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Rape - a crime enabled by politeness
Ultimately, most sexual coercion builds on subtle force.
I just read Samantha Geimer's book The Girl - A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski (2013). That book made me do what I have wanted to do for a long time: Write a post about why preventing rape is so difficult and how it could be done better.
Geimer's book is not so much about what actually happened between 43 year old Roman and 13 year old Samantha that evening in 1977. It is much more about the flawed legal process that provoked Roman Polanski to flee the United States and about Samantha's life in general. Geimer also strongly makes a case for the rights of rape victims to be something more than rape victims. She is one of the more important voices in what could be an upcoming movement for the right of rape victims to feel the way they actually feel and not the way society would prefer them to feel.
There is a lot more to say about the Polanski/Geimer case than the crime in itself. But I find the course of the crime in itself very interesting too. Not because it is an unusual case involving a celebrity, but because it appears so ordinary. If the Roman/Samantha case hadn't involved a celebrity, it would have been a case as common as any.
An evening in 1977
Samantha's account of the evening goes as follows: 13-year old Samantha followed Roman Polanski alone to actor Jack Nicholson's house in order to take a series of photos for European Vogue. Samantha's mother had arranged the contact. Samantha's mother was herself an aspiring actress and she urged her daughters to work hard to make it in acting and modeling. When Roman Polanski said he searched for a girl for an article in European Vogue, Samantha's mother knew this was an opportunity to take seriously. It could be a break-through for her daughter.
Polanski urged Samantha's mother not to accompany them, because that could make Samantha less relaxed in the photos, he said. The first time Samantha followed Roman alone, things went fine, except for the fact that he demanded that Samantha take off her shirt (and expose her undeveloped breasts). The second time, Roman drove to Jack Nicholson's house and took some photos of Samantha. He gave her champagne and asked her to drink while she was being photographed. He filled and refilled her glass and told her she should try a pill called Quaalude. Samantha said no thanks and lied that she had already tried that pill, so she could claim she didn't like it. Roman wasn't impressed by her resistance and insisted she should take it. She did, and immediately got terrified that she would end up in a coma like some girl she had heard about who had combined alcohol and pills.
Roman then told her to undress and get into a jacuzzi. No panties allowed. Samantha thought there might be a reason - maybe her rust colored panties would be visible in the photo. So she took everything off and went into the jacuzzi.
While she was in the jacuzzi, Roman told her he was getting in. That wasn't part of the deal, she thought.
"He’s getting in? I’m fine with taking off my top, I’m fine that he doesn’t care about anything I have to say, and the way he acts all indifferent to me, and I can even deal with spending all this time with him because everyone tells me he’s a great artist. But . . . this? No. He is a forty-three-year-old man with wet lips. He doesn’t even like me."
She avoided looking at him when he dressed off and stepped in. He ordered her to get to his part of the jacuzzi and pulled her by the waist so she would feel bubbles from the bottom of the jacuzzi between her legs.
" Does it feel good?", Roman asked.
Samantha didn't think it felt good in any way. But she politely answered
She didn't tell him what she really felt about him. She didn't tell him not to touch her. Instead she said:
"I can’t breathe in here. I have asthma."
She tried to back away, but he was holding her firmly. When he saw she obviously wasn't happy, he suggested she should go into the pool to cool down. She really didn't feel like it. But he insisted, so she dove in, swam to the other side, grabbed her towel and went to the bathroom and took on the panties she had left there.
"He follows me. “How is your asthma?” he asks gently.
His voice is soft, wheedling.
“I need to go home and take my medicine,” I say.
I’m really glad he doesn’t ask me what the medication is for asthma, because I have no clue what it is and then I’ll be in trouble. He says offhandedly, “Yeah, I’ll take you home soon.”
Then he tells me to go into the other room and lie down.
“No, I have to go home,” I say, but he takes me by the shoulders and walks me to the bedroom, and sits me on a large red velvet couch. He asks if I’m okay.
