Justifications and Excuses for Rape: Heterosexuality and the Engendering of Denial
By Dr Julie Chalder-Mills
This paper discusses some of the justifications and excuses for committing rape; and why these linguistic strategies occur and are used. The data were collected from a feminist sociological doctoral research project which explored of the language used by convicted rapists serving sentences in an English prison. Six men were interviewed over a period of six months. Life History interviews were undertaken which were on average 2 ½ hours each, with each man interviewed an average of 5 times each, and due to their ‘open’ nature, the interviews amassed vast amounts of data. Four of the men raped current or former partners; the remaining two raped strangers. One of whom was a sex worker in a ‘red light district’; the other woman was raped in her own home. This paper draws on the narratives of two of the participants: Andrew and Eddie. Andrew raped a stranger who was a sex worker in a local ‘red light district’, whilst Eddie raped his partner six times in one night. The paper explores how in reconstructing a post-conviction identity, the men draw on constructing justifications and excuses for their rapacious behaviour to linguistically exonerate them from wearing the badge of dishonour that announces their status ‘rapists’, or ‘guilty’. In order for them to do so, they must re-frame the protagonist as the victim, who ultimately, in their view, is responsible for the men’s downfall in ‘respectability’.
Rape and Identity
For the men, it was very difficult to accept that they were ‘rapists’, as this as a moniker is too loaded with stereotypes of ‘monsters’ and ‘demons’; and is the ultimate negative identity. Thus, on varying levels they have to redeem themselves and their identities as ‘normal’, ergo, ‘respectable’, ’decent’ and good men. This is standard practice in social life in itself, but also within the prison environment where they are amongst other sex offenders, where there exists a hierarchy of ‘badness’. In speaking to me too, a female researcher who doesn’t ‘know’ them as their families/loved ones do, it is imperative to them that I do not view them as ‘monsters’, but as ‘honourable’ and ‘good’ men. Hence, in order to support their ‘respectable’ identity, they must resort to creating and, importantly, believing for themselves, the ‘excuses and justifications’ for raping their victims.
One way of reconstructing their identities is to save ‘face’, and an almost ‘natural’ way to do this is to blame the victim. You may say that this is expected; that rapists will always say the victims ‘led them on’, but the discussions that follow are more subtle than this ‘natural’ outcome. Victim blaming is grounded in what I refer to as a heterosexist ‘language’; that is, that the definition itself does not really exist openly, but it is all around it. It is a concept which defines what language is acceptable or not. For example, women’s speech is defined as ‘chatter’; men’s is not and thus, this invisibility sustains is practical use, as it is normalised in everyday speech and is the benchmark against which all other ‘speak’ is compared. This heterosexist language acts as a ‘scaffold’ to rape (Gavey, 2005) in that it constructs narratives that provide ‘excuses and justifications’ (Scott and Lyman, 1968) for rape which always have at their centre women’s behaviour.
Diana Scully argues that:
The transition from deviant to normal is accomplished through linguistic devices through which an individual, having anticipated the negative consequences of an act, attempts to interpret or explain it in terms that are culturally appropriate and socially acceptable… [and]...are acquired through socialisation – the process by which we learn to appreciate the meaning and consequences of acts as well as the language needed to explain them in socially appropriate terms. Thus, explanations are drawn from knowledge acquired through contact with one’s culture, and they reflect what individuals have learned to expect that others will find acceptable.
(Scully, 1991: 97-98)
As I discuss later on in this paper, it is the men who have decided that their ‘victim’ is deserving of being ‘punished’ because in some way the women have gone against ‘desired’ or dominant notions of acceptable feminine identities, or attributes which define them as ‘respectable’ women. Therefore victim blaming provides a ‘scapegoat’ (Becker, 1963; Scully, 1991:98). The men’s accounts of victim blaming are not only ‘accounts’ of their violence (Scott and Lyman, 1968) which amount to ‘excuses and justifications’ for it; they “further elaborate the devices that people use to explain and remove culpability when an untoward act has been committed‟ (Scully, 1991:98).
Diana Scully’s (1991) research with convicted offenders found that those sex offenders identified as ‘admitters’ generally provided excuses for their behaviour – Andrew in this paper - moreover they attempted to explain why their behaviour was rape but that they were not rapists. In comparison, Scully argues, ‘those who were identified as ‘deniers’ acknowledged that rape is generally impermissible, but used justifications to show how, in their situation, the behaviour was appropriate even if not quite right‟ (1991: 98) as is demonstrated through Eddie’s narrative in this paper. Thus, an important part of learning to rape includes the mastering of a vocabulary that can be used to explain sexual violence against women in socially acceptable terms:
“As men who have mastered this vocabulary, convicted rapists have much to tell us about how sexual violence is made possible in our rape-prone society‟ (Scully, 1991:98). She continues: „Indeed, it appears that this type of man rapes because his value system provides no compelling reason not to do so‟ (Scully, 1991:116).
