Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

What Justifies a Rape-Threat Tweet?

A female online writer shares some powerful stories of sexual threats.

The answer, of course, is that, morally speaking, nothing justifies a “rape-threat” tweet. Such an act is an obvious affront to basic moral sensibilities, and thus anyone who has a genuine sense of themselves as an honorable individual who promotes the dignity, well-being and integrity of others would never even consider acting in such a way.

And yet, despite this, according to a recent and powerfully moving article by Amanda Hess, titled Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, she and many other female internet writers—especially those that focus on provocative content—have experienced threats of being raped and killed that are “are too numerous to recount”. And, according to Hess, the instruction to prominent women on the internet is to “ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day”. (See here and here from some additional opinions about this article).

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

To give you a flavor of what she has endured, she detailed a particularly heinous experience with a tweet “stalker” going by the username “headlessfemalepig”. She recounted the morning he sent her seven tweets as follows:

I got out of bed and opened my lap top. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

This act occurred despite it being so morally repugnant. Of course, lots of acts occur despite being morally repugnant. Why? Let’s take a minute to consider elements and forces that are involved at the human psychological and sociological levels of analysis to better understand where this behavior might come from and what will influence its frequency. By broad forces, I mean those variables that potentially provide the context for the unique elements that went into this particular act. If we are going to develop the best pathway forward on curbing this morally objectionable behavior, we need to understand the forces that legitimize them. Thus, there are two meanings of the word “justify” in the title. One is the moral meaning of the word, and in that sense there is no justification. On the other hand, there are forces that are “legitimizing” these acts in the sense of allowing them to happen. Those are the forces that I attempt to outline here. 

Because this act was a “tweet”, we can be sure that it must have been mediated via the perpetrator's justification system. By that I mean he must have been explicitly self-conscious of what he was doing, and thus at some level, he “justified” it. What are the psychological processes that would enable us to understand how anyone could justify such a thing? Of course, without knowing anything about the individual and specific situation, there are almost an infinite number of possibilities. Nonetheless, there are general classes of key variables that should be considered if we were to start to develop a framework for making sense of this behavior:

1. Power. The drive for power, defined as gaining social influence via dominance and control over others, is a basic human psychological force. It is, of course, not the only psycological force, and people differ on the extent to which they are defined by their needs for power. Nonetheless, at a fundamental level, these tweets are an act of power. That is, the core reinforcement sought was the image or experience of domination over Ms. Hess. The tweeter wants her to be fearful, and feel humiliated and diminished; in contrast to him, who would be, at least in that context, strong and in control.

2. Insecurities and core fears of powerlessness. Given what the perpetrator writes about feeling emasculated about her perspective and authority, in addition to the basic elements of the act (an immoral act of cowardice), we can hypothesize that he likely had deep-seated insecurities about his power and perhaps has a profound sense of powerlessness. This would provide an explanation as to why this need for power is so strong: the image of power becomes a fantasy that is reinforcing because it counter-balances a core fear or experience of powerlessness.

3. Evolved architectures and male-female archetypes. Although evolutionary explanations are rightly fraught with socio-political complexities, speaking with broad strokes, it seems highly likely that rape, sex and power are “archetypal” in the sense that humans have deep-seated, primal templates associated with them. By that I mean that, from an academic standpoint, basic familiarity with parental investment theory is crucial for a “distal” explanatory frame for why some males will have templates for competing for and attempting to control the female sex that can be probabilistically activated by particular experiences and contexts.

4. The fusion of sex and power. It is not accidental that Freud found so much sex and aggression when he looked for the forces that underlie our consciousness. And, because themes of sex, aggression and power are deeply-embedded in our psychological architecture and have complicated, confusing relationships with social norms (i.e., there are many taboos surrounding them), it is not uncommon for sex and power dynamics to become “fused” in certain individuals, depending on their own experiences and pre-dispositions. The testament to the close, primal association of sex and power is seen the rise of BDSM. (For the record, I am not making any connection of the safe, consensual practice of BDSM to the current case! See here for a PT article on this topic). As a clinician, I would wonder about this perpetrator’s key life experiences and what might have happened such that sex, power, and the humiliation of the other became fused for him.

5. Psychopathy. This refers to individuals who essentially have no “moral sense”. That is, whereas most individuals naturally empathize with others’ suffering and, all things being equal, are deeply motivated to alleviate it, psychopaths (or sociopaths) have no such feelings. Although many psychopaths behave "morally", they do so simply to avoid problematic social consequences. The potential lack of social consequences (which, in this case the technology provides, see below) provides an opportune context for these kinds of actions, which the psychopath would essentially be experienced as kind of game. If he were a true psychopath, his internal justification system would have simply been that he was doing this because it was fun to feel the power and imagine Ms. Hess’ distress.