“No, I am not okay,” I say. “I better go home now.”
He assures me I’ll get better. He holds my arms at my sides and kisses me, and I say, “No, come on,” but between the pill and the champagne it’s like my own voice is very far away. He’s kissing my face and feeling my breasts and he asks me again if I like it, does it feel good. I say nothing, but he’s a guy who makes movies, so I imagine he’s filling in the dialogue for himself. You’re making me do this and now you want me to tell you I like it, too? It’s not like you’re going to talk me into liking this.
Then he goes down on me. I know what this is, of course, because I’ve read about it, but have never actually had someone do it to me. He asks if it feels good, which it does—and that, in itself, is awful. I don’t want this, my mind recoils, but my body is betraying me.
And that’s when I check out. I go far, far away. There is a sense of complete and utter emptiness. Oh, just my body. I’m not really in here. Okay. I see.
He keeps murmuring something, and he is trying to make it nice for me, I know, but it is not nice and everything is blurring and I feel dizzy and the room is so dark. But I don’t fight. Why fight? All he wants to do is have an orgasm, this little spasm that makes the world go ’round. I made the decision to just let him do it, how bad can it be, it’s just sex. He doesn’t want to hurt me. He just wants to do it. And that will be that. It’s not like I am a real person to him, or for that matter that he is real to me. We are both playing our parts."
Afterwards, when Roman finally agreed to drive her home, Samantha did her best to seem calm. Roman asked if she was okay and she assured him that she was. During the car ride, he asked her to keep what happened secret. Samantha rushed into the house, still heavily drugged, ran up to her mother and asked her to lie to Roman that she had asthma. Then she rushed into her room.
Roman sat down at the kitchen table with Samantha's mother, stepfather and older sister. He showed them his pictures of Samantha and they instantly got suspicious. Being in showbusiness themselves, they knew what good photos looked like. And Roman's photos were not good photos. The light was insufficient, he caught his model at the wrong moment. And then he showed them the topless pictures.
The family understood that Roman Polanski was someone else than they had assumed. So they questioned Samantha about what had happened. When Samantha's mother understood her daughter had been raped, she called her accountant, who told her to call the police.
When Samantha was first interviewed by the police, she was still on sedatives. That made her more truthful than she would have preferred to be. She writes that had she been sober, she could have spared herself from being known in all of America for having been sodomized.
A typical evening
Samantha Geimer is careful to point out that what Roman Polanski did against her is far from the worst thing that happens to people. I think she is right. Most men have the sense to stay away from young teenagers. But I think the kind of coercion to which Roman subjected Samantha is very typical. It was so subtle that Roman seems to have persuaded himself that he and Samantha "made love" that evening.
I think that kind of subtle coercion lies behind most rape statistics. Estimates how many women get raped during a lifetime vary, but figures like a fifth or a sixth are commonly mentioned.How is that figure possible? It is not like a fifth of all women are seriously injured from being raped in their youth. I think the reason why rape can be so common, without it being very noticeable, is that the vast majority of cases build on subtle coercion, like in the Roman/Samantha case. No injuries to show. Not even a story about fighting and yelling to tell. Just a story about not being listened to.
The frequency of subtle sexual coercion has probably increased since the sexual revolution. Before the sexual revolution, women officially held more responsibility to protect themselves from rape. More resistance was required from the victim for rape to be considered a crime. Good girls were supposed to keep away from situations where rape occurs easily. Bad girls were on their own.
Before the sexual revolution, the same mechanisms were supposed to protect against rape and against inappropriate seduction: A certain measure of gender segregation. People weren't supposed to be alone together until they knew each other well. Sexual coercion certainly happened. But protecting oneself against it through keeping away from the most perilous situations was very much socially accepted. It was the opposite that was frowned upon.
The sexual revolution changed that. If people were supposed to seduce each other spontaneously, gender segregation was not an option. When the sexes were allowed to mix more freely, people got new opportunities to socialize. But it also took away a protection mechanism against sexual coercion: The imperative for women to avoid being alone with unknown men.
