Discussions of sexual and domestic violence often tend towards a focus on the individual perpetrator and their reprehensible character. They generally paint a picture of an outsider, lurking on the fringes of society, preying on women. This picture is an understandable reaction to horrendous crimes, but it is also inaccurate. It fails to recognise that most perpetrators know their victims intimately, and are also people who integrate successfully in society. For domestic violence, a relationship between perpetrator and victim is obviously established, and established because the perpetrator doesn’t look like a monster, but like a regular human being, and was therefore accepted as one by the victim who entered the relationship. Who even, very likely, fell in love with them.
Perpetrators of sexual violence and domestic abuse are not rare anomalies. Often, they are people we interact with in our daily lives, as co-workers or friends. We don’t like to acknowledge this, I think, because we don’t want to be like them in any way. We are so concerned with distancing ourselves from abhorrent behaviour, that often we fail to recognise the cultural factors contributing to the behaviour, and the many ways in which we are complicit. This panic to distance ourselves may also be why there is a racist element to the portrayal of perpetrators in pop culture, with the insulting and inaccurate black-as-a-criminal archetype in film, TV, and public opinion, as white people try to push them even further into the ‘other’ category.
This instinctual othering protects us from feeling connected to these crimes. But we are connected because we all consume and contribute to the society that fosters them. There is a rape culture and an abuse culture that are interrelated, stemming from the symbolic and unspoken claim that men have over women’s bodies, that many of us unconsciously contribute to. We contribute when we reflect the attitudes promoted by romantic comedies, that men should be rewarded for acts of bravery, ‘chivalry’ or idiocy by ‘winning’ a woman, as if sexual relationships can be ‘earned’ rather than entered willingly, without coercion. We contribute when we slut shame, inferring that a woman’s clothes are somehow connected to her availability for sex, as if she is a sexual ‘product.’ We contribute when we victim blame, asking why didn’t she leave if he was hitting her? Or, why didn’t she fight him off if she didn’t want it? As if a crime committed against a woman is still a woman’s fault. These attitudes have created this culture of rape and abuse, and with all the ways in which we contribute to it, how can we claim that perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence are disconnected from regular society? That they are the monsters from somewhere else, outer space maybe?
Perpetrators are connected to society. They come from the depths of our culture, the parts we don’t like to recognise. It’s difficult to see perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence as people, but they are people. Actions do not possess the entirety of what you are. A rapist or abuser, as horrendous as their crime may be, is not limited to that crime. To deny the nuance within these actions is to deny the cultural causes of the crime, and the effects of coercion, unequal power dynamics, or the various ways that sexual and domestic violence can play out. It’s to deny the charm, the intelligence, and the strategic kindness of many sexual and domestic violence perpetrators, and to fall short in our understanding of how victims became caught up with these people in the first place.
It is important to recognise this complexity so we don’t fall into victim blaming when our view of perpetrators is challenged. If people don’t fit our rigid definitions of rapists or wife beaters, we are often tempted to deny they fit into those categories at all, or to adjust our thinking so that it becomes the victim’s fault, to ease the cognitive dissonance in our minds. The other strategy is to minimise like crazy, as seen in the justifications and sentencing of rapists like Brock Turner, and the lack of punishment for domestic violence perpetrators. Our actions don’t match our reactions. We vilify individuals, but society still does little to actually deter them, or to combat the culture that fosters them.
Instead, we dehumanise perpetrators by pushing them out of the ‘real men’ category, perhaps to try and create a sense of justice where we saw justice fail. It is also to protect our own sense of identity, and as yet another way of placating men and assuring them that we don’t mean them, we mean other men. But it’s all of us. It’s humans. The monster myth is dehumanising, but the humanity of perpetrators must be recognised. Humanity is a word that is often used in a positive light, but humanity refers to what we are as humans, and what we are is not always positive. If we dehumanise these people, we fail to recognise how the problem has become a part of our humanity, a part that we need to understand in order to combat. We feel less obligated to do this essential work if we continuously push the problem into the ‘other’ category. This dehumanisation also makes it easier for perpetrators to deny what they have done. They know their own humanity. They know they are not a monster, therefore they did not really do it, because only monsters do it.
We can’t write them off from society, or push them away into outer space. We need to take the focus off attacking them as individuals and redirect it to attacking rape culture and abuse culture in media portrayals, our attitudes, and in our legal system. Because we can only change individual behaviour on a large scale, by changing the society that breeds it.