Why I Call Rapists Cowards
Lisa Gaeta, Founder and CEO, IMPACT Personal Safety of Southern California
Rapists are cowards. In our society and in our movies and books, men prove their power by fighting other men or women who are at least as strong as them, with similar skill sets and not knowing if they will overcome or not. But the rapist chooses his victim to ASSURE himself that he can’t lose.
Telling students that the man who is attacking them is most likely trying to overcome something he feels he lacks as a man, helps them to understand that he is not all-powerful. We give rapists too much power. If we learn at a young age to speak up for ourselves and to defend ourselves, we take control of the power over our own safety. My job is to teach women how to stay safe in the face of imminent danger.
Strong, confident men don’t attack people whom they perceive as weaker than them. Even the man who is a high-powered executive, who verbally or physically abuses his family or kicks the dog when he’s angry, is trying to overcome a feeling of powerlessness.
We do not teach our students to call their attacker a coward. We teach them to de-escalate using verbal strategies and body language. If that doesn’t work – although we have more success stories about people talking their way out of a situation rather than fighting than anything else – they are able to physically defend themselves.
I believe this to be the case because our graduates do not present themselves as a good target. They BELIEVE that they have the right and the skills to defend themselves if necessary. And because that’s true, the attacker is deterred – because he’s a coward looking for an easy target.
Why I Don’t Call Rapists Cowards
Susan Schorn, Empowerment Self Defense Instructor, Austin Texas
I appreciate Lisa's perspective and wouldn't call it "wrong." I've often told self-defense students, "You don't need to be stronger than an attacker; you only need to be stronger than they think you are. And assault victims are often targeted because of some perceived weakness, so any effort you make to defend yourself will probably surprise your attacker and give you an advantage." When I say this to students, I'm trying, as I think Lisa is, to break through the social conditioning that makes women and other marginalized individuals feel helpless in the face of threatened assault.
But I think defining assailants as "cowards" limits our focus. It makes us think in terms of brave men, who have abundant integrity and self-control and thus don't "need" to assault others. In this dynamic, it's easy to position "real" masculinity as honorable and protective, meaning that rape and assault only occur when men don't have "enough" of the "real" masculine traits. In a weird way, "rapists are cowards" implies that men should refrain from raping anyone not because it's wrong, and harms another human, but rather because it betrays weakness, and is, for that reason, shameful. That's a fundamental dynamic of toxic masculinity: your identity is built entirely on being brave/strong/silent, and thereby avoiding shame.
Now, I have no problem with shaming rapists. But I'm not keen on tying our disapproval of rape to age-old stereotypes about masculine strengths. Those stereotypes are, by and large, the reason we live in a rape culture today.
Lisa says that "Strong, confident men don’t attack people whom they perceive as weaker than them." This is a message I'm sure many young men have heard as they grow up. And yet, I look around and see ample evidence that "strong, confident men" do attack people whom they perceive as weaker—they do it all the time. The #MeToo movement has shown us that many of them have gotten away with it for decades. They do so, as Empowerment Self-Defense Anne Kuzminsky says, because "Predators and their enablers behave in an entitled, not necessarily cowardly way." In other words, the assailant Lisa considers "cowardly" may still be extremely confident, and may be possessed of all manner of privilege and status that allows them to victimize people around them. I expect Lisa might say, "Well, that person is still a coward, because they work hard to minimize the risk to themselves when they victimize others." And I suspect an assailant in that position—if they were being honest—would say, "Yeah. So what? You can call me cowardly, but I'm getting what I want, and no one can touch me."
We may teach boys that strong, confident men who don't attack others are admirable. But somewhere along the way, the same culture that professes those values also teaches boys that strong, confident men who take what they want and evade justice belong in positions of authority and high status.
I do feel, like Lisa, that the message "rapists are cowards" can help survivors and potential victims re-frame their understanding of attackers' power. But it's probably not going to be successful at reducing rape. Because the ideal of gentlemanly behavior has been around for centuries, and rape still hasn't gone away.