From being advised not to trust men, women were taught the opposite. Society tried to compensate for the resulting risks in two ways:
Requiring more self control from men. Previously, men were required not to use serious threats or brute force to have sex with women. Step by step, norms and laws against more and more subtle forms of coercion evolved.
Women were urged to stand up for themselves and just say no to unwanted sex.
I think both measures failed. Not totally: Many more men today than sixty years ago have internalized the message that a drunk, scared or insecure woman doesn't equal cheap sex. But I think those measures are far from enough. And I think the Roman/Samantha case can illustrate why. Samantha was a minor and thereby a less usual rape victim. But Roman Polanski appears to be a very typical rapist: Selfish and opportunistic but not sadistic.
The politeness trap
In the months and years after the evening with Roman Polanski, Samantha asked herself why she couldn't resist him better. Why didn't she protest more vigorously? Why didn't she freak out?
I didn't ask the same question when I read her account of the events. I thought the way she reacted made a lot of sense. Sure, she could have reacted differently. But freaking out carries its risks too. There is a reason why people tend to behave calmly and politely in the presence of people they don't know: Because if you cease to be calm and polite, the other person might follow your example. That is not a good thing. Especially if the other person has the physical power to kill you instantly with his bare hands, would he get the impulse.
One of those who has described this the best is psychologist David Buss. In his 2021 book When Men Behave Badly, he describes an important dilemma women face: On the one hand, they want to choose their partners. On the other hand, men tend to impose costs on women who reject them. It can be the friend who ceases to be a friend, the boss who will block all promotions or the stalker who blocks all other dating options with his creepy presence. For that reason, women tend not to detect unwanted sexual interest as long as it is not completely obvious. While men have a tendency to see sexual interest where there is none, women have a tendency not to notice existing sexual interest from the side of men. That is one strategy not to make enemies: You don't need to rebuff suggestions you don't notice.
When a man's unwanted sexual interest becomes too obvious to ignore, women tend to reject it so politely that it borders on ambiguity. In order to avoid causing anger or resentment, they invent excuses like I have a boyfriend or Sorry, I'm busy that weekend when they actually mean no thanks. That way, young women both try to uphold their power of choice while keeping costs of rejection down as much as possible.
Resistance is risky
I have to admit that I am impressed by that observation from David Buss. He is a middle-aged man himself and still he describes one of the most important dilemmas of being young and female better than I have seen it described anywhere else.
I'm less impressed by David Buss' explanation of how women behave in situations of physical sexual coercion. There Buss gives the standard answer: When women get scared by a rapist, they often go into a state of tonic immobility, like a scared animal.
I think that instead of buying the standard explanation for why most women don't vigorously resist rapists, Buss should have extended his own theory of cost-minimization into the bedroom. When men ask for a date, women try to lower potential costs from rejecting those men through being careful and polite. When men show interest in immediate sexual access, women do exactly the same thing: They try to lower the cost of rejecting those men.
The potential costs of angering a man who asks for a date and a man who wants sex now are both similar and different. In both cases, there are potential social costs. He might feel offended by being rejected and spread malice to common acquaintances. He might be a superior who can reduce professional opportunities, like in the Roman/Samantha case. In both situations, a rejection might cause the proposing part to become violent. But most of all, the threat of violence is a problem when immediate sexual access is the issue. Because such requests tend to be made when a man and a woman are alone together.
The ambiguity of politeness
In general, people want to keep situations with people they don't know polite. Politeness is a technique to keep a situation at arms length from being violent or even openly hostile. Everyone most often benefits from keeping situations peaceful.
But there is one group of people who benefits more than any from keeping relations on the polite side: Women who are alone with men they don't know well. If politeness would give way to violence, those women know that they will inevitably be the losers. That way, in one-on-one situations with women who are not well-known, men hold a very important strategic advantage: The woman has stronger incentives to work for a civilized solution to any disagreement than the man.
