Faceless monsters: Rape in the papers

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, child abuse, victim blaming.

[This essay first appeared on Open Democracy here.]

I hate it when people say “It’s time to talk about x”; “It’s time we sat down and had a serious discussion about y”; “It’s time the two sides stopped squabbling and hammered out their differences over z”. Especially if they’re protesting that their free speech is being infringed because nobody wants to listen to their views on immigration, homosexuality or climate change. Especially if there actually is a sensible debate going on across pubs, papers and screens.

Which is why I don’t propose “It’s time to talk about rape”. YHWH knows, we’ve been talking about it enough recently: Yewtree, Oxford, Steubenville, India…

No, we shouldn’t start talking about them. We should start talking differently about them.

I conducted a methodologically sound sample of rape-related public discussion. I googled, looked at newspaper/blog headlines, talked to friends. My hunch was right:

We don’t hear about perpetrators. Headlines always read “Woman raped in Hartlepool”. “Government statistics show 24% students victims of abuse”. Unless the perpetrator is famous or politically sensitive  then reporting is passive – such and such a molestation was committed. Such and such a sexual assault was reported. Potential victims are at risk of abuse – no men are at risk of raping.

[Examples from the UK government, BBC, Guardian, charity, support group, comedy]

This gives the impression rape is something that ‘just happens’. It comes out of the sky and ruins lives like a fair-weather thunderbolt. It’s a freak event. Abuse occurs in the same random nature as tyre punctures. It sneaks up on you like cancer – the unlucky woman ‘suffers rape’. You look through history – whole races and cities find themselves in this unenviable but actor-absent situation: The Rape of the Sabine Women, The Rape of Nanking. Nobody in day-to-day life ‘does’ rape. Rape just happens.

You may not think this is very important – after all, the reader necessarily understands that there must be a perpetrator, just not in the headline. The reader knows they exist. No harm done.

Rubbish. The way we report sexual violence (i) perpetuates the harmful ‘violent stranger’ myth, (ii) absolves writer, reader and criminal from consideration of their society and culpability, (iii) legitimises the legal-media obsession with victim-blaming and contributes to rape culture with the implicit suggestion that anyone who ‘gets raped’ had a lapse in vigilance or judgement, and (vi) makes me apoplectically angry.

That was a summary by the way. I’m going to unpack that for you.

Violent Strangers
Most rapes (up to 90%) are committed by people the victim knows – family, neighbours, friends, colleagues.  Reporting doesn’t acknowledge this, let alone address it. We ignore that men and people of other/non-binary genders are sexually assaulted. The media have a narrative, a nice easy story. You, the reader, already know the framework. It’s a fable in a way – a morality tale:

Young attractive woman goes partying, drinks too much and walks home alone in the dark and is attacked by a stranger. Or in the club by the man she’d just met, with whom she flirted outrageously. Or in the park where she was out running in her tight sports-shorts and push-up bra.

I did it myself – I didn’t even think about it. I typed ‘is attacked’. Whoops.

The narrative barely considers the man. Even in this hackneyed scenario, the story could equally read:

Violent alcoholic goes drinking and spots a vulnerable person and follows them and attacks them. Or chats to a girl and assumes her politeness is an unbreakable invitation to sex.

We know that’s myth. A realistic narratives might read:

Irritable husband comes back from work and shouts at his children then when they are in bed rapes his wife.


At a family celebration the elder cousin touches the younger cousin and forces them not to tell.

There is no easy-to-follow fable. In reality, sex crime doesn’t fit neat patterns.

Absolving reader and writer

By deploying the ‘Rape-out-of-nowhere’ card, we remove ourselves from the situation. We don’t have to come to terms with the fact that, statistically speaking, we probably know a rapist. Maybe a molester. The reader-writer team deny that rape is a problem for them and theirs, unless (here we go) someone they know wears a tight dress and has too many drinks.

We don’t consider whether or how much we ourselves contribute to a rape-friendly culture. Only a tiny percentage – as low as 6.8% of recorded rapes and 1.1% of the estimated total end in conviction. Whether the way we (and I’m addressing all sexes, genders and persuasions) discuss bodies, actions and preferences contributes.  Whether porn might desensitise some people. Whether Page Three might allow some people to get ideas about objectification. Whether the way you looked at that teenager on the bus terrified them.

The only times we hear a lot about the criminals are when they are in minorities. They are comfortably far away, They are explicitly ‘not us’ when ‘us’ is the white middle class largely male cadre that dominates Fleet Street, Westminster and the law.

