On careless conversations about rape and the Good Men Project debacle

I’ve kept pretty quiet about the furor over Good Men Project’s decision to run Alyssa Royse’s “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” article and their posting of an unrepentant “party rapist.”

I did make an initial comment on Ally Fogg’s insightful post “On why men rape, and why they don’t” because I thought he nailed the consent issue head on:

“I simply cannot accept that any reasonably intelligent and informed man (and by the description I’m assuming this man is both) doesn’t know full well that just because a woman wanted to have sex with you earlier in the evening, or last week, or last month, does not mean she necessarily wants to have sex with you right now. People have the right to change their mind, to develop a headache, or to lose a mood – not to mention fall asleep.”

I also wrote a piece of my own that brought up some unpleasant memories from college, including one where I’d felt, at the very least, coerced.

That combined with the conversation as a whole and vitriolic back and forth between various people/publications I follow online left me feeling pretty weird and unable to write for a couple of weeks, both on the subject of rape and in general.

Like many writers I have issues with the way Good Men Project chose to address the topic. There are plenty of good points to be made about the need for clearer consent, and I’ve had my share of conversations about better education and advocacy…but I think they went about it all wrong.

I won’t get into it in great detail (you can read some accurate critiques here, here, and here) but on the most basic level I think they chose poor examples to illustrate the complexity of sexual relations and generally muddied the water more. I don’t know anyone who thinks that it’s ok to have sex with someone who’s sleeping. That’s clearly rape and doesn’t require more “education.” And Alyssa’s setting up her friend’s decision to rape by explaining that the woman was sending signals to have sex, and that her friend is a nice guy, well frankly there’s not a lot of room to read that other than that she was engaging in wishful thinking. Is her friend in the category of rapist that makes him unreachable and likely to continue that behavior? I don’t know, I’m not an expert and it’s a hard read based on her column. But the proper response to someone revealing something like that is to hold them accountable, because the only thing I would say to that is, yes, you did commit rape, and if you are not a sociopath you’d better think long and hard about your future actions and whether you are a nice guy or not has nothing to do with it. Though to be clear, there’s legitimate evidence that someone who makes a decision like that is probably already in that small group of men who commit the majority of rape.

Good Men Project also followed it up with the unrepentant “party rapist” confession which I refuse to link here because I think its absolute trash. Basically the anonymous author brought up a bunch of mumbo jumbo about how sexual relations aren’t always clear and he’d rather continue risking rape than make any changes to his lifestyle. No idea why Good Men Project thought that would be helpful, other than to use the controversy to spur conversation/page views, which seems irresponsible to me.

I don’t know any men who would have sex with someone who was sleeping and be “confused if it was rape.” I also don’t know any men who consider raping someone as the collateral damage for partying.

Now, I do know men who have confused ideas about consent, and who probably engage in unhealthy behaviors (having sex while on drugs/alcohol, trading in the interpretation of signals instead of clear consent, etc…) and those are the people that Good Men Project should be encouraging conversation with. Joanna Schroeder, Lisa Hickey, and others, made some good points in the aftermath about consent. But those points were lost because they chose bad/incorrect examples, made assumptions they shouldn’t have, and got defensive when they were called out on both.

One of the things that Good Men Project is trying to do is create a space for men to share the complexities of their interior life, and learn and grow. This is an admirable but difficult mission, because being a man means you have access to historic privilege. I don’t think, contrary to some self-identified feminists, that men should consider everything they say/do through by first considering women. There is good in men that doesn’t require a pre-certification from women or anyone else. And there is value to both the masculine and feminine energy, and all of the various combinations across the spectrum that don’t require a “I’m a man or woman” tag. But none of that is an excuse or a free pass that allows you to skip steps, pretend that historic privilege doesn’t matter (I’m a man, and white, and the last thing I want is my voice to be the only one heard), or use the “we were just trying to start a conversation” response.

Slightly related point: I also hear from men who frequently say things like “jeez, why do women always get on me about language, we’re on the same side.” I typically politely point out to them that language matters, identity matters, and if you don’t like having to be thoughtful, precise, and specific than you’re delegitimizing your own voice. In fact, that’s one of my grievances for Festivus this year (Happy Festivus for the Rest of Us!), the “Everyone Knows Guy/Gal” who generalizes based on their own experience and/or “common sense.”

Will I continue reading the Good Men Project? I’m not sure I will. They do have some good things to say and I’d like to continue to participate within the community, but their missteps on this issue and shift this year from thoughtful, nuanced articles to more general, easier to consume pieces (e.g. the Cosmo-esque Single Ladies: How to Find a Good Man…seriously?) have made me wary. Based on my experience the folks there are good people, with kind hearts and a desire for honest collaboration. I don’t know if the shift in advertising / revenue for the site has inadvertently affected content, or if they are simply expressing a more mainstream culture as they gain a larger audience, but it’s off the mark for me.