The core feature of politeness is ambiguity. Polite people say "I just had lunch" instead of "your cookies are stale and disgusting". That way, the person offering cookies can just guess whether they were insulted or not and are thereby blocked from retaliating an insult. Polite women say "I have to go home" instead of "No way I'm having sex with you" for exactly the same reason. If she claims she needs to go home, the man offering sexual contact can't claim to be completely sure he was rejected. Maybe she actually had to go home and will happily return to have sex tomorrow. No insult or even complete rejection has been uttered.
Through being politely ambiguous this way, women reflexively try to keep costs down. It often works. Every day, countless women politely talk themselves out of sexual initiatives they don't want. Men who don't get the women's first polite protest often get their second or third. Many times, being polite is a great way to avoid unwanted sex at a low cost in terms of damage to social relationships and physical injury.
The problem is that a few men aren't susceptible to polite protests. They do like Roman Polanski in Samantha's account and use the ambiguity in polite rebuffs for their own selfish purposes. They can choose to respond "No, I don't think you have to go home, you can stay some more (until I have got off)". Women in that situation face a choice
Become impolite and say: You got me wrong. I want to get out of here right now.
Search for other polite excuses that have better effect.
This is an immensely difficult choice. Point 2 is low-risk and very often works. Many men who don't believe in the first or second polite rebuff will get it when he gets the third. Impolite clearness is more likely to be effective, but also risks escalating the situation. Most men are not prepared to use physical force to get sex. Also most selfish men who are prepared to ignore polite verbal protests will stop before using brute force. The problem is that you never know who is who.
Killer rapists are rare. But encountering one is certainly… costly. There are also many degrees between getting raped very gently and getting killed. Although few rape victims get killed, many sustain physical injuries. Who wants a physical injury to remind them of that particularly unpleasant night every day for years to come? Even if the risk of getting killed by a sexual aggressor is less than the risk of getting killed by a robber, the risk of getting injured in a place you don't prefer to have injured is definitely real.
In her book Three Women, writer Lisa Taddeo tells the story about a teenager who thought she was invited to a party. In fact, she was invited to a house with four teenage boys. One left her there and went away. Another said "Oh no this is Abby’s little sister, I can’t do this." The other two raped her.
She didn't resist them, she explains. She didn't even want to say no to them, because she didn't want to give them any reason not to like her.
I definitely understand her. If you were at the mercy of three people stronger than you. What feelings would you like to induce in them? Would you like to annoy them? To anger them? No, probably not. You would want them to like you as much as possible, so they treat you as gently as possible.
For victims of robbery, no one thinks that such servile behavior is anything strange. People normally prefer to part from their belongings without telling the robbers what they are really thinking. The predominantly male victims of robbery are very seldom castigated for that. Curiously, female victims of rape are not infrequently asked to be more courageous than male victims of robbery. Not because people appreciate courage in itself in females, but because provocative clearness is the only way for a rape victim to unambiguously state that she is being raped.
Politeness for the sake of politeness
Violence is the ultimate risk of being impolite. Still, I don't think that most victims of sexual coercion have violence directly on their minds. Samantha Geimer doesn't claim that she ever believed that Roman Polanski intended to hurt her. Actually, she claims the total opposite - that when Roman had ignored her protests long enough, she thought she could let Roman have sex with her because he wasn't going to hurt her.
Rather, we learn something already when we are very young: Be polite, or you are putting yourself at risk. Emotional risk, social risk, physical risk; risk plain and simple. Children are taught that saying what you think is bad if it makes someone else feel bad.
This applied system spares humans countless unnecessary conflicts. But it also creates the opportunity for fraud. People are so socialized to make other people feel okay that doing the opposite is actually difficult. From a young age, we have learned that upsetting people is wrong. When someone is upsetting oneself, that is a first obstacle to overcome. One has to think: This is so objectively upsetting that I am right to break the rule that upsetting people is wrong.
