I remember first becoming informed that rape was not about sex around 1970. This was back in the days when the typical bookstore would carry numerous books written by Freud, of which I had read about a dozen. As we all know, Freud argued that owing to the role of the unconscious in determining behavior, our motives are often hidden from us. We think we know why we did something, but it turns out the real reason was something else, something we never suspected. And, owing to the large role that sex played in Freud’s theories, the motive hidden in the unconscious often turned out to be a repressed sexual desire. The theory that rape is not about sex certainly followed Freud, in that an unconscious motive is attributed to the rapist. But it was a complete reversal of the usual Freudian formula: instead of sex being the unconscious motive for something else, something else was asserted to be the unconscious motive for sex.
In general, I was a little skeptical of all the claims being bandied about in those days regarding the unconscious, whether by Freud or any other psychoanalyst, and so I merely noted this peculiar notion that rape was not about sex with indifference. A couple of years later, I saw Frenzy (1972), a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It is about a “necktie strangler” who rapes and murders women. At some point during the movie, the detective tells a sergeant that most men like him are impotent. The sergeant expresses surprise at this remark, and rightly so, I thought to myself. That was carrying the rape-is-not-about-sex theory to an extreme. After all, impotence is the failure to be able to perform sexually, owing to the inability to get an erection. In any event, the detective goes on to say that it is not the sex that gratifies the rapist.
The detective speaks with an authoritative voice in the movie, and so we know we are supposed to believe him. But aside from squaring impotence with rape, there is the incongruity between his words and the rape that took place in the movie thirty minutes before. In the history of mainstream cinema, no movie, made before or since, has depicted sex, consensual or coerced, in which anyone, male or female, experiences greater heights of sexual ecstasy than the necktie strangler in Frenzy.
What is remarkable about this movie is that, in discussing it with others, I have noticed that most people accept the pronouncements of the detective, notwithstanding their apparent inconsistency with the rape scene. This is in part due to the authoritative voice of the detective, and in part due to the widespread acceptance of the rape-is-not-about-sex theory at that time. I have seen people twist themselves into a pretzel trying to argue that the rapist never really got it up, let alone gratified himself sexually. I suspect that this was Hitchcock’s idea of a joke. He purposely put this contradiction into the movie between the words of the pompous detective and the scene of sexual passion, as his way of making fun of that theory.
This movie aside, I have heard this rape-is-not-about-sex theory discussed many times. I have never known one woman to disagree with it. And while a lot of men will also agree with it, I have noticed that a lot of men grow silent, particularly in mixed company. Though a man may disagree with this theory, yet he will quickly realize how inadvisable it would be for him to say so. Imagine a man, upon hearing it declared that rape is not about sex, saying, “Oh no! Rape is all about sex. I mean, sometimes you want it so bad, you feel like holding them down to get what you want.” Any man that would say something like that, especially with women present, would be a fool. By the time that story got around, no woman would ever go out with him again. And so, the theory largely goes unchallenged.
People often use force to get what they want. Wars are fought for territory or natural resources, revolutions are fought to wrest power away from others, and criminals rob and steal to get money. Given how much men want sex, why they should not use force to get that too is a mystery. Alternatively, if we are willing to say rape is not about sex, why not say that robbery is not about money? Granted, there are cases where robbery does have an additional motive. A gangster may be angry at society, or maybe he enjoys dominating his victims. But mostly, robbery is about money; and mostly, rape is about sex.
I have heard it said that there are two primary types of rapists, anger rapists and power rapists. The former are motivated by “resentment and a general hostility towards women.” But how do we make sense of this resentment and hostility unless it has a sexual origin? It has only been recently that women have had anything other than sex about which men would be resentful. For millennia women have been denied status, property, power, rights, or anything else that might inspire resentment, and yet rape has been going on since caveman days. Is it not more likely that the hostility toward women arises out of sexual frustration or rejection?
The power rapist, it is said, is motivated by his need to control and dominate his victim, and inversely, to avoid being controlled by her. But if a man had no sexual desire for women, he would not likely bother with them at all. How do we make sense out of this threat of being controlled by her, unless that threat be sexual? In any event, the main reason a man would want to control and dominate a woman is for sexual purposes. Sex is the end; dominance and control are but the means. Without the former, there is no point to the latter.
The intensity with which some people defend this theory that rape is not about sex naturally makes one suspicious. One cannot help but wonder if the purpose of the theory is to demean the rapist. We deny him the sexual motive, which he may regard as manly, something he can be proud of, and assert that he has anger issues and a need to dominate. In other words, this thesis is an act of revenge against the rapist, undermining his masculinity by insisting that he acts out of insecurity and weakness.
In the end, the claim that rape is not about sex is speculative, almost metaphysical. It is not the sort of thing that one can verify simply through observation. Even if we could observe rapes, as we do in movies like Frenzy, all we would see is the use of force and violence in combination with sex. We cannot observe the motive. The best that can be done is to interview the rapist. But the whole rape-is-not-about-sex theory is premised on the idea that things are not what they seem, not even to the rapist himself; so his own assessment of his motives is not to be trusted, even granted that he is being sincere, which is a big assumption right there. Such interviews may reveal the anger and power motives referred to above, but that gets us right back to the whole question of which is cause and which is effect. The prima facie case is that sex is the cause of rape. The theory that it is just the effect, an insignificant epiphenomenon of anger and power, is counterintuitive and unverifiable.