Wednesday, March 18, 2009

No Person is "Born to Rape"

Turning to global news...

Some of you may remember that horrendous story of the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter in a windowless cell in his basement and repeatedly raped her for 24 years and fathered seven children with her.

There are some details of this story that are just too inhuman to comprehend. I find myself going back and reading over the words, seeing if the magnitude of this woman's brokenness can every truly be recognized.

I came to an answer of No.

A psychiatrist who reviewed the psychological state of this man said, "Fritzl is guilty for what he did," and adds that Fritzl himself said he was "born to rape."

Fritzl was diagnosed with a severe personality disorder and has a "deep need to control people," and while my background is in mental health and wholeheartedly agree that those who struggle with clinical personality disorders are the most difficult and often despairing clients to work with, the statement "born to rape," raises a million white flags for me. It should raise a million white flags for anyone who works in psychology or mental health because these kinds of statements throw blankets and generalizations around mental illness and rape culture.

There are so many levels of sexual assault and I'm not exploring all the different kinds and angles of rape that exist. They're all rape. This woman's situation has a rare, animalistic cruelty to it and it's clear on so many levels that mental instability played a part of this man's behavior. It is my belief that rape is the utter denial of another person's humanity. It fails to recognize the full capacity of another human being. How else can you explain violating a person's body, their sexuality, their choice, sacred expression? How else can someone rape if it does not include blinding themselves to the fullness, wholeness of the person they are raping? Rape is the utter denial of a woman's livelihood, as a complete and total living person. To do that, to commit rape, one must have some level of mental distortion.

Mental illness clearly plays role in this specific case, but our rape culture's role is never a headliner. The reflective questions that blast canons at ourselves - those actively who create and participate in this culture - are rarely focal points. Rape culture loves to scare us with extra dark nightmares and put fancy clinical sounding labels to explain violent behaviors. It's the same falsity that convinces us that we're safe enough when crazies like Fritzl are in jail and not bother to consistently teach our sons and daughters about the real and usual face of rape.

It is our culture, our rape culture, deems Fritzl a nutcase but college age and educated men who repeatedly rape women on weekends are an entirely different thing. It is our western rape culture that flaps the trafficking young girls and women as a phenomenon happening "elsewhere," and the stench of violence smells most rancid in cases like Fritzl. It is our rape culture that likes to draw deep lines in the sand that says men who rape their daughters for decades are sick. Men who rape strangers are deranged. Men who rape their friends and girlfriends are disturbed. But the actual dissection of these things of what makes rape acceptable - our rape culture - is never on trial.

When you study mental health, one quickly learns that mental wellness is a continuum. Everyone, to some extent, can be plotted on the graph with anxiety, paranoia, phobias, chronic thoughts, memories, bad habits, reoccurring dreams, depression, psychosomatic pains, bereavement, flat affect...etc. Clearly some suffering is much more severe (e.g. depression versus clinical depression) than others, but don't be fooled. Or scared. We're all mentally well and unwell in some capacity at some times in our lives. The danger of discussing rape and mental illness is that mental illness quickly becomes the focus (and the crutch) for those wanting to understand "how something like this is possible."

But only extreme cases like Fritzl, with a clear personality disorder diagnosis, are "born to rape." These other men who perform acts of brutality are .... what? Not born to rape? Even with the most severe of mental disorders, no person knows how to rape another human. People may be born with a predisposition toward any number of things, but not all people decide and choose to rape. So, how does rape culture affect men differently? Is it really because of mental illness? Is it that men learn to rape and are more prone to these acts if they're mentally sick? Is it all dependent upon external environmental factors? It paints a picture that the grain of crazy was inside this man and, due to family dynamics and brain anatomy, carried out the worst evils inside him.

The methods of how rape is carried out may not be identical, but the need is similar: desire for control and power. How that control is taken - by cell, alcohol, drugs, threat, or abuse - varies, but rape culture sends a clear message to those mentally well and unwell that control can be taken. Power can be taken. With the right resources, idea, and environment, women can be raped. This is the message. This is what is accepted. We, as a society, raise all kinds of dirty hell and voices when we're confronted with the aftermath of these messages, but when it's time to take the stand, we throw mental illness up there for interrogation, blame, and relief, instead of rape culture which plays the largest role in all the violence against women in Austria, the Philippines, Liberia, or anywhere else in the world. Our culture, our global message of our we view and treat women never is deconstructed in the same way we do mental illness.

Why do we do that? Why don't we put ourselves on the stand? Is it because we aren't strong enough to admit that we allow and possibly even participate in that destructive rape culture?
We don't really want to trace how we learn internalize these messages and as we grow into business partners, community leaders, college students, priests, or educators - we grow with the messages inside us.