Samantha never came to that point. Even after Roman had raped her and she was genuinely upset, she was careful to keep him happy. She cried and hid it from him. When he asked, she said she was okay. Why did she make such efforts to keep him comfortable? Probably because she had been raised to keep people comfortable whenever possible. Like all normal people have.
I think countless rape victims act like Samantha did. They just don't get to that point when they find reason enough to break the general politeness rule quickly enough. They don't get to that point until they are alone again and get time to think. While socializing, the ingrained rule is: Never upset people. A few people are using that rule for their own ends, in very upsetting ways.
A few men are actually using violence or open threats of violence to get sex. That is a stupid thing to do. The smart way to do it is to misuse social rules that are both so strong that they make people meek and docile and so little spoken of that you can cast doubt over who was actually doing anything wrong. Wasn't it actually she who wronged him through being polite when she should have been clear?
The misunderstanding game
In one-on-one situations between strangers, women's incentives to be polite are higher than men's incentives to be polite. That has two implications.
Selfish men can use that imbalance of power to serve their own interests, often while refusing to realize what they are doing.
Clueless men can fail to realize that in a given situation, women feel less free to be frank than they do themselves. That way, the men honestly fail to understand their partner's signs of distress.
For an outside observer, type 1 is next to impossible to distinguish from point 2. If society doesn't want to punish both types, and quite a few men who are just victims of lies and false memories too, it will just never get that first type.
Type 1 men can always describe themselves as type 2. More than that, they can unconsciously make themselves into type 2. I think that was what Roman Polanski did. At the very moment he raped a 13 year old, he seems to have managed to both ignore her interests and tell himself that he acted in her interest. Human ability for self-deception is well-known. Sexual matters are no exception.
Therefore, I think our society's much talked about ambition to end sexual coercion with legal force is hopeless. It just won't happen. Those who want to reduce the risks of sexual coercion and improve relations between the sexes need to look elsewhere.
Concessions to the casual
Sexual coercion is an immediate conflict between males and females. Indirectly, it is also a conflict between females and females. If our society had norms that required people to negotiate soberly before having sex, the number of rapes would be significantly reduced. If sex was always preceded by crystal clear verbal communication between sober people in an environment where males don't have the upper hand, it would have been much more difficult for men to "misunderstand" expressions of non-consent.
There is a reason why our society doesn't have such norms: Because many men like to spontaneously seduce women and many women like to be spontaneously seduced by men. Norms that would increase the safety and freedom of most women on the dating market aren't implemented because a certain share of women would lose out from them.
It is not like the women with the very greatest appetite for adventure and risk are getting their way. I'm sure there are women who would appreciate it if the right man physically forced them into sexual activity. There are women who like to play such games under organized forms, so it is very likely that some women also like it to happen spontaneously. But the consensus is that letting those women have their way would be too risky to others. For that reason, laws and social rules force women who like to be ravaged to agree with men in advance over the rules (and for example attend Aella's rape play sessions). Having to agree on such games in advance certainly makes it less sexy for some. But that is considered a price worth paying for women's safety.
A better compromise is possible
In the compromise between different women, the most reckless have to give some and the most cautious have to give some. It might sound like a well-balanced compromise. Still, I think proportions are uneven. The compromise is not between the most reckless third and the most cautious third. It is between a reckless few percent and, I suspect, a cautious majority or at least big minority.
I don't want to ban people who like to have casual sex from doing so. If the thrill is worth the risks for them, that is fine by me. But I think there should be a way to opt out from a system that is perfectly designed for them and awkwardly designed for the rest.
One thing I find strange is all the ridicule that surrounds the idea that people should talk it through a bit before they have sex with each other the first time. People make comment after comment on the outrageousness of consent apps and rituals to collect proof of consent.
