The Problem with The Notion of the “Decent Guy”
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.