So it’s fine to talk about celebrities like Jimmy Saville or Garry Glitter – you might have harboured misgivings about them even before Operation Yewtree. They form the opposite case – all we hear from victims are titillating/grizzly details that prove the celebrity’s monstrosity and unique Other-ness. We get speculation from old friends and co-workers about how ‘this sort of thing’ probably went on even more frequently, and more absurdly, than the police are aware of. These vile men lived lives so glitzy and removed from our own that we need not see their actions as a reflection on our own lifestyle.

It’s fine to talk about Catholic Priests and the public school masters. Our conversation runs a little like this: “They’re all at it, over in Ireland. Bloody left footers and toffs, what do you expect? Coop them up in such a bizarre situation, with all this temptation and an unnatural vow – they’re monsters, but understandable monsters.” Crucially, they are monsters totally unlike me and my friends. I’m not going to be a priest or teach classics at Harrow.

It’s fine to talk about the Rotherham child abuse ring. “They’re immigrants, aren’t they? Probably illegal. Probably stealing our jobs or scrounging off the state. Definitely a different culture – Muslim or Hindu or whatever.” Their alien culture led them to the crime – whereas upstanding British culture never could.

It’s equally fine to talk about India then – India is comfortably far away. “They’ve got the caste system and chronic poverty, inequality, historically different understandings of rights and gender roles and human decency – that’s why some of them think it’s ok to gang-rape women to death on busses or to abduct children or to force peasants into sexual slavery.” But none of that’s a problem in East Sussex.

We need to understand that rapists are not unspeakable monsters. They are like you and me. If we can only imagine rapists being unhinged psychopaths, then in court all that the defence barrister needs to do is show what a nice, normal human being the accused is, and the jury accepts that the accused cannot be guilty.  If we accept that rape is something ‘people’ do, potential rapists may even seek preventative help.

[None of that is to say we should excuse rapists or to deny ‘predator theory‘]

Avoidable Chaos

If rape “just happens out of the blue”, then how come the cases we hear about (see above) only happen to a certain type of woman?

When we read a passive verb, we’re linguistically programmed to look for a reason. That’s why Forrest Gump repeating “for no particular reason” is so memorable. Our apes-with-shoes brains search for possible explanations; since all the information our headline provides concerns the victim, and since victim-related-details are all we’ve ever read in similar pieces, we naturally construct a chain of causation out of them.

We’re desperate for clues: Was she a virgin or a slut?

(There’s no middle ground.)

Did she kiss him? Has she ever kissed anyone? Is she married? Is she an atheist? Was she sexually active? Was she partying? Had she taken all necessary precautions not to be raped, including but not limited to: telling a friend she was leaving, asking a Man to chaperone her, calling home, calling the police, carrying a whistle, carrying pepper spray, practicing Taekwondo, wearing an electrified girdle, carrying an automatic machinegun?

Was she basically up for it? Was she like the Steubenville girl? Did she have condoms in her purse? The pill? Perfume? Why was she in the club/field/festival in the first place if she didn’t want it?

These elements prime the reader’s thoughts. By the time we get to speculative details about the criminal, we’re prepared to believe the poor man was pretty much forced by the weight of circumstance to coerce his slovenly victim under a bridge. He’s basically a victim of fate. Even if the reader doesn’t quite accept that the victim had it coming, they are at least swayed by a sense that a cosmic consciousness deigned that a rape would happen at that place and that time – the ‘actors’ in the story were mere pawns. We can’t blame them for a little violence.

Does this sound like I’m going too far? Look at the percentages of people who think it’s OK to beat or coerce their partners if they have deviated even slightly from angelic post-Christian norms.

Victims in quarts

I can only speculate, but I imagine the threat/prospect of having the tabloids digging through your bins whilst brazenly discussing your sexual and moral history probably dissuades some women from taking cases to court.

Especially if you’ve already had to spend hours with sneering policemen asking about what you said and did to lead them on, or asking again and again if you’re sure it was rape, if you’re sure your uncle wasn’t just clumsy when he hugged you. Especially when you know you’ll be face to face with your (anonymous) attacker. Especially when you know that, if yours is one of the few cases that come to court, you’ll face the same issue, triplefold. You’ll face a barrister who is a professional blamethrower – a master of rhetoric who will construct for the jury a story of your life that basically explains your unfortunate sexual encounter. He (probably a he) will imply that you were the type of unfortunate to whom rape just happens. He might accuse you of selfishness and dishonesty. You’ll be repeatedly accused of attempting to blight someone’s life because of your regret or poor communication.

The Obvious Response

Some of you clever muffins will have read this far thinking “Actually, statistics that focus on perpetrators are different. They’re much harder to get hold of, and legally difficult.”

True. One raped person might not equal one rapist. It might equal several rapists. It might be someone who’s raped before. Headlines aren’t allowed to name suspects.