In the light of history and anthropology, the idea that sex should be entirely up to spontaneous feelings is an extreme opinion. Most societies and all civilizations have not only asked their citizens to talk it through before they have sex. They also required a majority of its citizens to get the approval of people around them before they had sex, so called marriage.
I think that in today's society with today's technologies for birth control, that is an exaggeration. But I also think it is an exaggeration to claim that sex is so uncomplicated and risk-free that it is a good idea to improvise it late at night with a high blood alcohol level with a person you just met. Sex is no longer so dramatic that it requires the approval of an entire community. But it is also not so undramatic that it can be left entirely to spontaneous emotions.
The question is: Is there any way that people who hold this opinion can signal it? How much easier wouldn't it be if those of us who actually don't want to be seduced could just signal it visually. If there were a serious opt-out alternative from the culture of spontaneous seduction, people wouldn't need to compromise as brutally. Every interest group could have their way, without sacrificing much for each other.
White knights, unite!
Younger women could improve their safety though negotiating better among themselves and direct the men looking for casual sex to those who actually want them. But what can men do to increase women's safety against sexual coercion?
Currently, the standard recipe is to be a good guy who is very attentive to the emotional state of every possible sexual partner. Plus to speak in the harshest of terms of those who don't. I think that low-hanging fruit has already been picked by now. Those men who want to be good guys are already good guys. The good guy recipe has been out for ages. Those who are not good guys by now, are not because they don't want to or are unable to. It doesn't matter how harshly the good guys speak about them. That will not make them improve much.
Instead, I think the good guys should start to lead by example. Yes, they are very attentive and never coerce anybody into anything.
Good guys respect women. For that reason, many of them think that it is entirely fine for them to go to a bar for a first date, to go home with an unknown woman or to go for a lovely walk in nature. And yes, that will be fine with a good guy. But what if the same woman's next date is a bad guy? Then the good guy has actually done something bad: He has contributed to establishing a norm that women should follow men to obscure places, because usually it is just a nice thing to do. Such norms make women accompany men, both good ones and bad ones, to places where they are vulnerable.
Instead, I think good guys should make life difficult for bad guys by behaving differently. If good guys set an example and always arrange a first and second and third date in a neutral place like a coffee shop, it will be easier for women to think twice before accompanying unknown men into places where men have the upper hand.
And yes, it will be impossible for good guys to have casual sex. Casual sex is risky in itself and I'm afraid little can be done that hasn't already been done to improve safety there. But how many people have casual sex with any frequency? I hear persistent rumors that many young people, especially young men, have no sex at all. People who do not have casual sex deserve to have a culture of their own instead of just acting as bleak copies of the pick-up artists and their female counterparts.
All men, maybe especially good guys, like it when women show them confidence. No one wants to be treated as a potential rapist. That way, I think men give women who take risks advantages in the female-female competition. Men, also the good guys, favor the women who put themselves at risk of sexual coercion. That preference creates a pressure on women to take more risks than they would ideally prefer to.
I think that is what all men who consider themselves good guys should do: Stop rewarding the most risk-taking behavior. Giving women positive feedback when they trust you is a way to teach them that in the dating game, taking risks pays off. While it might feel good in the moment it is a sure way of exposing women in general to more risk than is advisable.
Some people say we have a rape culture. I would rather say that we have a seduction culture. A culture where people are expected to always be ready for seduction and need to opt out if they are not. This opens for unintentional and intentional misunderstandings of people's signs of opting out. The price of reducing this risk of sexual coercion further is to rein in the seduction culture. For people who don't actively participate in that culture anyway, it should be a price worth paying.
Samantha Geimer, The Girl - A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, 2013, chapter 4, 16 percent
Samantha Geimer, The Girl - A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, 2013, chapter 4, 20 percent
Samantha Geimer, The Girl - A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, 2013, chapter 6, 32 percent
David Buss, When Men Behave Badly, 2021, Chapter 7, 53 percent
David Buss, When Men Behave Badly, 2021, 74 percent
Lisa Taddeo, Three Women, 2019, 13 percent