Can a Good Man Rape?

A recent headline wants to know, “Can We Save Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby?” In other words, can we find a way to separate in our minds the ‘bad’ man who rapes from the ‘good’ man who never would?

The question has some urgency because for so long it seemed that Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable, the lovable all-American sitcom dad, and now it turns out that we may have gone all those years not knowing who he really was. Cosby was only pretending to be the friendly face behind Jello pudding pops, the wonderful father, the playful observer of children and parents and married life, and now, old age. It has to be so, we think, because it isn’t possible for both to be true. A good man, by definition, does not rape. And so, the good man who was embraced is now the bad man to be shunned.

But how can this happen? How could we be so mistaken? And if it can be true of Bill Cosby, recipient of so much public affection and prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for whom could it not be true? Is there a public figure widely regarded as a ‘good man’ for whom such accusations would simply be impossible to believe? I have tried to think of one, but cannot.

Which is why, I think, there is a lack of surprise alongside the shock whenever a man is outed in this way. It doesn’t seem to take us long to adopt a very different view of him, because, I think, somewhere in ourselves we expect these things to happen—not about this one in particular, but some man, sooner or later—and part of our chagrin is having that expectation borne out yet again.

And then there is the rush to put it all behind us, which makes me want to pause and ask what that’s about, what Cosby’s story might have to tell us about ourselves that we would rather not know.

One clue is that most rapes are committed by a man who knows the woman he is raping, which means at some point she feels safe enough to be with him in the first place. He hasn’t broken in to her apartment wielding a knife. He is already with her doing something else—on a date, maybe, or at work or a party— before he crosses the line from presumed good guy to not.

And when he does, I doubt that he thinks of himself as that, a rapist, a criminal, a felon, even though he must be aware that he is doing something that if he were to ask her in the cold light of day, she would refuse, which is why he has to think of clandestine ways to overcome her resistance, to turn a no into a yes, if only in his mind, and, failing that, a silence that he can interpret any way he wants.

In himself he sees no rapist, but a man like so many men he knows or a can imagine, just doing what a man—a real man—would do if it came down to that, finding a way to have sex with a woman who, to all appearances, does not want to have sex with him. The only question is, what means are acceptable to overcome her resistance?

Note that it isn’t whether to overcome, does he have the right, but how, reflecting a culture of deep ambivalence about a woman’s sovereignty and her right to live unmolested in the integrity of her own body; to not be stalked, harassed, pawed, or preyed upon, turned into an object of a man’s intention and desire; to be considered, listened to, and believed; to not know what she wants and yet still be allowed the freedom and solitude of her ambivalence, uncertainty, confusion, and doubt.

The ambivalence is reflected in the reluctance of women to tell anyone they’ve been raped, knowing all too well that if they do, how quickly they may be challenged and disbelieved, discredited and trashed, even blamed for what was done to them. Witness the now twenty women who claim to have been raped by Bill Cosby, who have lived for decades in silence. There are laws against rape, but whether and how they are enforced is another thing altogether, from college administrators who take no action and prosecutors and police who look the other way rather than confront the rich and famous, to defense attorneys skilled at arguing the varieties of ‘consent’ and the nuances of ‘force.’

Once a culture normalizes the idea of men coercing women into sex they do not want, we are in a land where men can justify to themselves getting a woman drunk or giving her drugs or pinning her to the floor or the bed, perhaps with the help of some friends, which, he will tell himself, is what she really wants anyway, to be overwhelmed, to surrender to his need and desire.

In such a world it can be difficult to pick out the men who rape from the men who don’t. I read about the epidemic of rape in college dorms and fraternities, for example, where sexual assault often takes the form of manly sport, and the federal government having to go after colleges to compel them to take it seriously. And I think, if I tried to identify which young men would rape and which would not just from the kind of person they appear to be, how well would I do? Not well at all, it turns out, since half a century of research has yet to produce a psychological profile that would allow us to distinguish men who rape from men who don’t.

Not to mention trying to pick them out thirty years later when they are married and have children and a place in the community, coaching youth soccer or Little League, professionals, perhaps, doctors and lawyers, or successful in business or politics or the arts, or just the hard-working friendly neighbor next door. Imagine all those college boys who rape, imagine them in middle age and then mix them in with all the men who don’t and could we separate the ‘good’ men from the ‘bad’. Could the people who know them best—their wives, siblings, and friends—tell us if this is the sort of man who would rape?

We would get it wrong most of the time, because when a society normalizes violence against women, the line between raping and not is a line you don’t have to be recognizably ‘bad’ to cross. ‘Good’ men do it all the time, supported by all those other ‘good’ men who are too afraid or too ambivalent to go out of their way to stop it, like the fraternity brothers who stand by and watch or take pictures on their cell phones or turn away and pretend it isn’t happening.

Not only did we not know the real Bill Cosby, but, if it’s true that only bad men can rape, then apparently we also don’t know a bad man—or a good one—when we see him. And that would include, for all we know, the Cliff Huxtable we want to save from Bill Cosby.

We want to save him because we think we know him, and it’s important that he be who we think he is, who we need him to be, the man, the father, who is unimpeachably good. But, of course, we know only what’s been shown to us, he being a television character, after all, but, also, just as we thought we knew Bill Cosby until the moment we did not. In fact, we will never know if Cliff Huxtable—in college, perhaps, or during his medical training—ever got a woman drunk or stoned or otherwise unable to say no to having sex with him.

And if he did, it’s a good bet that Clair Huxtable never knew.

18 responses to “Can a Good Man Rape?

  1. Deat LaCour Ph.D (@DrDeatLaCour) Friday, December 5, 2014 at 8:02 am

    The question underlying that question, for me, can (we) society own our responsibility in colluding in the illusion of the monster and excoriating the monsters victims (for decades). We have a pattern…Catholic priests, Monica Lewinsky, unarmed black men, victims of predatory lending, immigrants.

