Commentary. While many are now calling for harsher penalties for sexual crimes, incarcerating the penis does not cure the disease.

Rape is a common crime, but rape culture won’t be deterred by prison

“Why do men rape? It’s simple: because they think they can get away with it. Enough with social and psychological justifications. Rape is a punishable crime. Period.”

According to this passage by Sandra Newman in La Repubblica’s Sept. 30 edition — a well-articulated yet contradictory analysis — one might reply that if that’s really how things were, stopping rapists would actually be easy: Just lengthen the prison sentences and condemn repeated offenders to life in prison.

But in addition to the debatable outcome of such a deterrent, which more people now favor, male violence against women must be met with education beginning in childhood. We know that the sexism and racism in our male-dominated culture were inherited over centuries. When people talk about “understanding” what drives men to rape, you have to consider not just the social and psychological reasons but the goal of an ideology that has been the foundation of our civilization and others for centuries, from high culture to common sense.

Within this culture, male power has infused the most intimate events (maternity, sexuality, love) with the violent behaviors of individuals or groups, with all the corresponding pathology, responsibility and history. How else can we explain that many men, even young ones, when interviewed fail to “make a link between non-consensual sex and rape,” or the fact that one in four students reply that “it is matter of desire,” as the article points out? Wouldn’t it be good to start asking men — and even women — how is love, desire and sexuality are represented to them in their imagination?

Once we realize that the “nature” of rapists is not significantly different, and when we conclude they’re like most men, “who tend to be horrible misogynists,” Newman’s speech moves rightly into convictions, prejudices and fantasies that are the basis of common sense and feeling. She points out the reason rapists use to justify their crimes: that it is “normal” to use force if the woman who agreed to go out with you refuses sexual advances, or if the woman is labeled as “easy,” or if she was hitchhiking.

The first legitimization of violence comes from other men, by the approval or stigmatization of a community of peers. In the cases of rapes by soldiers during war, we know that encouragement has often come from above.

But despite this complex vision of a phenomenon with deep roots in the history of male dominance and collective unconsciousness, Newman concludes that the main deterrent should be the criminal conviction of the perpetrators.

It would be misleading to try to see rape as a different problem than common crime, or as a “deep mystery” rooted in psychology, medicine or politics. Now, it is true that rape is first of all the exercise of brutal power over the woman’s body; more than sexual desire, one has to talk about overwhelming celebration of victory over a sex considered enemy or inferior, to be humiliated and subdued.

But is it really so estranged from sexuality that it must be catalogued among crimes such as robbery or arson? How can one define sexual relations hidden behind the sacredness of marriage and imposed by husbands on wives, without their consent and without much concern for unwanted pregnancies? How can we not recognize the violent trait that exists in the generative and penetrative male sexuality, as has been the case so far, not only with the anxiety of performance but with the desire and at the same time the fear of a return to the powerful mother’s womb?

Talking about coitus as a “victory over the trauma of birth,” as some psychoanalysts do, means recognizing in the male imagination the never-declared war between the sexes that took shape around the vicissitudes of origin, and over the course of history, it has seen flipped over a life of dependence of the infirmity of the man-son in the violent appropriation of the maternal body.

The hope of succeeding in preventing rapes, like other overt or invisible violence against women, lies in the courage to address the problem in all its ambiguities, from what body memory and psychic life retain of the primary experiences of every individual, male or female, to the social and cultural conditions in which he or she lives.

There is no shortage of testimonies, candid writings on the truth about love, sexuality, fantasies, desires and fears that are generally “unimaginable,” buried in the lives of individuals in one sex and the other. They are unsettling, disturbing, but that’s why it’s important to overcome the aversion and read them.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!