But getting data for ‘Number of people in X area and Y specification who rape’ is achievable just like governments do for victims. It might take an anonymous survey and cross-referencing with police records, but it’s doable. If you’ve ever looked into headlines quoting migrant employment statistics or EU costs, you’ll know the media aren’t die-hard empiricists who only refuse to discuss rapists due to philosophical conviction.

Look. The Americans did it. South Africa did it, and did it well. In fact, they did it with the help and funding of the British Government (Department for International Development). It’s do-able.

We just…don’t. Not much. The latest UK Government study did look at the criminals, however peripherally. But people don’t read/see/hear government surveys – they read/see/hear news. And news is written by time-pressed journalists looking for the bestselling angle. Knowing this, whoever is publishing will write a press release that panders to the clichees.


Depersonalised reports do victims a disservice, too. We must understand that victims can be anyone. The ‘rape like lightening’ storyline imagines three victims – the attractive young girl, the innocent child, and the prisoner. These ‘types’ ruin police attitudes, victim support and jury mindsets if the real-life victim is anything else – a different age, class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or attractiveness to what’s expected.     

Going Forward

So the statistics exist. You almost certainly know a rapist, unless you are a recluse. Several, actually. That’s a nice thought. Cycle through the mental facebook of your friends, family, colleagues and neighbours, then people you interact with in tiny ways, commuters, supermarket customers – consider how many of them might have sexually assaulted. I hope you don’t know any molesters, but you probably do.

A number of movements are ‘steps in the right direction’. The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! are really admirable. Slutwalk highlights that rape is an unacceptable action regardless of the victim’s appearance and conduct. However the focus is on women’s right to freedom and to live and dress without molestation; Slutwalk arguably contributes to the narrative of young attractive women as victims.

If you think that gender violence is a problem, talk about it right. Demand equal focus on the criminal. I don’t mean we should ignore the victim, but that we need to keep the whole situation in mind. Not just to aid convictions and support victims to understand that their ordeal was not their fault, but so we learn to ignore the enablers of rape culture and construct a society where the current brutality is unacceptable.


Follow me on TwitterFacebook or email me at james.lynch.staunton@gmail.com

A shorter, worse version of this essay appeared on Liberal Conspiracy in June

Feel free to comment!

5 thoughts on “Faceless monsters: Rape in the papers

  1. To partially illustrate my broader linguistics point, the line ‘We ignore that men and people of other/non-binary genders are sexually assaulted’ originally read ‘ignore that men and trans*people…’. This mainly just shows my ignorance and carelessness, but probably also shows that without thinking about it, I say they are separate categories, whereas most trans* people are men or women. I.e. I ‘othered’ trans* folk through my word choice. Jolly naughty.

  2. I have trouble swallowing a lot of the bolder claims that I read or hear people who describe themselves as feminist make about rape. Perhaps I subconsciously know them to be truths, but find them too uncomfortable to acknowledge and therefore am subconsciously prejudiced against them, for example by unfairly considering them bold, whereas I would consider them really quite weak if I wasn’t prejudiced so. But I think I would be more likely to accept more claims about rape of the sort made in this article if they were stated with greater precision and then thoroughly evidenced.

    You jokingly refer to conducting a “methodologically sound sample” to gather evidence for your claim on how we use language when discussing rape. But why only make a joke about applying the scientific method to your claims? We should only accept empirical claims for which there is a sound inductive argument.

    You say that we use the passive voice for victims and never refer to perpetrators when discussing rape. This results in “perpetuating a narrative of victimhood”. You then show that the rate of successful convictions for rape is low compared to successful convictions for other crimes. Is it fair to say that your claim is that

    (i) use of the passive voice in sentences in which victims of rape are the subject; and

    (ii) not referring to perpetrators of rape,

    prejudices those in the legal system who see through rape cases in such a way as to lower the overall conviction rate?

    If your claim is true, what we would expect two things for sure. We would expect

    (a) the rate of conviction for rape be a lot lower than say that for say, theft or murder*,

    I am persuaded by your article that it is.

    We would also expect

    (b) more frequent use of language as described in (i) and (ii) above (use of the passive voice and lack of mention of perpetrators) when discussing rape than when discussing other crimes.

    Do we observe (b)? Your ‘googling, talking to friends etc’ considered only discussion of rape, not discussion of other crimes. But if you are going to claim that particular uses of language explain that convictions for rape are less frequent than for other crimes, then you must show that those uses of language described in (i) and (ii) are more frequent in discussions of rape. Your point about linguistics is one made by loads of feminist writers, bloggers, speakers and even feminist friends of mine just haranguing me for being backward in my beliefs on this subject. But I’ve never had any of them present the evidence that the language used to talk about rape is different to that used to talk about other crimes, whereas their claim is that it is that very use of language that is supposed to explain that rates of conviction are different for rape than for other crimes! That’s before we start exploring the idea that the passive voice necessarily implies “passive victimhood narratives” or whatever: there have been lots of linguistic theses on the passive that have turned out very wrong! For example, the linguistic consensus among the Victorians held that the Irish were lazy and shiftless but those of Anglo-Saxon descent were pro-active and energetic because Q-Celtic languages use the passive more often than Germanic languages, which are supposed to favour the active voice. As far as I am aware, such theses have all fallen flat on their face. That’s just by way of illustration, I may be wrong about it. But the point is, there are more layers of argument you must provide before you have a sound inductive argument for your claim about use of language in relation to rape.