  2. Janet Murray Friday, December 5, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Fabulous article. Thank you.

  3. geniphur Friday, December 5, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for your thought provoking words. I am always startled at my internal reaction to supportive words from a man, one of surprise, and that bothers me. Unfortunately, my intuitive reaction is a sad reflection on our global patriarchal society. Again thank you, I know it is only with patience and male voices such as yours that we will some day change this pattern of behavior.

  4. Preeti Parikh Friday, December 5, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    I appreciate how your article posits the question of what a ‘good’ man is. If only, like you, more men would join in on this conversation rather than simply looking away. Thank you.

  5. Elaine Morisano Saturday, December 6, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Excellent Allan!

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. tiffany267 Saturday, December 6, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    This essay really challenges us to think differently about men and blindly accepting them as “good” or even angrily asserting their innocence with or without evidence when rape allegations arise.

  7. TierraLMarshall Monday, December 8, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Reblogged this on Jesus and Justice.

  8. Ben Smith Tuesday, December 9, 2014 at 10:22 am

    The guy has only been accused of a crime? No prosecution of any kind yet and you talk as if he is guilty at this early stage. Shocking.

    Can a good man rape? Well he would not be seen as good once it is known by society. People have forgotten we are primates, animals, with raging lust and carnal desires. Men are biologically more powerful and sexually charged on average so it is clear why rape happens. There is no way of stopping it totally. Aside from rape, essentially every man is locked into this daily struggle of controlling his desires for other women and not betraying his partner. Even at this stage in my life I wonder if I will ever be happy with one woman. A 50 year old man may seem content dining with his wife, but he is tortured by the thoughts of ravaging the 18 year old waitress.

    • 740TAO Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 4:36 am

      how do you know any of this?

    • Dogtowner Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 2:48 pm

      “People have forgotten we are primates, animals, with raging lust and carnal desires. Men are biologically more powerful and sexually charged on average so it is clear why rape happens. There is no way of stopping it totally.”

      When colonial women were taken prisoner by indigenous people in what is now New England, they were shocked to find that rape was UNKNOWN. There is nothing inherently natural about rape. Rape in our society is about the conflation of sex and power. Men are told from day one that they are entitled to women’s bodies, women’s labor, women’s emotional support. If they don’t get what they have been told they “deserve,” then the ones with no empathy, no conscience, will take what they “deserve” by force.

  9. 740TAO Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 4:35 am


  10. Dogtowner Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Some of us were not in the least surprised by the revelations about Bill Cosby. What can one say about an extremely privileged African-American man who blames other African-Americans for their failure to take “personal responsibility”? This attitude is an indication of typical right-wing psychological dysfunction, and when you combine dysfunction with entitlement, what you get is not going to be pretty.

  11. lindasblogofwhatever Thursday, December 31, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Very well said. Thank you for this post.

  12. Christina Metzger Sunday, January 3, 2016 at 6:44 am

    what if the allegations against the man are false? what if the women simply want notoriety attention? money? retribution? other?

    • Allan Johnson Sunday, January 3, 2016 at 10:26 am

      I’m not worried about the possibility that 50 women have come forward with stories they made up, given what it costs them, and especially given Cosby’s deposition statement that he purchased drugs to make it possible to have sex with women who would otherwise have refused. But, more important, my post is not about his guilt or innocence, but how his case raises questions about the normalization of sexual violence as reflected in the cultural view of ‘good men’ being incapable of rape.

      • Christina Metzger Sunday, January 3, 2016 at 2:58 pm

        Thank you, Allan, for responding. I regret not looking at this issue more closely ~ if indeed his admission to administering drugs to women to “have his way” with them is true. As for guilt or innocence ~ you are so (unfortunately) correct ~ like your title “Can a ‘good’ man rape?” Sadly yes. And even sadder is society’s acceptance of that that act as being “ok”. I, myself, was “violated” as a virgin teen 30+ yrs ago. It took me decades to “come forth” ~ for the police interrogated me when it happened. Not only that; but, I was “sexually harassed” by both a boyfriend who should’ve been there for me after that happened; & by a “man of the cloth” who exposed himself to me. I bore “guilt & shame” for decades ~ until I was finally able to get help. Sadly, the rich, the famous, clergy, etc. more often than not seem to be “above sinning” & hence the woman (or man!) who has been “violated” is seen as someone who “deserved” it; “wanted it”; “egged ’em on”; even gave the impression of being “promiscuous”. Thank you, as a man, showing that men can be “vulnerable” ~ but they (& women, too!) need to be willing to “own up” to their wrong-doing. I hope that if BC is truly guilty of these crimes, that he would confess, repent, & seek forgiveness ~ from God, his wife, & the women whom he violated. In some countries ~ rape is considered even worse than being killed because of the “violation” that occurs ~ it’s more than “sexual” ~ it eats at the very “core” of a person’s being. That which should be “sacred & beautiful” becomes “unholy & ugly”. But there is Help. And there is Hope. I believe His Name is Jesus. And there are many “Jesus-with-skin-on” who would be willing to help both abuser & abused to become “victors” over their sin or their assault. May there be healing for all those who’ve experienced this unwanted violation. Thanks again for sharing & caring. God’s Peace to you & your audience! 🙂

  13. a sledge and crowbar Wednesday, June 15, 2016 at 4:08 am

    It’s not about whether a man is “good” or “bad” . It’s about how a man performs masculinity in the company of other men, and how he performs it in the company of a woman. Men are constantly surprised when the men they associate with are accused of domestic violence or rape. That’s because they have no idea how these men relate to women, and how their masculinity is challenged by women. A man’s psychological issues with women may never intrude on his public life among other men.

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