Last week, a man allegedly kidnapped a woman he did not know from a Target parking lot, robbed her at gunpoint, and then raped her. The suspect in these crimes, Steve Allan Cahanding, has been arrested. But the comments that police allege he made after the rape are where things get interesting:
It was just after 2 p.m. when the woman left Target and sat in her car wrapping a gift for her mother. The car door flung open. She was “looking at the barrel of a small revolver pistol,” according to an arrest affidavit.
Deputies said Cahanding pushed the woman into the passenger seat and drove her around for about 20 minutes before stopping at a bank to withdraw money from her account.
Then she told him, “You got your money, now let me go,” according to Cahanding’s affidavit. Cahanding did not. He drove her to his apartment on Lynbrooke View Court in east Orange County and forced her out of the car, deputies said.
Once inside the apartment, he made the woman call her bank to withdrawal more money from her account. An hour later, he led her to a bed and raped her. Five minutes later, it was over.
“I didn’t mean to rape you. It just happened,” Cahanding told the victim, according to the report.
I didn’t mean to rape you. It just happened. Surely, those words are bound to make a rape victim feel much, much better about the whole thing.
What these words do is shift the responsibility for rape off of the perpetrator and onto some mysterious outside force. The words “I didn’t mean to” are used to erase the fact that he actually did it nonetheless. “It just happened” denies the decision to rape as a conscious choice made by the perpetrator, and frames rape as something that indeed can “just happen.” It suggests that rape is an accident, something that does not require intent, like tripping over a toy on the floor, or falling asleep on the couch.
There are, in fact, lots and lots of ways to accidentally injure another person. But rape is not one of them. Rape is not an accident. Committing rape is something you do, not something that happens to you.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is the fact that most people will probably view Cahanding’s statements with the horror that they deserve. How, it will likely be asked, could one accidentally kidnap, rob, and rape someone? He had a gun. She didn’t know him. She was just going about her daily life! She did nothing wrong, here. Clearly, he is the one to blame. Just like when a convicted rapist told his victims that they should have locked their doors, the public will almost certainly view this stranger rapist as a danger to the community, and his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his actions as simply compounding that danger.
But we see these kinds of excuses and apologies for rape go unchecked every single day.
When rapists know their victims; when they’re white college students or business professionals, revered athletes or celebrities, our neighbors, friends, and children; when victims go home willingly with their rapists, when they’re drunk, when they’re of color, or sex workers, or disabled, or trans*; when rapists don’t pull their victims from the parking lots of suburban stores by gunpoint, “he didn’t mean it,” or “it was a mistake” are extremely common defenses.
“That’s not the guy I know,” his colleague will say, “this is terribly out of character for him.” “He didn’t mean it,” his friend will explain, “it just happened, and he was drinking, and that’s not what he’s like.” “It was just one mistake,” his parents will cry, “it wasn’t as bad that they’re making it out to be, and his whole life is going to be ruined over this one night!”
And that’s if they talk about the rapist at all, rather than how much the victim wanted it or deserved it.
“I didn’t mean it” is only seen as a pathetic excuse when the accused is a gun-wielder who acts against random victims, when he threatened his victim with death, and when he is a man of color, about whom numerous racist comments can be made. “It just happened” doesn’t seem like a joke or outrageous offense to most when it’s a good boy’s life that’s on the line, or when it’s his allies making he excuses for him.
Acknowledging rape apologism for what it is in the cases only where it’s most obvious, only when it’s easy to hate the perpetrator, and only when racism can be employed doesn’t help to break down rape culture — though it does help to reinforce racist structures, and confirm biased, dangerous notions about what rape looks like. The same understanding that Cahanding’s statements are absurd need to be extended to more marginalized victims, and more privileged perpetrators. Otherwise we’re not challenging flawed and oppressive systems of “justice” or social attitudes, but just reinforcing them.