will sink your faith in humanity at mach 12.

  3. March 25, 2010 12:48 pm

    I think that “Kyle,” the guy who said:

    * “I just had a thought when does no mean no when does yes mean yes I’m just wondering how this type of information ties into rape and stuff like that”

    * “Um sorry to interrupt but I just realized that um that statement is kind of putting the blame on women almost”

    * “She fails to say ‘no’ clearly well what about the guy”

    has the potential to be a decent guy, even if he’s not quite there yet, but in the environment of the study got bullied into going along with what the other men in the group had to say about rape. The rest of those guys? They may not be abnormal, but that says more about the indecency of normality.

  4. March 25, 2010 1:03 pm

    I really like Hugo Schwyzer’s take on it. He uses the “stoplight” analogy. I especially appreciate the way he discusses the “yellow” light in the stoplight analogy. I found it to be one of the clearest comparisons I’d ever read, and one that made a ton of sense into expressing why what we teach young men in this culture about sex, rape, and consent needs to change.

  5. March 25, 2010 8:35 pm

    @MaryB: I’m with GeekGirls here: I think the “shield” is meant to reference the “excuse” of a misunderstanding. These dudes seem to be petrified that they’ll be suddenly overcome with rapiness and that they’ll need to have some sort of veneer of social acceptability in case they “accidentally” rape a woman.

    @Britni: Thanks for the link! I like that explanation too. there are a few people in my life who need to have that explanation shoved under their noses.

    @jfp: I see where you’re going, and at first I was inclined to agree. I do prefer Kyle’s answers to some of the other boys’. He seems like the sort of dude who’d be receptive to some feminism 101. My only reservation is that he’s ALLOWING himself to be “bullied,” as you put it, by those other dudes. And dudes who allow themselves to be bullied or pressured into “going with the group” and ignoring a woman’s autonomy are a big part of rape culture. They aren’t the worst part, but they’re still a problem.

    Also, I completely agree with you about the “indecency of normality.” Completely. That’s why we have to strive to change what’s normal!

  6. Brian permalink
    March 26, 2010 10:52 pm

    One thing that’s become increasingly obvious to me, as I’ve considered why I historically wanted to defend the falsely accused/misunderstanding is that as part and parcel of the male gender role, I’m “supposed” to be the accused in the situation where a rape accusation is made. And by putting myself in that role when I think things through, I fall naturally into worrying about false accusations, or misunderstandings, since those are the only circumstances I can imagine where I’d get accused of raping someone.

    It turns out, of course, that I’ve never been so accused, and very probably never will. I’m a bad match for a hypothetical person accused of rape, but gender rolling it screws up my expectations. Realising that, I think it’s a lot easier to bypass those concerns and have a more sensible discussion, but it’s not an obvious thing to realise without having put concerted thought into it.

  7. March 27, 2010 9:16 am

    @Brian:
    That’s an example of how rape culture hurts women AND men. Rape culture convinces men that false accusations occur a lot more often than they really do. Rape culture creates the notion of the “accidental” rape and convinces men they could fall victim to it. Just another good reason why we need to wipe rape culture off the map!

  8. implacable permalink
    April 5, 2010 2:43 am

    I think that there are more shades of gray to this story than you are willing to admit. You constantly point out that, whenever the topic of drunken sex arises, there are “a bunch of people (probably dudez???)” who insist the issue is more complex. Rather than working from an a priori assumption that they are wrong and you are right, why not clarify your argument and their argument and see if you’re really all that different?

    I think I know where the communication lines get crossed: the hypothetical situation that everyone is arguing over is never clearly defined.

    I am against girls being taken advantage of while they are passing out or are blackout. But often, when people have this argument, one or more of the sides isn’t talking about this situation.

    I don’t want this to be a stroll n’ troll, so i’ll make sure to check back here tomorrow to see if you reply. Really enjoyed the Salon article, as well.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      April 5, 2010 9:09 am

      If you read queengeorge’s article carefully, you should notice two things: 1) she is not talking primarily about “drunken sex.” In fact, the subject of whether someone can consent while drunk is not up for debate here (as it is already fairly settled legally), nor is it the primary topic of the study she is citing. 2) She nowhere makes a priori assumptions about the wrongness of the men who are making rape-excuses. In fact, her claims in this regard are based on the aforementioned study’s analysis of these men’s own words . That is, they suggest in general that there are a multitude of ways that THEY can and do communicate non-consent, in addition to admitting that there are equally as many ways that they (in the abstract) might perceive similar non-consenting communications on the part of others. The issue, then, is that when it comes to actual rape accusations , these same men then profess not to be able to understand the very communications they previously demonstrated competence in understanding. Queengeorge’s article is about calling that out for the piece of disingenuous crap that it is, as well as suggesting that citing one’s “decency” hardly works as a cover for it, even when someone has been drinking (since, as these guys previously admit, they are fully competent to understand non-consent in multiple ways–even when they’ve been at the bar).

      If you’re going to avoid trolling, it would be nice to actually respond to the relevant details of queengeorge’s post.

  9. catgirl permalink
    April 5, 2010 6:48 pm

    I really hate the “decent guy” myth. One of my college classmates was a decent guy and he raped another classmate who later became my best friend. Plenty of people said that they just couldn’t imagine him doing something that bad because he wasn’t a bad guy. But my friend was a decent girl and these same people had no problem believing that she would willingly cheat on her boyfriend, have a drunken one night stand, and then make up a false rape accusation. Decent guys get the benefit of the doubt but decent girls are assumed to be lying no matter what.

    I actually didn’t think this particular rapist was a decent guy even before he raped my friend, but that’s beside the point.

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