Andrew’s brief extracts provide some insight into some of the justifications he gave for raping a sex worker (Scott and Lyman, 1968; Scully, 1991). This ‘strategy’ proved vital to the reconstitution of his respectable ‘self’. This then moves on to explore some of Eddie’s excuses for the multiple rape of his partner, who once again, through the linguistic turns in his narrative excused his behaviour, in order that I did not view him as a monster, but was ‘just an ordinary bloke doing what ordinary blokes do’.
Eddie was aggrieved that his long-term partner, ‘Alex’, had slept with his closest friend whilst Eddie was in prison for a previous offence. In trying to rebuild his relationship, he felt that had given her the opportunity to ‘come clean’ and to ‘be honest’ about her sexual transgressions. Upon finding out later that there had been two occasions of adultery, Eddie was angry but had decided to give the relationship a second chance, even though he believed that her actions had made him look a fool to his peers. Having ‘street’ respect from his peers was of utmost importance to Eddie’s self respect, but also, his peers’ view of him heavily influenced his world-view.
However, in his partner he saw a challenge to his credibility as he feared his peers were mocking him about Alex’s infidelity/ies. This was a far greater ‘sin’ than any abhorrent behaviour Eddie could carry out, and required a visible repost from Eddie, in order to maintain his ‘hard’ reputation. From his perspective: ‘she was as hard as any bloke and she had to be broken’ due to her ‘ignorant’ behaviour. In this way she transgressed his understanding of credible feminine behaviour, which for Eddie meant that she took second place to his public persona. When he would assault her for transgressions, he expected her to submit; to give in. However she did fight back, which undermined his ‘authority’. By fighting back, and for being as hard as any bloke, and failing in her duty to be a good i.e.: obedient, ‘wife’, his punishment was to rape her repeatedly in order to ‘break her’.
This was an untenable situation for Eddie, as to ‘lose face’ means reduced credibility from those he viewed important to him. Perhaps though, and more importantly it was his masculinity that he viewed was under threat; and it was being threatened by a woman. But it was her resistance to his attempts at controlling her which would be the last straw for Eddie which would eventually result in his multiple acts of rape. His insistence of adhering to ideals of hegemonic masculinity (Carrigan, Connell and Lea, 1985) in the form of ‘the patriarchal dividend’ (Connell, 2005:82) but in excusing himself from what the CJS had already categorised as the multiple rape of his girlfriend, he maintained his position that he ‘wouldn’t be in here for this if she hadn’t caused all this shit by lying [to me] etc‟.
Andrew had been an ‘armchair rapist’ for a considerable length of time (Beneke, 1995:55) fantasising about raping a sex worker. Andrew acknowledged in our first interview that the rape of a sex worker was only ever for his sexual gratification, but he consistently had difficulty in accepting that he ‘raped’ her because by virtue of her ‘job’ she was already making her body available and as such she cannot be considered a ‘real’ victim of rape. In this extract, Andrew uses a dual approach to his understanding of the rape. He justifies the rape of the sex worker whilst at the same time providing a rationale for his violence by removing himself as the agent in his narrative:
The victim was a prostitute, obviously, but I guess that gave me permission to do something I suppose more-so, because the person put herself at risk.
Through referring to her occupation and defining her by it, he effectively erodes her very being, and as such considers that ‘no harm is done’ (Kinnell, 2008:151). Finally, by abdicating personal responsibility for what happened by alluding to her ‘risky’ behaviour, he is saying that it was her responsibility due to ‘her ‘job’; and as such she is a legitimate victim (Weiss and Borges, 1973). His sense that he had implicit permission to rape is as a direct result of her ‘low-status’ as a sex worker, according to Weiss and Borges (1973), but he is also drawing upon gender stereotypes which dictate that women have a responsibility to take care of themselves, and to avoid taking undue risks (Clark, 1987). He is also drawing upon his male right to sexual access on his terms – his sense of entitlement to sex - to do whatever he desires, including rape, as she is already making herself available for sexual services through her job (Jackson, 1995; Weiss and Borges, 1973), and her body is ‘open territory for assault’ (Miller and Schwartz, 1995, cited in Kinnell, 2008: 151). Andrew continues:
I mean looking at that now, erm, you could say that anyone who does that basically on their own, is putting themselves at risk, you can look at anything and give yourself excuses for committing the offence; but that was my excuse at the time
Here he is reiterating his stance, as outlined above, but adds to it by arguing that no-one would care if a sex worker became a victim of a client (Sanders, 2005; Kinnell, 2008), and that he was less at risk of being prosecuted for his actions. Prior to ‘choosing’ his victim he had voyeuristically watched the girls working in the area. His plan (and fantasy) was finally coming to fruition, and if the disregard he felt about the sex worker was not already apparent, he makes it very clear in this statement:
I pulled my car a bit of a distance away from her; I didn’t approach her or anything and I thought another sort of seedy thought about her, but felt that if she came to my car then it was her decision, that she was putting herself at risk, and so whatever happened would be because I wasn’t directly approaching her, so…
Entitlement and Excuses – Naming and Defaming
In providing excuses for their behaviour both Andrew and Eddie resorted to casting the victim as liars and/or by placing an emphasis upon their victim’s perceived transgressive or failed femininity. Men’s language of denial remains a strategy by which they can restore a credible identity for themselves (Hearn, 1998b), but in order to do so, these particular men here also resorted to the power of naming the ‘other’ as responsible for their incarceration (Becker, 1963; Hearn, 1998b; Gavey, 2005; Smyth and Williamson, 2005).
