The Operant Conditioning of Rape Acceptance

Yesterday I posted on why Daniel Tosh’s rape “jokes” were dangerous to society and how they contribute to the continued existence of sexual assaults. What I didn’t address is the psychology behind this.

Judging by the reactions of his fans it is fairly safe to assume that acceptance of rape mythology is fairly widespread, but how did it become so?

Historically, women had little power. Rape was seen simply as sex and women were expected to provide it to their partners with out question. High levels of domestic violence and victim blaming have always been present. However, as much as women have been liberated in the last several decades, the social perspective on rape has changed very little.

This perspective is conditioned and reinforced in several ways, but there are two in particular that I am interested in; positive and negative.

Operant conditioning seeks to modify voluntary behaviors and is often employed in advertising; however, it plays a rather large role in the formation of our personality and perceptions as well as learn right from wrong. All things that begin to be conditioned by in an early age. I believe that acceptance of rape myths and perception of sexual assault in part is directly influenced by social reinforcement of gender role stereotypes; however, the phenomenon runs much deeper when examining all aspects.

We start with an individual whom has been conditioned to adhere to gender role stereotypes to a degree. This creates the belief that women and men should act, behave, and think a certain way; contributing to the creation and acceptance of some rape myths. Most commonly the thought that if a women wasn’t provocative, flirty, drunk, alone, the man would be able to control himself and not rape. With this conditioned acceptance of sexual assault is furthered through a cycle of positive reinforcement and positive punishment.

Our positive reward reinforcement comes from, in this situation, the telling of rape jokes that reflect rape myths and rape culture. However, it extends to movies, video games, comics and books, and our daily news. The perspective is promoted coupled with an “entertaining” platform; working similar to advertising it is designed to make rape look and feel less destructive and harmful to those who have suffered it.

The positive punishment reinforcement in this scenario comes from society; mainly from those who have already become fully conditioned for acceptance. This aspect is demonstrated in the media, which often attacks individuals who challenge their perceptions, and from society, who equally attack and dismiss individuals who challenge the social perception of sexual assault. The most striking aspect about this, is that for those whom are conditioned, it becomes another positive reward  in the form of “society agrees with me therefore I am correct.” For those who challenge, it seeks to punish, silence, or change their perception of sexual assault.

From here the loop continues, extinction never occurring, creating newly conditioned individuals and reinforcing the behaviors and beliefs in currently conditioned individuals. This cycle, much like gender role conditioning, begins at an early age and is further helped along by social failures to teach, learn, and utilize critical thinking skills.