It is not surprising that we want to separate
ourselves from those who commit hideous crimes, to believe that
the abominable things some people do are the result of something
evil inside of them.
But most of us also struggle with a gnawing
feeling that however pathological those brutal criminals are,
they are of us — part of our world, shaped by our culture.
Such is the case of Richard Marc Evonitz,
a “sexually sadistic psychopath,” in the words of one
expert, who abducted, raped and killed girls in Virginia and
elsewhere. What are the characteristics of a sexually sadistic psychopath? According to a former
FBI profiler who has studied serial killers: “A psychopath
has no ability to feel remorse for their crimes. They tend to
justify what they do as being OK for them. They have no appreciation
for the humanity of their victims. They treat them like objects,
not human beings.”
Such a person is, without question, cruel
and inhuman. But aspects of that description fit not only sexually
sadistic psychopaths; slightly modified, it also describes much
“normal” sex in our culture.
Look at mass-marketed pornography, with
estimated sales of $10 billion a year in the United States, consumed
primarily by men: It routinely depicts women as sexual objects
whose sole function is to sexually satisfy men and whose own
welfare is irrelevant as long as men are satisfied.
Consider the $52-billion-a-year worldwide
prostitution business: Though illegal in the United States (except
Nevada), that industry is grounded in the presumed right of men
to gain sexual satisfaction with no concern for the physical
and emotional costs to women and children.
Or, simply listen to what heterosexual
women so often say about their male sexual partners: He only
seems interested in his own pleasure; he isn’t emotionally engaged
with me as a person; he treats me like an object.
To point all this out is not to argue
that all men are brutish animals or sexually sadistic psychopaths.
Instead, these observations alert us to how sexual predators
are not mere aberrations in an otherwise healthy sexual culture.
In the contemporary United States, men
generally are trained in a variety of ways to view sex as the
acquisition of pleasure by the taking of women. Sex is a sphere
in which men are trained to see themselves as naturally dominant
and women as naturally passive. Women are objectified and women’s
sexuality is turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold.
Sex becomes sexy because men are dominant and women are subordinate.
Again, the argument is not that all men
believe this or act this way, but that such ideas are prevalent
in the culture, transmitted from adult men to boys through direct
instruction and modeling, by peer pressure among boys, and in
mass media. They were the lessons I learned growing up in the
1960s and ’70s, and if anything such messages are more common
and intense today.
The predictable result of this state
of affairs is a culture in which sexualized violence, sexual
violence and violence-by-sex is so common that it should be considered
normal. Not normal in the sense of healthy or preferred, but
an expression of the sexual norms of the culture, not violations
of those norms. Rape is illegal, but the sexual ethic that underlies
rape is woven into the fabric of the culture.
None of these observations excuse or
justify sexual abuse. Although some have argued that men are
naturally sexually aggressive, feminists have long held that
such behaviors are learned, which is why we need to focus not
only on the individual pathologies of those who cross the legal
line and abuse, rape and kill, but on the entire culture.
Those who find this analysis outrageous
should consider the results of a study of sexual assault on U.S.
college campuses. Researchers found that 47 percent of the men
who had raped said they expected to engage in a similar assault
in the future, and 88 percent of men who reported an assault
that met the legal definition of rape were adamant that they
had not raped. That suggests a culture in which many men cannot
see forced sex as rape, and many have no moral qualms about engaging
in such sexual activity on a regular basis.
The language men use to describe sex,
especially when they are outside the company of women, is revealing.
In locker rooms one rarely hears men asking about the quality
of their emotional and intimate experiences. Instead, the questions
are: “Did you get any last night?” “Did you score?”
“Did you f— her?” Men’s discussions about sex often
use the language of power — control, domination, the taking
When I was a teenager, I remember boys
joking that an effective sexual strategy would be to drive a
date to a remote area, turn off the car engine, and say, “OK,
f— or fight.” I would not be surprised to hear that boys
are still regaling each other with that “joke.”
So, yes, violent sexual predators are
monsters, but not monsters from another planet. What we learn
from their cases depends on how willing we are to look not only
into the face of men such as Evonitz, but also to look into the
mirror, honestly, and examine the ways we are not only different
but, to some degree, the same.
Such self-reflection, individually and
collectively, does not lead to the conclusion that all men are
sexual predators or that nothing can be done about it. Instead,
it should lead us to think about how to resist and change the
system in which we live. This feminist critique is crucial not
only to the liberation of women but for the humanity of men,
which is so often deformed by patriarchy.
Solutions lie not in the conservatives’
call for returning to some illusory “golden age” of
sexual morality, a system also built on the subordination of
women. The task is to incorporate the insights of feminism into
a new sexual ethic that does not impose traditional, restrictive
sexual norms on people but helps creates a world based on equality
not dominance, in which men’s pleasure does not require women’s
is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin
and co-author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption
of Inequality. He can be reached at email@example.com