As justifications and excuses are socially approved vocabularies, this discussion has explored some of the remedies Andrew and Eddie used to explain their rape accounts, i.e. they acknowledge that they had sex with the women, but that the sex ‘turned’ to rape because of the actions of the women (Hearn, 1998; Scott and Lyman, 1968; Scully, 1991). In turning the focus of attention onto what the women have (allegedly) said in their rape accounts, the men are highlighting that somehow the women’s accounts ‘lack’ credibility in terms of being a victim of rape. The perpetrator uses this account to ‘prove’ that she has lied about the seriousness of ‘what happened’, which ultimately led to his incarceration.
The pervasiveness of heterosexual power – decentring
However Andrew and Eddie ‘dress up’ their rape accounts, they have each engaged in the removal of themselves as the responsible, agentic self, and in their place have inserted the victim as the protagonist. Hearn (1998; 2004) has argued that what is missing from male discourses of violence, including sexual violence, is a critique of the men at the centre of violence; the men that are ‘doing’ the violence. Even though a great deal has been written about men and masculinities (Carrigan, Connell and Lea; Connell, 2005; Mac An Ghaill, 1994; Seidler, 1990; 1994; Whitehead, 2002), on the whole there is an absence of any in-depth critique of men and their practices (Hearn, 2004) and in particular, the practice of heterosexuality (Gavey, 2005; Jackson, 1999; Rich, 1980). Hearn (1998; 2004) argues that when men talk about violence they remove themselves from the story, and often resort to providing ‘othered’ accounts of what happened (Hearn, 1998), thus placing the emphasis of their accounts on an ‘other’ person, or an important event or circumstance in their lives and as such, deflect agency away from themselves. Whether that involves ‘excuses and justifications‟ (Scott and Lyman, 1968) or complete denial (Scully, 1991), both strategies result in the same outcome, in that men revert to the heterosexual language of denial which acts as a strategy “relating to the long term pursuit of objectives‟ (Allen, 2001: 1392). I argue that this is not something the men do consciously. Instead it is an inherent characteristic of heterosexuality which can operate as a strategy which enables the long term pursuit of ‘a lasting tendency or interest’ (Allen, 2001: 985). In other words, if heterosexual language concerning female and male behaviour, which draws upon a variety of discourses, is thus constructed to support the heterosexual matrix (Butler, 1993), including the heterosexual imaginary (Ingraham, 1994), then when the heterosexual scripts (Gagnon and Simon 1974) go awry there has to be an alternative strategy in place which will be applied automatically in order that heterosexuality retains its status (Scully, 1991). This alternative strategy is the language of denial which is itself a heterosexual linguistic strategy ‘built in’ to heterosexuality in order to save it from being subjected to pervasive critique. When applied by sex offenders, this strategy is drawn upon in order for the perpetrators to have a ‘socially approved’ alternative strategic ‘vocabulary’ (Scott and Lyman, 1968:46) through which patriarchy (Millet, 1970), sociality (Jackson, 1999), heterosexuality (Jackson, 2006; Richardson, 1996) and their reconstituted credibility can be maintained and accepted.
This paper has discussed some of the excuses and justifications that are given for committing rape. Importantly, these linguistic strategies are identified as an active strand of heteronormative practice employed on a global scale where heteronormativity remains the dominant social ideology. What seemed to be occurring within the ‘talk’ of the ‘violence of men’ (Hearn, 1998b) is collusion and collaboration with heterosexuality as a political standpoint to reinforce a sense of ‘normality’ for the men who are exposed to ideologies which impose the idea that for the rest of their lives they are a ‘risk’ to the public (Lacombe, 2008).
 The men admit that they have committed rape, but that they were justified in doing so, because the women were in some way at fault, which provided permission for the men to punish the women by raping them.
 All names used in this paper are pseudonyms.
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