    I don’t think it’s likely that you will be able to show that difference in use of language, mainly because I think there are so many other believable candidate hypotheses to explain the fact that convictions for rape are rare relative to those for other crimes. For example, there is the fact that a situation in which rape took place and one in which consensual sex took place are often forensically indiscriminable. Probably, unwillingness to come forward and accuse rapists plays a greater role. But I am not sure that unwillingness can be explained by particular uses of language in spoken or even written English. It might be explained by other actions on the part of males, or flaws inherent in processes run by male-dominated or traditional institutions, other features of the ‘patriarchy’, ‘rape culture’ or whatever. But I believe the point so often made about language is overblown. I stand to be corrected on that belief, of course- subject to new evidence!

    *Of course, and as you acknowledge, we would have to define ‘rate of conviction for crime X’ as not just ‘number of convictions for crime X per unit time’, but ‘ratio of number of convictions for crime X to estimated frequency of occurrence of crime X, per unit time’.

    • My dear Reverend,

      Many thanks for so full and considered a response. It brings me great joy to know that a man of the cloth is so concerned and masterful in his discussion of social scientific reasoning and methodology.

      I certainly regret that I do not have the resources or training to genuinely conduct a fair survey of media and internet news outlets plus every-day speech. As such, you’re probably right in that my introductory claims and the theme running through my essay depend more on appeals to intuition than anything else, and would fail any empirical hurdle.

      On the reverse, as it were, I really am quite sure that such a study would at least support my ‘Othering’ argument vis. ethnic minorities and celebrities compared to other rape suspects and perpetrators. If you’d accept this (and I know there’s no reason to without the study being conducted) then it may follow that the absence of such aggressive headlines at least somewhat supports my ‘anonymous/faceless’ point.

      On your summary of my logical progression, I would amend “prejudices those in the legal system” to simply “prejudices everyone/society” and ‘to lower the overall conviction rate’ to include ‘and fail to dissuade potential assailants’. How unwise of me, to set myself a more exacting conclusion than the one you charitably offer…

      You are certainly correct to surprise that I have observed (b) only anecdotally, although in the course of writing, rewriting and subbing this essay to various monoliths of the web publishing body, I have read an awful lot of headlines from across the Anglophone world. I have not attempted to quantify them, as perhaps I should. I was actually confident enough in my initial observations being recognised by the reader (alike to readers not needing proof that Britain is often overcast) that I lazily failed to tie this up.

      There is a fair amount of a priori evidence that those accused of sexual assaults are treated differently to other crimes, because the prosecution guidelines are different and in some cases prohibit dissemination of the accused’s personal information. This is not, however, sufficient to prove my point.

      Here we get to the chief embarrassment of the matter (and one that readers may feel slighted by if they get this far down): that this was actually an essay about i) how sexual violence Is more widespread in one’s own community and this is not acknowledged or dealt with, ii) how sub-groups are Othered, iii) how media narratives influence if not cause i) and ii). The linguistic claim feels strong to me, but may well be flimsy, and was simply a very neat way of drawing multiple paragraphs and ideas together. The narratives of (iii) are very much in evidence, whether they confirm my passive-victim hypothesis or not. I’m content that my messages have been communicated in a readable, fairly convincing way through this.

      What an interesting story viz Victorians and Celts. I believe I’ve heard similar ideas for the Chinese, for example. Are you aware of the Himba people of Namibia? You may enjoy this Horizon clip looking at how vocab availability affects colour perception – http://boingboing.net/2011/08/12/how-language-affects-color-perception.html.

      When you point out that there are many other believable hypotheses (for example, hyper-masculinisation) and that isolating mine to the point of proof might be impossible, I don’t disagree. It would be crazy to deny that there are other forces at work about which I had neither the space nor energy nor expertise to discuss – from historical to biological etc.

      So, yes, the specific language point is overstated. I hope it was an instructive meditation on rape culture nevertheless, and hope that the messages of i) hidden rape culture in privileged communities and ii) demonization of minorities, are convincing nevertheless.

  3. Pingback: The Terrifying Familiarity of Elliot Rodger | Haywire Thought

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