5 thoughts on “On careless conversations about rape and the Good Men Project debacle”

  1. I guess from a feminist perspective, it’s been interesting to me that you got involved in GMP for all the reasons you list here. (Here‘s a post that elaborates on that, from the man who maintained the [hilarious] spoof Twitter account @GoodMenzProject.) But I’m sorry they’ve let you down. Sexual assault is often the issue where online communities of men break down, honestly and unfortunately.

    1. Ah, yep – read his post a ways back, but probably didn’t quite get how not funny it actually was until now. Someone over at Feministe said recently that they weren’t sure an online community for men could ever dodge the MRA types and/or keep it on a good track…I’m afraid I’m inclined to agree but wish it was otherwise. I do think there’s room/a need for an online forum for men (and one that doesn’t put the burden on feminists to police it), maybe some one will get it right eventually..

  2. Joe thanks for writing and sharing on this. I was following (some) of the chaos that broke out over on GMP. I have so many mixed feelings (and levels of intensity of those feelings) about all of this.

    On one hand I am glad they published the articles to start the conversation but the first article where the guy doesn’t understand that having sex with someone while they are sleeping was a bit hard to take. I was annoyed at the author’s defense of her friend, but then I kinda took the article to be a perfect illustration of all the complications and misunderstandings surrounding rape. The author’s defense of her friend as a ‘good guy’ is exactly what and why we need to be talking about of this. In addition to a discussion on valid forms of consent and a more realistic definition of rape.

    I also think the party rapist confession is a piece worthy of discussion, but worthy of discussion in that the author clearly has a problem and is using his lifestyle as a defense for knowingly committing wrong. Or as he seems to present it, par for the course. I think drug and alcohol addictions and problems are another gray area of society that need to be clarified. It seems that the rapist is the angry man that jumps out from the bushes and the addict is the homeless bum on the street. In reality the rapist or addict might be your friend or family member and we need better ways to identify these character types and behaviors to (hopefully) end the destruction. Not only to protect and educate ourselves but to understand and hopefully produce/perpetuate/encourage less addictive/destructive behaviors in society.

    Then again … I’m also very tired after having read so many informative links/comments AND I tend to operate on the idealist/optimist end of the spectrum. So my thoughts here may be way off base …. regardless I’m glad to read your take. And the ‘takes’ represented in all of the links.

    Definitely thought provoking ….

    1. Appreciate the comment, and agreed that the conversation is complicated…it certainly makes me angry/sad/confused and a whole host of other emotions.

      I think GMP and Alyssa Royse made a lot of assumptions and acted disingenuously. Do we need more education about what good, enthusiastic consent looks like? Absolutely. But to compare that to rape, that seemed to me to be a cynical decision on their part. As in, “let’s piss some people off with this tangentially related thing and then use it to drive real conversation.” Or perhaps they just didn’t think it out, which in my mind still doesn’t excuse the way they presented their arguments.

      I haven’t heard anyone buy into the “I didn’t know that having sex with her while she was sleeping was rape” line that Royse presented. There are definitely grey areas when it comes to sex, but that’s not one of them. That’s rape.

      The other thing is, if there are supposedly so many decent guys out there committing rape who are confused about it, why was the only additional example they were able to come up with…from an unrepentant party rapist who didn’t even seem to fit the “nice guy” label and honestly, didn’t really seem that confused about rape either. To me that read like he was saying, yes, I know it’s rape, but it’s too much work to get real consent and I’d rather just trade in the confused signals and drugs/alcohol side of things instead.

      Are rapists also our friends, neighbors, co-workers? Yes. This is true, they have moms and families too, they are not born in some far off hellish pot of fire. But that is not a jump to “nice guys that you know could potentially be rapists because our society sends confusing signals about consent.” The research supports the theory that rapists are a small group, mostly male, lacking the empathic intelligence the rest of us have.

      GMP and Royse had some good points to make about consent and cultural signals. But, and I think this is important, their examples of “confused guys” are an indictment about their own perceptions of rape. Comparing “confusion about consent” with what are actually very clearly instances of rape serves to muddy the water, and I can see why there was such an angry response and even some accusations that they are providing cover for rapists (although I’m not sure I would go quite that far).

      1. Oh, one other thought too…..outside of the science of examining rapists, sociopaths, etc… I think that overall we are a stronger society when we create strong, healthy emotional connections and rituals and are less likely to experience violence, etc. so that is a huge part of the response to sexual assault and violence generally

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