Behind Closed Doors: Rape, Murder, and the Misplaced Confidence of Men

What makes it so hard for some men to question their own assumptions and so easy for them to act boldly and brutally when faced with closed doors?
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Dartmouth College, the location of a recent high-profile rape case. (Photo: Art Phaneuf - LostArts/Shutterstock)

Dartmouth College, the location of a recent high-profile rape case. (Photo: Art Phaneuf - LostArts/Shutterstock)

President Obama's White House recently released guidelines intended to push U.S. universities to take more aggressive action against sexual assaults on campus. Proposals include stricter policing and judicial policies, as well as more effective reporting processes. Concerned universities are also designing interventions into student social practices in order to emphasize community values.

The goal of creative intervention is to provide students with positive social opportunities that don't rely mainly on alcohol and hooking up. While the combination of all these approaches is likely to be effective, it will not be sufficient. When it comes to (mostly) male violence against (mostly) women, we also need to change how we think about closed doors and confidence, both on and off campus.

On March 27, 2014, Parker Gilbert, a former student at Dartmouth College (where I teach), was found not guilty of having raped a fellow student in her dorm room a year ago. "The prosecution alleged that Gilbert raped the 19-year-old complainant vaginally, orally and anally,” according to the student newspaper, The Dartmouth. “The defense stated that the two had engaged in consensual sex" and that merely "drunken, awkward, college sex" should not be assumed to be rape.

In a joint statement released by The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (NHCADSV) and WISE (Women’s Information Services), representatives who attended the whole trial observed that "both sides agreed that Mr. Gilbert and the victim were at best acquaintances; both sides agreed he entered her room uninvited that night, in a highly intoxicated state, and both sides agreed that he initiated sexual contact which included vaginal penetration with the victim while she was asleep."

Certainty and confidence don’t always make a winning combination. If women can resist the gendered tendency toward reticence, shouldn’t men resist the gendered tendency toward rashness?

The Gilbert trial was not so much about what happened physically between the two people involved (the main details were stipulated by both the prosecution and the defense), but rather how to interpret the narratives proposed to explain the events. In the interest of “innocent until proven guilty,” the complainant's story, not the accused's, is the suspect narrative. The jury’s principal reservations about her story concerned noises (a suite-mate on the other side of closed door did not hear the complainant raise her voice or protest in pain during the incident) and delay (the complainant did not use the word “rape” when first referring to the incident in a conversation with a friend the following morning).

Reflecting the typical uphill battle for complainants in rape cases, a Vermont Public Radio report on Dartmouth student reactions to the Gilbert verdict noted that, "many students said it was impossible to know, in this case as in many others, what really happened behind a closed bedroom door."

This impossibility of knowing what's happening behind a closed door connects the local Gilbert case to the globally reported Oscar Pistorius murder case. Gilbert walked through a closed door uninvited, and his defense is that it was reasonable to assume he had consent from a woman he happened to find sleeping in her own dorm room. For his part, Pistorius acknowledges that he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on February 14, 2013. His defense is that it was an accident; he claims he mistook her for a home intruder hiding behind the locked bathroom door. Pistorius testified that he shot four times through the door without questioning his own assumptions, and without asking anything from whomever he thought was inside the bathroom. If it is true that he did not shoot Steenkamp on purpose, then for all he knew, the sounds behind the door could have been made by a robber, a child, or a squirrel; tragically, it just happened to have been his girlfriend.

We cannot know for sure what perceptions, desires, and fears the alleged victims and perpetrators experienced in either the Gilbert or Pistorius case. Deciding these two cases based on conjecture about the mindset of the accused may be the best the legal system can do. Court systems spend vast amounts of time and money attending to the complex problems of unverifiability. They do so in a legitimate bid to protect defendants from false accusations.

The focus on courts’ limited ability to know the minds of the accused obscures a simple fact, however. Even if we don’t assume that Pistorius meant to kill Steenkamp in cold blood, and we don’t assume that Gilbert meant to rape a fellow student, we actually do know something about what led to the infliction of grievous harm in both cases. It is knowable that neither one of these events would have happened if Pistorius and Gilbert had questioned their own interpretation of the situation before blasting their way through it. They assumed the right to their certainty, even (especially?) when they could not have known what was on the other side of a door that happened to have been closed by a woman.

If, as Dartmouth students say, it's impossible to know what happens behind closed doors, then what should we make of Pistorius' and Gilbert's certainty? We can play armchair jury and speculate about all the complex narratives that preceded and followed the crossing of the thresholds. But perhaps we should wonder most about the crucial moment of decision when these men did not stop to think. What makes it so hard for some men to question their own assumptions and so easy for them to act boldly and brutally when faced with closed doors?

Demonstrating certainty and confidence enhances individuals’ social and professional status as much as actually knowing and doing things well. Research on gender differences shows that men tend to be more confident about their knowledge and skills than women, even when both groups perform equally. This difference benefits men academically and professionally. For example, men guess more often than women on exams in which there is a penalty for wrong answers; among men and women with identical knowledge, the men who guess tend to score higher.

In “The Confidence Gap,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue that there are steps women can take to reduce gender differences in academic and professional success. Women can learn to recognize their own tendencies toward risk-aversion and lack of confidence, and thereby stop letting self-doubt hold them back from professional advancement. This advice focuses on what women can do to improve their standing in relation to men, and it relies on evidence that certainty and confidence are often the keys to success.

But certainty and confidence don’t always make a winning combination. If women can resist the gendered tendency toward reticence, shouldn’t men resist the gendered tendency toward rashness? What strategies do we expect men to employ in order to reduce the chance that a misguided sense of certainty and overconfidence will cause harm to other people?

The link between the Gilbert and Pistorius cases dramatizes an urgency that transcends campus politics. We must demand of men, whether in college or not, a bit more self-doubt and a bit less self-confidence when they are faced with closed doors, whether they be physical, verbal, or figurative. The legal system values epistemological humility in order to protect the innocent; individuals should too.

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