The Problem With Men and Sexual Assault

Every time there is a major act of terrorism there is a predictable response from liberal commentators. Most terrorists are not Muslims, we are told, which is true but obscures the fact that too many are. Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, we are led to believe, which is false as Graeme Wood and Tom Holland have explained.

Conservatives and liberal opponents of what has been called “the regressive left” dismiss such statements. When scandals erupt concerning sexual assault, however, many of the same tropes appear in defense of men. Not all men are rapists, assailants or creeps. There is no essential link between maleness and abuse. I think the first statement is true but potentially unhelpful. The second, on the other hand, I think is simply wrong.

In arguing this I represent nobody but myself. I agree with many criticisms of progressives on this matter. High standards of evidence should be upheld when people are accused of heinous crimes. Hysteria can cloud our judgements on this subject. Different cultures have different rates of sexual abuse. Firm distinctions can be made for different forms of misconduct. Men endure abuse and rape as well. Most men are not dangerous.

Still, despite being no subscriber to feminist orthodoxies I disagree with much of what has been suggested in defense of men amid the #metoo social media campaign against sexual abuse. Ella Whelan of spiked insists that “actual cases of sexual misconduct…are rare.” According to the 2016 crime survey for England and Wales, more than 34,000 rapes and 68,000 other sexual offenses took place in a single year. How “rare” is that?

Helen Pluckrose in Areo compares “androphobia,” the fear of men, to “aviophobia,” the fear of flying. “100% of deaths by plane crash are caused by planes,” she writes, “But the vast majority of planes do not crash…Most violent & sexual crimes are committed by men but the vast majority of men do not commit violent and sexual crime.” These are not particularly close comparisons. There are few rational precautions one must take to avoid dying in a plane crash. Even traveling with Yeti Airlines is quite safe. Women, on the other hand, must be careful walking at night, meeting strangers, taking taxis and drinking alcohol.

Pluckrose continues:

“I dispute the argument that sexual violence or abusiveness or boorishness defines ‘male behavior’ because of the abundant evidence that they don’t, and I think they will be better addressed by addressing the behavior rather than maleness.”

I agree and disagree. Sexual violence, abusiveness and boorishness do not define male behavior, and earthquakes do not define Mexico City. On the other hand, sexual violence, abusiveness and boorishness are dangerous features of the male sex, and earthquakes are dangerous features of Mexico’s capital.

Most men are not dangerous — nor are most days in the Americas — but male tendencies towards predation, lust and status-seeking mean too many are. Such behavior relates to maleness without defining it and cannot be understood without an understanding of desires and neuroses mostly found in men.

I think that this is biological as much as cultural. Sexual violence has scarred all human societies from prehistoric tribes to modern nation states and I no more expect it to disappear than I expect the same of murder. Even as the primatologist Frans De Waal criticized Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion for arguing that rape is about sex more than it is power he lamely admitted that power is “a male aphrodisiac.”

Yet I do not think this is defeatist, still less self-loathing. Humans are awash with competing tendencies and civilization evolved to channel them. More can be done to obstruct and contain our worst instincts.

The scandal of Harvey Weinstein showed the sad extent to which abusers with institutional power are enabled by the cowardice and complacence of associates. Seth MacFarlane said he cracked a joke about the now disgraced producer at the 2013 Academy Awards out of “anger and loathing” after being told of his sins. Why this rich and influential man did nothing more to investigate and expose these charges is a question he will have to settle with his conscience. Some have asked why actresses Weinstein abused did not report him. Well, some did and men they told did nothing. This should carry far more stigma than it does.

Conservatives have a morbid fascination with “male feminists” who turn out to be abusive. A considerably less than comprehensive list includes Hugo SchwyzerJamie KilsteinSam Kriss, Devin Faraci and Joss Whedon. Perhaps there is a conflict between their progressive ideals and the coarsening aspects of the permissive culture. Perhaps they were just opportunists. Still, on the right Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, and Bill O’Reilly, its greatest star, were exposed as perpetrators of sexual harassment. Abusive men (and women) can be found in different forms. It is foolish of us to expect that people who share or appear to share our beliefs uphold our values in their private lives.

Conservatives are correct that in such cases as the Rotherham child abuse scandal, ethnic factors can been overlooked. Liberals are correct, however, that official snobbery and incompetence enabled the abuse. On this issue, as on others, relying on tribal impulses condemns us to a blinkered and obscurantist perspective.

Again, I often oppose progressive arguments and activism on this matter. When we criticize attempts to challenge sexual abuse, however, we should ask ourselves what we are doing. If somebody else is wrong, how are we right? Are we helping victims? Are we challenging abusers? Are we holding authorities to account? While, for example, we reject some feminist conceptions of masculinity, what are our models of the bitter, self-entitled sociopathy that drives thousands of men to acts of abuse?

