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‘If You’re a Good Guy, You Can’t Possibly Be a Rapist’

Two sociologists on why that idea is dangerous — and lets men pretend they haven’t committed a crime

The University of Oregon dominated Florida State in the 2015 Rose Bowl. The Ducks converted four consecutive turnovers into 27 unanswered points, leading to a 59–20 rout. Afterward, several Oregon players were filmed singing “No means no!” to the tune of the FSU “War Chant.” An act that was presumably directed at star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who’d recently been accused of raping a female student. Anti-rape activists heralded the mocking jibe as a victory: Finally, here was a group of normatively masculine men shaming other normatively masculine men for sexually assaulting women.

But two University of Oregon sociology professors, C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander, saw it differently. What if the point of the chant wasn’t to make a statement about sexual assault, but rather to position their opponent as a failed man, thereby humiliating him both on and off the field? This question introduces a paper they published in October 2015 entitled “Good Guys Don’t Rape,” which documents how young men distance themselves from identities as rapists while simultaneously exhibiting dominance over women and other men with behavior that “mobilizes rape.”

It’s yet another form of “toxic masculinity,” they argue, which refers to attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive. Some refer to this as “classic masculinity” — a rite of passage of sorts. Others, like The Donald, chalk it up to “locker room talk.” Whatever you call it, Pascoe notes that many men who exemplify toxic masculinity actively seek to avoid the label. She points to Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman in January 2015 as a perfect example.

Despite two eyewitnesses watching him sexually assault his victim, Turner insisted “in no way was I trying to rape anyone.“ Judge Aaron Persky, a Stanford alum, sentenced the 20-year-old to a mere six months in a county jail. The decision was influenced by a probation report that included a letter from one of Turner’s friends, Leslie Rasmussen, who claimed Turner wasn’t a “real rapist,” since what happened was “completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car.” For Pascoe and Hollander, this is classic “good guy” syndrome. Only bad guys rape women while they’re walking to their car. Good guys, they suggest, aren’t sexist, aren’t racist, aren’t homophobic and definitely don’t condone sexual assault.

Pascoe and Hollander recently elaborated on this notion for us.

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Brock Turner’s dad described his son’s crime as “20 minutes of action” and insisted that Turner had “never been violent to anyone including the night of the Jan 17th 2015.” He’s essentially saying Brock’s a good guy, right?
That’s exactly what he’s saying.

What about Jay, one of the high school respondents in your study?
Jay angrily shared a story about how he had been found guilty of sexual assault. He emphatically insisted that he was innocent and that he was sentenced to wear an ankle bracelet under “house arrest” because the victim lied during the trial. While livid about being accused of rape, he later seemingly endorsed rape in conversations with his friends as they talked about a girl they agreed was “hella ugly” and “a bitch” but who “has titties.”

At the end of this conversation, Jay threatened to “take her out to the street races and leave her there. Leave her there so she can get raped.” His friends responded with laughter. While Jay was angry at being found guilty of a rape he claimed he didn’t commit, he endorsed setting up a situation where other men could inflict sexual violence on a young woman he found distasteful. He really exemplifies both sides of the issue: He’s a “good guy” so he would never rape, but women are also awful people, liars and manipulators who need to be put in their place via sexual violence.

Explain what you mean by “good guy” in both Turner’s and Jay’s case.
If you’re a good guy, you can’t possibly be a rapist. We see something similar happen with racism, sexism and homophobia. The “good guy” defense gets deployed in those instances to excuse all sorts of problematic behavior and attitudes. One can’t be a racist if one’s a “good guy.” This allows us to think of these qualities as individual traits rather than culturally systemic beliefs and practices in which we all participate.

For example, in our paper, we looked at how men are opposing sexual violence against women. What we found is that some of the ways in which men are speaking out against sexual assault are actually congruent with cultural expectations that men be dominant over others.

Why can’t men shake their need for dominance?
Dominance is the central component of Western masculinity. To be considered masculine, men have to engage in constant displays of dominance (over women, over other men and often over socioeconomic and racial boundaries as well). Sometimes these displays are totally serious (such as in physical assaults); other times they’re humorous (such as in the “know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Either way, this dominance can never be fully secured, which means these actions and interactions have to be constantly performed and monitored.

JH: Even some anti-violence campaigns reaffirm masculine dominance. I’m thinking, for example, of the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign. Campaigns like these oppose sexual assault (and other kinds of violence against women), but they do so while reaffirming conventional ideas about gender — particularly, the idea that men are strong and powerful and the idea that women are vulnerable and need to be protected.

CJP: The same goes for the “Real Men Don’t Rape” campaign. By saying “real men” don’t rape, that campaign automatically positions rapists as failed men or as unmasculine men, rendering the non-rapists more dominant. If rape itself is an act of dominance as opposed to sexual desire, these men are achieving the same level of dominance through different means, i.e., being sexually dominant over a woman or socially dominant over another man.

Is it possible to have a gender-equal anti-rape campaign?
My research recently has been on women’s self-defense training, which reduces violence against women without reaffirming gender inequality. It does so by demonstrating that the stereotypes about gender aren’t true: Women are strong and can protect themselves without relying on others to do it for them, and men aren’t invincible or inevitably dangerous.

There also have been some interesting anti-harassment campaigns in the last few years. The organization Hollaback!, for example, encourages its constituents to document and share their experiences of harassment, urging them to “be someone who knows they have the right to define themselves instead of being defined by some creep’s point of view.” Similarly, Canada’s Project Respect focuses on mutual respect, not chivalry and efforts that explicitly put gender and power center stage.

CJP: Campaigns in favor of sexual consent like are better, too. Additionally, I’d say comprehensive sex ed that covers issues of desire and consent (rather than the usual fear-based curriculum) is a step in the right direction as well.

Where does the “No means no” chant after the Oregon-FSU game fall on the spectrum? Is it more like “Real Men Don’t Rape” or the self-defense training you’re talking about?
The effect was to seemingly take a feminist stance, but to do so by humiliating another player and render him less masculine. A real man — like, presumably, the chanters themselves — would be able to control his sexual and violent urges. They were doing dominance work through opposing sexual assault. This, like some of the other examples we talked about, is using rape to reinforce contemporary definitions of masculinity as dominance. What we’d really like to see is for people to be highly critical about their activism and to be sure they’re not supporting the same kind of inequality they’re trying to dismantle.