Content warning: mentions of sexual assault.
“The Monster Myth hurts survivors and makes it less likely that they will be believed when they come forth with their stories if their perpetrator does not conform to that misconception, which very few actually do.”
He was a recent high school graduate. He was on the cross country team. He loved playing the ukulele. We sang indie music in the car together as I kept him company while doordashing. Our favorite was “Lemonade” by Jeremy Passion. He held the door open for me as I got in the car. He cuddled me as we watched Pixar movies. We spent all summer together laughing and singing, fully just happy, young and clouded by naivety. He was a sweet, kind, funny, normal guy.
But he raped me.
For a while I could never make sense of what happened to me because the boy who did it just did not fit in that cookie cutter definition of a rapist. He didn’t seem like a monster. He didn’t seem evil. If he was the good person that I thought he was, how could he have done something so horrible? This question is what swirled around in my mind for years afterwards as my brain just could not — or would not — let me accept the truth of what happened. I believed the world was filled with either good or bad people and that everyone fits into those categories. God, I wish it were that easy.
The myth that men who inflict this pain are always inherently evil is what allows rape culture to be perpetuated. Now, I am not saying that rapists are all saints, because the reality is that there are serial rapists and abusers who have genuinely no sense of morality. But for cases like mine, friends and family refuse to accept the label of “rapist” for their loved ones. It’s such a potent word. It is biting and uncomfortable to hear, so people make excuses for why something “didn’t count” as rape to avoid having to accept those uncomfortable feelings. They look at the victim and try to find their culpability, because if the responsibility is split between the man and the woman, the crushing weight of that label doesn’t seem as heavy. Push it away and push it down, but whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to see the imperfect parts of the people around you.
I picked apart every second of that night and assigned blame to myself for everything I could have done differently, everything that would have prevented me from getting assaulted. The truth is that the only thing that could have stopped what happened that night is if the boy who did it had stopped himself. The Monster Myth allows men and boys to look at their friends, whom they can see all the best parts of, and say “he would never do that.” Their friends can’t be monsters because what does that mean for their own identity if they enabled such an evil person?
A friend of mine experienced an assault from a friend of a friend, and both happened to be male. When she approached her friend about her experience, all he could say is how good of a guy his friend is. She didn’t need to hear he was a good person. That is irrelevant. Life is just not that simple. Just because people around you perceive you as good does not mean that you are not capable of causing harm. Two things can be true at the same time: He can be a great guy, but they can still hurt people.
I wish more men would hear this and not immediately go on the defensive when women approach them with their experiences. You have no idea what happens behind closed doors, and you are naive if you think that your friends are always completely honest with you. It takes so much strength to come forward, and when victims are met with dismissals in this form, it gaslights the victims into thinking what happened to them wasn’t wrong. Being labeled a “good guy” by “the boys” should not be a “get out of jail free” card for any crimes they may commit.
“Okay but it’s not all men — there are just a few bad apples.”
I agree, it’s not all men. But why is it most women? So many survivors have reached out to tell me about how confusing and challenging healing has been, showing me how deeply this rape culture has seemed to soak into our world. We need to stop clinging to these labels of “rapist” as inhuman and “victim” as damaged. It allows us to be blind to the real human experiences that allow this harm to continue. Instances of sexual violence against women are not isolated incidents but symptoms of a much larger problem. It’s not in back alleys, it’s in the bedrooms of so many women with partners they know and trust. It is inflicted by the boy sitting next to you in class, the dedicated husband, the gentle boyfriend. It isn’t monsters committing these acts, it’s the seemingly “good guys” all around you. The problem takes root when men are taught that sex is a prize, that the label of “virgin” is something to be ashamed of, that their masculinity is dependent on how many women they can get with. Naive young boys internalize these messages and begin to learn that women are a commodity. A woman becomes an asset that has value to them.
I am a woman. I am not an asset. My body has no value to you. I am a daughter and sister and friend. I am a living breathing person, and others’ actions have an impact on me. I am human. We need to teach our boys this. Simply telling them that “no means no” does not do enough to combat the patriarchal messages that are being fed to them everywhere else. Boys need to fully appreciate the humanity of the women that they engage with so they can understand the gravity of consent. I can acknowledge that many men lack a role model that will demonstrate healthier behavior. Thus, many boys refuse therapy due to the stigma, and it results in the cyclical nature of this culture as it is silently passed down from father to son. This is where I believe it is important for friends to hold each other accountable.
If you are a man reading this, I want to give you a guide from a survivor of sexual violence for what the best way to address these situations when a woman comes to you.
Most importantly, you need to listen. If a woman is standing in front of you telling you her experience, you need to know the miles that she has run in her own mind to get there. She isn’t looking for solutions or sympathy, she is looking for validation of her experience. She just wants people to know and understand the pain that she feels so that she can begin to understand it for herself. It doesn’t matter if the man intended to do harm: If a woman is saying she has been hurt, then making sure she is okay should be your only concern.
Next, don’t ask questions about what she was wearing or what she was doing. Trust me, she has already run through those questions of blame a million times in her own mind. She doesn’t need to hear it from you, too.
Finally, we don’t expect you to call the cops and deliver your best friends in handcuffs to the authorities. We understand that you have a bond and a relationship with this person, but, for once, we just don’t want to be the ones addressing these issues. Women are exhausted. This can’t just be a women’s issue. We need the men in our lives to be willing to actually have uncomfortable conversations with their friends, and, at the very least, help their friends to take accountability for the impact of their actions. We are not attacking you, we are asking for help.
The world is not black and white. There are no good people. There are just people who choose to do good and bad things. We are human and we have all done bad things, often unintentionally hurting the people around us. Being human means making mistakes, but it is essential to be able to hold yourself accountable for the ways you hurt others.
Katie Tenniswood is a Junior in the College of LSA.