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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Men are from Mars

Advice columns can be useful, such as a recent Dear Abby column that gives some great advice about how to not get yourself raped
See, this teenage virgin agreed to get together with a boy and study, and even though she was explicit about not wanting to have sex, he drove her to a secluded area and raped her. Well, she wasn't sure he'd raped her. One of her friends said he had and another said he hadn't, because she hadn't told him no forcefully enough. Luckily, Dear Abby was there to break the tie - see, the guy decided to have sex with her against her will because of a miscommunication. See he interpreted Uncertain in Illinois' willingness to make out as an invitation to shove his penis into her and keep going when she told him it hurt and begged him to stop. Uncertain's folks should have talked with her about the dangers of her irresponsible behaviors. Luckily, Abby had some advice: go to the police. Just kidding, Uncertain should go see the school shrink.
But I wonder if Abby's attitude toward rape - a lot of people's attitudes about what constitutes rape - aren't due to something of a "miscommunication." 
The minute boys are born we start telling them how their worth is defined by their ability to get women. From birth they're ladykillers and heart breakers. Stores sell baby clothes that say things like Lock up your daughters and I'm here to steal your girl, and Ladies, I have arrived. We live in a world where many different manufacturers are willing to make and sell clothing that declares your infant boy a pimp.
But then on the other hand, we tell girls just the opposite from birth. We joke that infant girls will have to beat the boys off with a stick, but that their dads will have to lock them up when they're older. Young girls must be pretty to have worth, but they must not wear clothing that's "distracting" to the boys. We teach girls that a good girl keeps her legs together, doesn't send out "confusing" signals, and that their parents will protect their virtue with violence if need be. Girls who remain virgins are good girls and we praise them for it.
Boys who have sex with a lot of partners are players; women who do are sluts. Average-looking men who pursue women relentlessly are pickup artists; women who do are swamp donkeys and slam pigs (except for average looking girls under 13, who are slampiglets and I do not want to live on this planet anymore).  
So we've set up this situation where a male's worth rests in his ability to have sex, and a woman's worth rests in her refusal to have it. 
But does that cognitive dissonance make rapists of men who otherwise wouldn't be? That sounds a bit like making excuses. And surely rapists are horrible monsters, a species apart from we decent human beings, right? I'm not so sure. Repeated studies over the course of decades have found that otherwise normal people will usually perform actions that they believe to be morally wrong - up to and including murder - if an authority figure tells them to. So if society tells men over and over that they have to have sex with women in order to have worth, maybe they start to think that no doesn't have to mean no. It's not an excuse - not in the case of those experiments and not in the case of rapists. But maybe society deserves a slice of the blame too.   
And another thing. We say rape and sexual violence are wrong, but the language we use when it comes to boys and sex is pretty violent. From the moment they're born, we tell them they're ladykillers and heart breakers. Women make love, but men bang and nail and hammer and screw and plow and pound and bag her and hit that. 
But those are just words, words that nobody actually takes literally. Surely they couldn't make people think rape's okay, right? Well not according to Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University. In their paper "Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," they posit that the metaphors we use can shape our actions. In one experiment, they asked people to propose a solution to crime in the city of Addison. The facts they gave to each group were the same, but the metaphors they used were different - one group was asked to imagine crime as a virus infecting the city, while subjects in the other group were asked to imagine it as a beast ravaging the city. The people who got the virus metaphor were more likely to focus on prevention and rehabilitation, where people who got the beast metaphor advocated stepping up law enforcement and delivering more severe punishments. So maybe using violent language when we talk about sex influences folks to see sex and violence as things that go together. 
Maybe. I don't know. Despite all this research, I can't really believe that decent people will do horrible things under the right conditions. I'm far from a moral absolutist, but I really believe that people who torture others are bad people, regardless of their reasoning; I'm not comfortable with the idea that most people become, by that definition, bad people if someone in a white coat tells them to be. 

1 comment:

Susan Prendergast said...

Men are actually from Uranus. And mine.

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