Our Obsession With Sociopathy Is Distracting Us From Fighting Rape Culture

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

You’ve seen the articles, self-help books, and countless pop culture references. How to Tell if You’re Dating a Psychopath, the headlines read. And you naturally get scared. After all, sociopaths and psychopaths are scary, aren’t they? They have no feelings, they manipulate and murder and abuse —

But wait. That’s not really true.

What is Antisocial Personality Disorder, And Why Is It Ableist To Watch Out For Sociopaths?

You wouldn’t know that sociopaths and psychopaths are normal people deserving of our compassion if you read those articles, which describe abusive, manipulative, rape-culture ridden behavior — devious, manipulative, dangerous individuals preying on innocent bystanders and partners. This rhetoric is passed around in a similar vein about Donald Trump, with people speculating that he has some form of personality disorder that prevents him from being able to act like an empathetic human being.

What you don’t know is that this is not how “sociopaths” and “psychopaths” necessarily act. They’re real people, and they do walk among us — just like anybody else with a mental illness. I use the term mental illness very specifically here: as Everyday Feminism explains, “the closest actual diagnostic term to the popular idea of psychopathy/sociopathy is antisocial personality disorder.”

While people with ASPD can be impulsive or violent, this is a trait associated with many mental illnesses. In reality, ASPD is a mental illness connected to childhood trauma and characterized by a primary feature of difficulty forming personal relationships and a lack of innate caring for others. This doesn’t mean that people with ASPD can’t learn to manage their symptoms, live happy lives, or be completely acceptable human beings – it’s just a set of symptoms!

There would be widespread outcry in the feminist community if articles were spread around with the title How To Tell If Your Partner Is Depressed, and proceeded to paint depressed individuals as “crazy,” dangerous, or selfish. We would call it for what it is: ableism. It’s making a mental illness into a monster that it’s not. Antisocial personality disorder is no different.

Just like any other mental illness, we should support and care about people with ASPD. They can learn to live with their symptoms and live fulfilling lives — just like people with any other illness.

But beyond it being ableist to scapegoat abusive behaviors onto ASPD, it’s actually dangerous: and a tool of rape culture.

The Intersection of Rape Culture & Ableism: Recovering From Abuse Isn’t Recovering From A Psychopath, Rapists Aren’t Monsters, And The Replication of Power

When I first got away from my long-term abusive relationship, I felt like my entire world had been destabilized because of the immense amount of gaslighting and conditioning I had undergone. I was clinging to anything I could find. I read every bit of literature my therapist could about love, Stockholm Syndrome, and other important parts of learning how to forgive myself for staying.

However, a lot of this literature took me down a dark hole: naming abusers psychopaths.

I read book after book about how to recover from a psychopath. I lapped it up. I read every single one of those How to Tell if You’ve Been with a Sociopath articles.

But this was counterproductive — and a tool of the same rape culture that had prevented me from seeing the abuse for what it was for such a long time.

Rape culture does its best to replicate itself through our social norms and behaviors. This happens in any form of socialization. There are dozens of examples of how rape culture does this: by telling women to not wear short skirts, drink alone, or go outside, by telling men and nonbinary individuals that they can’t be assaulted, etc. We reinforce this socialization with behavior and norms that are harmful.

But what rape culture does the best is use ableism as a tool to disguise the real enemy: rapists and abusers themselves.

By encouraging us to pass off rapists and abusers as psychopaths, we perpetuate the myth that abusers and predators are 1. rare, 2. abstract monsters, 3. not the people we know, and 4. not truly responsible or in control of their actions. After all, every great lie needs a scapegoat, and rape culture’s scapegoat is people suffering from a mental illness.

Rape isn’t rare. Rapists aren’t abstract monsters. They are the people we know. They are in control of their actions. That’s what makes them so dangerous. Not because they’re mentally ill. They are dangerous because they have been socialized by a self-replicating structure of power that allows them to prey on people and dominate via physical and emotional terrorism.

We don’t need cutesy articles telling people to look out for the “signs of sociopaths.” We need to teach people to look out for signs of abuse. We need to teach people that rape is real. We need to teach people to look for rape culture, and to call out the ableism that attempts to distract us from it.

What I came to realize was that I wasn’t recovering from a relationship with a sociopath or psychopath – or maybe I was, but it was irrelevant. The real trauma was that I was recovering from a relationship with an abusive rapist. And when I realized this, it allowed me to finally recognize what had happened. Because looking out for “the signs of sociopathy” would’ve done absolutely nothing to protect me or any other victim of abuse: what I needed was to be able to recognize the signs of abuse, gaslighting, and partner rape.

When we don’t call rape and abuse out for what it is, and instead scapegoat it onto mental illness, we’re not only failing as allies to the disabled community – we’re failing to dismantle rape culture.

So it’s time to cycle out the “trend” of looking out for sociopaths – and start calling a spade a spade when it comes to rape and abuse.


Header image: Michael C. Hall as Dexter, a character from the popular television show of the same name. Dexter, a serial killer, is often used as a common example of a sociopath.