Jim Hines has a discussion about the "outsider problem" when it comes to those who rape or batter others. This was provoked by a news article about a fifteen-year-old who was sexually assaulted in front of strangers who did nothing (pace Kitty Genovese).
Jim's assessment goes like this: It is a mistake to think the people who commit such things are clearly not like us — that "we" are all the way over here and they are all the way over there, and that we're normal and they're not. Rather, it makes sense to look at a spectrum of possibility — that there is a slope of behaviors, a valley of committing rape and abuse into which some people tumble.
I am not sure I believe this, and I'll try to explain why. I think the issue is far more complex than even a question of behavior spectra.
Readers of this blog know that from time to time I mention Richard Rhodes's Why They Kill, a survey of the life and work of criminologist Lonnie Athens (reviewed here). What Athens found over the course of decades of work was that most people who commit violent acts — like murder, or rape — do not simply "snap" one day and do it; they are sociologized into it. There is a process of conditioning for such people, and that while circumstances can make it easier to do so, a person has to go through each step of the process for the whole thing to be complete.
When the process is finished, they have been installed with an image of themselves as a violent person — as someone who acts violently, who responds to things with violence, and who feels no contradiction in doing so. Who does not think twice about smashing a beer bottle over someone's head when they look at him funny. Or in assaulting a woman when she says no. Or any number of other things that those of us who have not been through that process would find incomprehensible as a response.
So what is it that separates a rapist — and an unrepentant, gloating one at that — from a non-rapist? The process — the fact that they have been "educated" in a certain way, that they have been schooled ruthlessly in the process of "violentization" (as Athens calls it). Most of us have not had this done to us; ergo, we see rape as abhorrent.
Now I want to take this a step further and look outside of Athens's formula, but still use it for the sake of perspective. One of the things Jim and the commentors on his post talk about is the fact that there are plenty of people who can point to someone who has committed a sexual assault without having a history of violence per se, but who work themselves up to committing something like that. They may not be puppy-killers, so to speak, but they're still able to work their way up the ladder to stalk, harass, intimidate, and eventually attack a woman.
Here is one possible explanation for that: such a person has managed to complete a couple of the steps of the violentization cycle on their own, often without a "coach" (Athens's term for a senior figure who initiates the neophyte into violent behavior). They haven't become "full-blown", but they've managed to restructure enough of their definition of themselves to see themselves as someone who can attack a woman — this woman, maybe, if not any woman. I'd be willing to bet such people are not fated to become monsters; they'd need help to undo the damage, of course, but my point is that such people might well still be prone to feelings of remorse and guilt and could be kept from repeating the same violations.
The other question as to why perfect strangers could look on helplessly why someone is violated in front of them is more difficult. I have been on the fringes of such situations in the past, and I can at least put my own feelings on the table. And again, they relate to Athens and his concept of the violentized man.
The violentized man knows how to intimidate. It's not a convenience for him; it's a survival strategy. Being able to intimidate those who are not violentized is a survival trait. You learn it or you die. Small wonder that one man who has that look of total bloodthirst in his eye can make a whole roomful of people back off. (Remember Denzel Washington's character from Training Day?)
I've been just close enough to this to never want to see it again. You sit there, a few scant feet away from someone who has just demonstrated he could probably end your life if he cared to, and you feel your soul drain out the bottoms of your feet. In moments like that, logic and reason do not exist. It doesn't matter how many there are of "you"; all that matters is that there's one of him. And so you back up. You look away, you turn sidelong, you leave the powerless to their fate because the only thing left inside you is the certainty that you do not want to end up like them.