Friday, January 05, 2007

Milgram's Rapists And Rape Apologists

I'll explain the title and the link between a social experiment and rape, but first a little background.

I watched Wednesday night's ABC Primetime where they conducted a modified re-creation of social psychologist Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiment in conjunction with Santa Clara University. The modifications were made to meet current ethical standards since the original experiment was considered harmful to its subjects.

As the results of the experiment were reviewed, they highlighted a key difference between those who stopped administering incrementally greater electrical shocks and those who continued despite the protests of the person being "shocked."

Those who continued.

These people (65% of men, 73% of women) delegated all or part of their responsibility for their actions to the experiment supervisor and/or the volunteer who agreed to be shocked. They hesitated at times, but continued even after the person being "shocked" begged them to stop. They choose to become extensions of the experiment supervisor and allowed him to control them. They viewed themselves as having no choice. So when they were told to disregard the "shocked" person's protest, they didn't see it as their decision to continue.

They assumed that the blame for their harmful actions didn't belong to them. They overcame their misgivings by telling themselves that those running the experiment knew what they were doing and were the ones who would be held responsible if the person being "shocked" were hurt.

Those who stopped.

These people were personally and fully responsible for all of their actions -- even though the person running the experiment said he'd take full responsibility. When the person being "shocked" begged them to stop they were the one's with the choice and the responsibility for how they would respond. They knew they had to respect the "shock" recipient's withdrawal of consent. The fact that the experiment supervisor didn't accept the "shock" recipient's withdrawal, and assured them that their actions would cause no real harm, didn't alter their decision that it was time to stop.

They knew that the blame for their harmful actions couldn't be shifted to anyone else. They knew that other people's responsibility did not diminish their own responsibility.

Why most didn't stop.

The irony is that in many situations these people who did the right thing would be seen as doing the wrong thing. They could be scolded for not being good team players. They might be labeled as having a lack of respect for authority. They might even be fired.

In this experiment those in charge rewarded these rebels with positive feedback because they knew they were pushing people to take the wrong actions and that wasn't a desirable result, but in most real-life situations those doing the pushing are glad when the wrong action happens.

Whistleblowers are an example where doing what's right can have major negative consequences. Many of us, either consciously or unconsciously, decide that whether we like it or not we have to conform instead of rebel.

This is a dark side of something we often see as positive. Respect and obedience toward authority. We don't think about this side effect when we say, "Be good now and do as you are told."

I noticed 3 keys to this experiment.

1) Uncertainty from the person taking action.
2) Certainty from an authority figure who seems normal and in no way evil.
3) Incrementally moving from the acceptable to the uncomfortable to the dangerous.

How that relates to rape.

The real-life examples where this is applied were all extreme. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, for example. But I believe the psychological pattern holds true much closer to home. You only have to look at any disputed rape scenario or any article or discussion about how women should minimize their risk of being raped.

If a man jumps out of a van and kidnaps a girl or woman as she crosses a parking lot in the middle of the day, there's no dispute that he's the only one responsible for his actions when he rapes her.

But as soon as the scenario shifts so the woman has any responsibility for any part of the interaction, many people will see her responsibility as diminishing his responsibility. That's a key mistake all those who continued with Milgram's experiment made.

Nothing another person does diminishes our responsibility for our actions.

When people say women are playing the victim and trying to escape responsibility, they are talking about the responsibility for actions taken against these women. They want her to take responsibility for his actions and don't like it when they don't get what they want.

Why so many otherwise decent boys and men rape.

With the Milgram experiment in mind, think about rape scenarios that begin with normal social interaction such as a date, a party or a college campus. Just as in Milgram's experiment, the majority of people begin to divide and shift responsibility when they are part of a group.

The certainty in which many people scold girls and women for so-called risky behavior mimics the certainty of the experiment supervisor in Milgram's experiment. These people also express certainty that in certain situations taking sex not given freely does no real harm. Some people's certainty is so entrenched that they refuse to believe rape victims whose experience counters their expert conclusion.

If the boy or man is uncertain about what he's allowed to do in a particular situation, he may fall back on what those who appear to be experts say. Like in Milgram's experiment that will cause him to disregard signals he's been told are unimportant.

This mentality is at work every time a man says, "I didn't do anything every other normal man would do in that situation." Since he is behaving normally, she must be a liar when she calls what he did rape.

Rape Apologists.

Using Milgram's experiment as a guide, the term rape enabler makes sense. These people reassure those who aren't sure what's right and what's wrong that they don't have to take responsibility for their actions if they hurt the other person sexually.

Unlike in Milgram's experiment, those who offer certainty and who help people escape personal responsibility for sexual violation do not acknowledge their contribution to the harm they are facilitating through another person's actions.

This mentality is at work every time someone responds to a rape victim's account of what happened with, "I can't call it rape until I hear his side of the story."

They will not put the responsibility on the person who took the action until they understand whether he should be allowed to shift all or part of his responsibility. But Milgram's experiment makes it clear that the shifting of responsibility these people are looking for -- to prove that a boy or man isn't a rapist -- is a key indicator that someone will cross ethical, moral and legal boundaries.

How to change the numbers.

We must challenge ourselves and others to stop spreading the lie that girls and women have the sole or primary responsibility to stop a boy or man from getting what he wants.

We must talk about ethical boundaries in all areas, including sex, so people who say they don't hurt others out of malice will stop making excuses and will stop hurting other people.

We must shift the responsiblity for rape prevention away from victims and potential victims and put it where it belongs -- on rapists and potential rapists.

We must all work toward getting the number of Milgram's rapists and rape apologists ever closer to zero.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:43 AM   2 comments links to this post


At January 06, 2007 8:15 AM, Anonymous Joe said...

I disagree with a couple of points.
1. Decent men and boys don't rape.
2. I thought the point was that people are willing to justify immoral acts because someone in authority says it's okay. I think this would apply more to partner rape. Or rape where her 'father/brother' said it was okay. I can see this being a bigger issue in more openly patriarchal societies. (e.g. Afghanistan)

At January 06, 2007 9:22 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Joe, truly and fully decent boys and men don't rape, but boys and men who are decent can make decisions that cause them to lose their decency and to become rapists.

My boyfriend/rapist was in many ways a decent guy, but what he learned from his authority figures was that it was acceptable for him to do everything he could to get sex from me even though he knew I was 100% against it. He had learned from other men that my objections were invalid or that I was speaking out of fear and once we had sex my fear would go away.

The bottom line was he had learned that forcing me to have sex was no big deal and wouldn't hurt me in any significant way.

Unlike the Milgram experiment, his authority figures weren't literally sitting over his shoulder, but their message was just as present in his brain as he made his decisions.

Because he wasn't doing anything worse than his role models, he didn't see himself as a rapist or what he did as rape.

If he had paid less attention to the men/boys who taught him how to treat a girlfriend and more attention to me and what his actions did to me, I don't think he would have become a rapist.


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