This is partly an intellectual exercise but it also relates to practical behavior. Do we intervene if we observe harassment or abuse? Do we investigate charges against our associates? Do we give support to victims? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. But we should not sniff about unfair generalizations, or worry about witch hunts, if we do not oppose the rapists and predators among us. Not all of them are men, no, but most of them are, and as realists who care more about hard facts than pretty words we should accept and acknowledge and investigate that.

Last year, in a bar, I saw an old drunk seize a woman and thrust himself against her. She wriggled away with a tight, forced smile and he lurched off as if it had been  marvelous. If I had said something or done something it might have taught the stupid bastard a lesson. It might have taught potential stupid bastards a lesson. But I didn’t. It was over; I was a long way away; I didn’t want to make a scene; I didn’t want to cause a fuss. And in that moment I was a small part of the problem.

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written stories for Flash Fiction Magazine, The London Journal of Fiction and Every Day Fiction, and essays for Quillette and Bombs and Dollars.

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Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written stories for Flash Fiction Magazine, The London Journal of Fiction and Every Day Fiction, and essays for Quillette and Bombs and Dollars.

21 thoughts on “The Problem With Men and Sexual Assault

  1. “In the case of Seth MacFarlane: he should not be held to account for not investigating and exposing Weinstein. That is the job of the police. They are the right and proper people to investigate powerful figures accused of serious sexual misconduct. Investigative journalists come a close second. I don’t think that MacFarlane is either of those.”

    The MacFarlane angle in the article reminds me of the so-called Copenhagen Theory of Ethics, in which any interaction with a problem that makes it at least slightly better begets demands that it solve the problem entirely. If MacFarlane hadn’t alluded to Weinstein’s creepy behavior AT ALL, we wouldn’t be talking about how he hadn’t done enough. He wouldn’t be on our mental radar in any way whatsoever and thus wouldn’t be tainted by the charge.

  2. If we’re going to use the occasion of Harvey Weinstein’s scandal to spark a discussion on the relationship of maleness to sexual assault, shouldn’t we wait until there’s at least ONE conviction? (The same could be said of Cosby, and others). Surely out of the dozens of accusers, in a city full of recording devices, ONE has evidence to put a criminal behind bars. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

    The stats may show one thing, but what the media is showing us, time after time, in field after field, is men who are accused, but are generally innocent As a corollary, they are showing us, time after time, women who lie about sexual assault. Perhaps this doesn’t line up with the data, but it’s the story we’re being given. The question then is why the mainstream media always sides with the accusers, when it is so contrary to the message they are otherwise sending.

    I find it almost nauseating when, after a false accuser is exposed, we’re inevitably told that “at least it started a conversation”. How is that just? And when do we have the conversation about not perjuring yourself?

    There is already a societal loathing of men, and I am wary of any attempt, even in good faith, to discuss how maleness relates to sexual assault, in such a climate.

    We, decades ago, decided (or pretended to decide) that judging people based on their sex, addressing problems based on a person’s sex, was the wrong approach, because it led to prejudices and discrimination. What we need to do, even if men are committing more of these crimes, is to address the whole population. Because the tendency is still to forget that women do it do, and that it matters just as much to their victims.

    My last point here is that if someone decides that it’s better to keep employment with a harasser and an assaulter, than to take other employment and stop his criminal behavior, that tells me A LOT about how real women, in the real world, view this sort of thing. It’s not important enough to prosecute. But it’s a nice thing to have lying around in your arsenal when you decide you want to take someone down a decade or two later, perhaps long after your legal remedy is expired. We’re missing a discussion about what the real seriousness of “harassment” actually is, and what are reasonable responses to it.

  3. For the record, I wish I had told the bar staff, or confronted the man in the final paragraph, but I’m not suggesting that I should have gone over and punched him. That would have confused everyone, and, besides, I’m not much of a fighter.

    But I should have been more clear.

  4. It was a rhetoric question. That is simply *not* rare. Arguing that it is rarer than in other developed nations, or develop*ing* nations, would be one thing. Asserting that it is rare is nonsense.

  5. Well, men *should* take more responsibility. While I agree that there is no ending sexual violence – or any form of violence – I gave several examples of where men taking responsibility could have ended *instances* of it. Your final point asserts that my examples show “it doesn’t take much for men to be guilty” without demonstrating it.

  6. I should have been clearer in the final section. No, I don’t think I should have started a fight (less because I think violence is bad – indeed, the male potential violence can be a good thing when it comes to defending people – than because it was not an ongoing situation and because I’m not much good at fighting.) I think I should have informed the bar staff or said something to him. Yes, I think it can help women to be more assertive (a friend of mine’s mother broke a man’s wrist in Egypt when he tried to touch her up). On the other hand we should be understanding of the difficulties of doing this.