Sports culture, rape, and why it’s not about being hard up
I just want to say up front that this post is not about the guilt or innocence of Ben Roethlisberger, and any attempts to derail the points that I’m making here by making this about his specific guilt or innocence will be considered thread-jacking, which is one of the rules that you could get banned for breaking at Pandagon. With that out of the way, I want to talk about the proliferation of rape apology myths that are exploding in defense of Roethlisberger from fans. Personally, I’ve never understood why it’s so important for people to believe that having remarkable talents precludes having bad morals. If you set that aside, you will suddenly feel both the need to defend artists/athletes whose work you love that have done bad things, and you can also realize that your enjoyment of their work is not a statement about your morals, which is why I’ve found the cries to boycott Chris Brown’s music to be missing the larger point. I think one reason that people get so defensive when it comes out that someone whose work they enjoy is a rapist or a wife beater is that they perceive an obligation to give up their beloved fandom. A better approach would be to use these incidents as teaching moments and opportunities to remake the culture, not as litmus tests for the morality of your enthusiasms. This isn’t about how you’re a bad person if you like the Steelers, but there is something to be said for the responsibility of organizations like ESPN not to cover this up and reinforce the belief that the world of sports is a sanctuary for misogynists.
What I want to address is the proliferation of false ideas getting trotted in defense of Roethlisberger, or in all reality, of the fans’ own image of themselves. Jaclyn Friedman and Amanda Hess have written pieces on it, and there’s rape apologism galore stuck to this case, and in fact is part of it. From Jaclyn’s piece:
The alleged victim is already suing Harrah’s, her employer, for telling her that “most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger” and trying to cover up the whole incident.
There’s a lot of bullshit being said, including the tired old “gold digger” charge, but what I want to talk about is the way that people conflate having sex with rape to confuse the issue of what is alleged to have happened here. But when you are raped, you did not “have sex” with the rapist, nor did he “have sex” with you. Having sex is a phrase that usually means something specific, with consent being the bare minimum for qualification. By conflating the two, rape then gets rewritten in the public imagination not as an act of sadism done for its own reasons, but just something that hard up guys do to get laid. This in turn is used as evidence that the accused must be innocent, as Amanda Hess notes:
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could have sex with anybody he wanted: “most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger.”
L.A. Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant could have sex with anybody he wanted: “Why would he rape her? He could have sex with anyone he wanted.”
Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock could have sex with anybody he wanted: “It’s not like he had to make somebody have sex with him. He could have sex with anybody he wanted.”
Magician David Copperfield could have sex with anybody he wanted: “I hardly think he needs to rape anyone, surely there is plenty of willing participants out there.”
After reading her post, I really realized how often the idea of hard-up-ness is trotted out to excuse male behavior towards women that’s questionable at best. I’ve mentioned before that the myth of the Sad, Unfuckable John is often trotted out to explain the existence of prostitution, and how bullshit of an excuse that is, as evidenced by the way that men like Eliot Spitzer or David Vitter—who, like the aforementioned other famous, powerful men, could have sex with all sorts of willing ladies—pay for sex, because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about the sex, it’s about the act of paying for it that’s important to them.* You also see the specter of hard-up-ness used to justify the Nice Guy® routine of pretending to be a woman’s friend so you can have sex with her, while abusing her intelligence behind her back and suggesting that she owes you sex. And you see it trotted out to justify rape. It’s the excuse that keeps on giving.
It’s ugly enough in these cases, but when it comes to rape, it’s particularly weird. Do people really think that rapists rape because they’re hard up? I don’t believe that for a second. Feminists are often, and for good reason in many cases, criticizing the gratuitous use of rape scenes, and other scenes of violence against women, in movies and TV, but I will say this: even the most obviously unnecessary versions I’ve seen of this phenomenon at least portray violence against women as something men perpetuate because they get a sadistic pleasure in it. So it’s not like the reality of what motivates rapists is all that hidden in our culture. Rapists rape because they like raping. Forcing someone to submit to you sexually is thrilling for some people, for the same reasons that other displays of dominance and control are thrilling.**
Of course, writing that, I see why people blanch. Stating straightforwardly that people do cruel things often for cruel reasons is hard to swallow, and the urge to come up with a reason for it that is easier to understand is strong. So, even if we usually grasp that rapists rape because they like to rape in the abstract or the fictional worlds, when faced with actual human beings who did just this, we start casting around for a more understandable reason they did what they did. But hiding our heads in the sand on this issue just, as Jaclyn says, a way to encourage the violence against women to continue.
Is it really so hard to understand? The world of sports has a lot of great things to offer—I’m not even really a sports fan, but I can appreciate the thrill of competition, the wonder at the limits that the human body can push, the grace and skill of the athletes, the highs and lows for the fans. I am a political blogger, after all, and my enthusiasms aren’t that different. But for reasons that are admittedly complicated, the world of sports has also become a sanctuary for misogynists who want to let their hair down. It’s not just one thing that makes this so—the routine objectification and disdain for women’s full humanity you see in sports exists in all sorts of environments, from video gaming to business to rock music. But for some reason, when it comes to sports, it’s just heightened dramatically. In fact, it seems a lot of men love sports precisely because it’s a venue where they can just indulge some of their uglier views with the secure realization that no one will call bullshit.
*Pointing this out usually then gets me accused of saying sex workers have no autonomy, so I want to make it clear that I believe that there are prostitutes out there who are in control of their situations. Maybe not as many as more avid defenders would like to believe, but it’s certainly possible. But that one can be a happy hooker doesn’t really say anything about your clients.
**Every time I point out that rapists rape because they like to rape, someone will pretend I said that’s true in 100% of all possible cases. So, if I agree to accept that there’s a marginal number of men who rape out of stupidity as much as malice, will you avoid bringing up exceptions that would, if you thought about it, prove the rule?