6. Psychological Defense Mechanisms. It is quite possible, however, that the perpetrator felt conflicted about sending those tweets, and that there was a part of him that knew it was wrong, felt guilty for the impact, and knew that he was a less admirable person for doing it. Psychological defense mechanisms are the tools and processes by which people justify doing things that a part of them knows to be bad. He might rationalize it in terms of retaliation, seeing Ms. Hess’ writings as a threat to his power. (A basic human justification for harming others is that they harm us first). He might also consider the act as a joke, saying to himself he would, of course, never actually do this. This form of rationalizing is called minimizing. Or he might “compartmentalize”, which means that he would not think about doing the act except only under certain circumstances, perhaps when he was alone drinking. Many people have different “parts” of themselves, such that one part of one’s self-consciousness system would justify an act that another part would not. The bottom line is that although he might recognize the act as morally unjustifiable and was unbecoming of him as a moral human, but he could engage in lots of different kinds of mental gymnastics that allowed him to do it anyway.

In contrast to the human psychological level which examines why a person or small group of people behave the way they do, the sociological level refers to the complicated societal system in which human acts occur; this includes the traditions, laws, policies, worldviews, social roles, historical contexts, and technology. Although individual behavior cannot be “reduced” to the social context, it is also the case that individual behavior emerges in and is framed by the context, and thus a genuine understanding of individual human behavior requires analysis of the social context. To me, the prominent elements of the societal context are in this case are:

1. Technology. One of the most salient aspects of this particular story is, of course, technology. Indeed, technology is changing society so fast that new opportunities and contexts for behavior are emerging faster than there are norms and rules to regulate them. Thus, there is much potential ambiguity in acts in novel contexts and we are witnessing society attempting to provide a narrative of meaning for these acts when we ask questions, such as: How truly harmful are they? Should they be ignored? Should they be prosecuted with the full force of the law? Because technology is opening up such new fronts of communication, there are many unanswered questions about the context of many such behaviors that technology now affords.

2. Legality and the competing values of freedom and order. If we lived in a totalitarian society, as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, the frequency of acts like these tweets would be potentially greatly reduced, presuming the societal dictators deemed them undesirable. Of course, that is a nightmare unto itself and thankfully we are part of a society that recognizes the value of the freedom of the individual, realized in terms of speech, religion and so forth. And yet, when does one person's freedom to behave impinge upon another’s rights to be free of coercion or freedom to live happy? These, of course are, perennial issues that societies must always confront. Ms. Hess does a nice job in her article articulating some of the tensions here. Of course, our society tends toward freedoms relative to many others. 

3. Patriarchy.  Society is organized by its large-scale justification systems, which are the complicated networks of language-based beliefs and values that coordinate people and legitimize action. Not surprisingly, and consistent with basic human psychological processes, the tone and tenor of large-scale justification systems is disproportionately shaped by those in power. That is, the interests, values and assumptions of those in power are motivated, consciously and subconsciously, to shape the broader narrative in a way that legitimizes their place and value in society. And, of course, historically, those in power in modern society have been men. Although there has been a huge shift away from a traditional patriarchy, it nevertheless remains the case that voice of power in our society tends to be masculine and that has huge implications for these kinds of issues.

4. Changing Roles and Sexual Norms. Although we remain a somewhat patriarchal society, it is also the case that the power base has become much more egalitarian over the past five decades. The gendered roles of our society have morphed greatly, and in many, many contexts woman have the power they deserve. For example, women now dominate in numbers in psychology. There has also been a massive shift in sexual norms, which has now combined with technology in a way that is morphing our sexual lives in a huge and unprecedented way. Consider for example, that Ms. Hess writes a blog/has a homepage entitled: Sex with Amanda Hess. These changing norms thankfully open up many possibilities on the one hand, but also with those possibilities come opportunities for associations to "dark side" behavior like the perpetrator. In addition, the shift in power dynamics is bound to create a deep seated threat to many, especially those fundamentally insecure (see above in psychological dynamics).

5. Lack of Moral Clarity. An examination of violent crime rates point to a decreasing trend over the last 20 years or so, after a peak in the early 1990s. At the same time, there is much indication that while individuals are committing less violent crime than a generation ago, there is also much confusion about morals, values and life purpose. Indeed, I often wonder if we are living in a time of relative “amorality”. That is, it is not that folks are behaving badly, but they really don’t have a strong sense of their moral compass that guides them in what actions are ok and what are not.  

As I hope is apparent, I was deeply moved by and concerned about the stories Ms. Hess bravely shared. That said, sex crimes and sexual harrassment, especially in the context of the internet, is not an area in which I have studied in depth and am certainly not an expert in it. I welcome thoughts from other readers about what are the causes underlying this phenomena and what we as a society need to do about it.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

more...

Subscribe to Theory of Knowledge

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?