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
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
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 of pleasure.
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 subordination.
Robert Jensen 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.