If we begin accepting this kind of language, "born to rape," as a skirting method to use mental illness and explain the grotesque crimes of our world, we will fail to analyze the true causes of a rape culture - the ways we are raised to understand gender, power, sexuality, relationships, and communication. Rape culture is the culture that features a specific case like this but never bothers to tackle rape as a daily weapon and how imprisonment, trafficking, and enslaving of women around the world is actually not that uncommon.

This woman's story is unacceptable. The brutality and enormity of her nightmare reaches unfathomable depths. But how we frame and explain her perpetrator, a man "born to rape," tells much more of how we frame rape in our own minds.

To truly combat a rape culture, we must go further than to explain the "proclivity" to rape. I believe the decision to rape is pieced together by various traumas, lessons, allowances, and testing pressure points to see what is acceptable and what can go unpunished (e.g that terrible statistic that indicated 25-30% of US and Canadian college men would rape if they knew they could get away with it.)

It's not a formula. There are no easy answers. Dismantling a rape culture will not be one model. How we confront group homes, addiction, neglect, gangs, community outreach, family structures, and silence will look different in every part of the world, but I can start in my own home, with my own small piece of what I see as wrong. I am weary of language that paints men - mentally ill men - as unstoppable beasts. Some most certainly have mental problems that pose danger to others, but those seeds, the things that made men more apt to rape had to be nurtured and grown somewhere. My hunch is it's not all mental illness. Our worst criminals reflect not just the darkness of the human's mind, but act as a mirror of our social culture .


  1. ah, no, yeah, that idea is so far beyond twisted it's actually sprained. there's no such thing as a predisposition to a particular crime. there might be tendencies toward what we call personality disorders, but even with shit that's supposedly purely biochemical, there's almost always an environmental factor as well.

    /psych student

  2. i'm not a psychology student but i take an interest and i agree that no one is 'born to rape', external environmental factors have an impact on people and everybody could potentially have the opportunity to rape, however the majority of us have a sense of morality which some people choose to ignore and selfishly violate. Fritizi could be mentally ill, but it is extremely likely that he was aware of his immorality and enjoyed it. Sick.

  3. While everytime I see his face on the front of the papers I feel sick and it's easy to think he's 'pure evil', I know at the same time there is no such thing. For a psychiatrist to say that he was 'born to rape' is totally irresponsible and stupid, what's the point of being a psychiatrist if that's what you think? (oh yeah, money)

    Thanks for writing such a deep and critical analysis of this horrible story. It's such an extreme case that it's easy to fall into the trap of just saying he's evil or born that way, because that way maybe we don't have to think about it anymore.

  4. sadly, the article in which I first saw the 'born to rape' comment also apparently blamed his mother for him turning out wrong. she just didn't love him enough, you see! sigh.

  5. DarthVelma3:29 PM

    I think if you go re-read the article you linked, you'll find that it was not the psychiatrist that said Fritzl was "born to rape" but rather that she said that that was what Fritzl himself believed.

  6. Darth Velma,
    Thanks for the comment and, yes, you're right.

    The clarification that Fritzl himself - not the psychiatrist - said these words shifts a few things a bit, but I believe my larger points about rape culture and mental wellness still stand.

    Thanks for the clarification though - very important!

  7. Anonymous7:18 PM


  8. Anonymous1:47 AM

    @ Whiner:Actually,Fritzl suffered severe physical and psychological abuse from his mother.There is a difference between "explaining" and "excusing" that you fail to grasp.No-one could ever excuse or forgive his crimes,but if you look at that man's wretched life,you can see how and where it started to go wrong.The adult Fritzl deserves no pity,but the child he once was does/did.Your comment trivializes child abuse. Not cool.

  9. Pardon me for heading off on a tangent as well as for showcasing what I fear is my mighty cluelessness:

    When I see "raises a million white flags for me", it says to me that there's something problematic about the phrase "red flag" that I've missed. Can someone point me to someplace I can get educated about that? Or was 'white flag' just a misstatement that I'm reading too much into?


  10. Sevoo,

    Hello and thanks for your comment.

    And, yes, the proverbial red flag is used to indicate danger or error. Mentally, I envision white flags :) No rhyme or reason, I just do, which is why it probably came out in my writing.

    I'll be sure to clarify and use the red next time around.

  11. Anonymous1:23 PM

    It's easy for some people to dismiss such harmful behavior as "crazy" because then they don't have to be scared that it could be perpetrated by anyone...that is, people who think that believe that they'd never be put in a position where bad things could happen to them because they can pick out the "crazy" people.

    It's unfair to the millions of lawabiding citizens who have an emotional, psychological, or mental disorder.


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