Thursday, August 28, 2014

Let Boys Be Boys. Fox News And Elsewhere on Wolf Whistles And More. My Analysis.

First Part

A recent article* about hookup culture and rape at US colleges had this quote from one of the students interviewed:

Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders, said Chris Herries, a senior at Stanford University. While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness and other risky behaviors, he said.
“Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad?” Herries, 22, said. “We have to encourage people not to take on undue risk.”
It led rise to the "lock-up-your-vaginas" meme on Twitter, but one also wonders what the mental stance of Herries might have been here:  Did he think of himself as a bystander, a potential offender or someone who was going to be falsely accused because the woman was drunk and regretted the sex later on?

Probably a bystander.  It would make no sense to argue that "some men feel too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault" otherwise, unless we took a really sick view of what is normal and natural about guys and sexual behavior.

However boring I will be, I still have to explain why the bike stealing example doesn't quite work.

First, if you lock up your bike, it is other bikes that will be stolen.  It doesn't reduce bike theft unless every single person locked up their bikes everywhere.

Second, even that wouldn't necessarily reduce bike theft.  I know someone who locked up her bike to a heavy metal stand, provided for that purpose outside a library and full of bikes from other careful bike-lockers.  That same someone then saw from the library window a truck drive to the stand, two burly men stepped out and simply lifted the whole stand with bikes to the back of the truck which then drove away.

The point of that story is that if all women stop drinking alcohol, the way self-defense against rape will next be formulated is by telling women not to go out at night, not to wear certain clothing, not to talk to strange men or go to fraternity parties etc.  The goalposts move, and the cost of that moving for women is to limit their freedoms and to make them stay at home.  Then the locks of the house are what will be blamed if the inhabitants get sexually assaulted.

It's good to be careful and to protect oneself.  It's good not to drink too much.  All those things are true and useful.  But they smell odd when presented in a setting where rape just somehow happens, sexual harassment just somehow happens, and nothing else can be done about it, except by focusing on what the potential victims can do to protect themselves.

Second Part

Here's an even more recent take on the same topic, in the context of discussing the meaning of fraternities and sororities on campuses.  A former GMU President, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg:

Rehm: And you don't see them participating in sexual misconduct?
Dr. Trachtenberg: No no! I think it turns out that there are good and bad in fraternities and out of fraternities. What we're focusing here on is a general situation. I think what we're doing is creating a false correlation. For example, we point out that the women don't drink, don't have sorority parties which have alcohol. They don't have to. They go to the parties at the fraternities. So it's not as if the women aren't drinking. They are, in fact.
Without making the victims responsible for what happens, one of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave. And so part of the problem is you have men who take advantage of women who drink too much and there are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children in that regard.

Bolds are mine.  The last paragraph is wonderful!  It appears to equate trying to take advantage of someone drunk and being drunk as equal slices of the problem.  If there were no drunk women -- presto!  --- nobody would be trying to take advantage of women!  Problem solved, and all we need to do is train women and educate daughters and, er, children.

So where are we?  Roughly, it's the behavior of women which causes sexual assaults and rape and such on US campuses.  I'm being unfair here, because the article I linked to in the first part gives many other points of views, but this particular attitude is so common in our hindbrains, so much alive even after it has been killed over and over again, that we need to interrogate it more (with harsh lights and no tea or toilet breaks).  But first

Third Part

This is from today.  The Fox Outnumbered program (where four women gang up on one man and then they all state various sexist tropes) tells us that:

Fox News hosts defended the practice of catcalling, insisting women should "let men be men" and downplaying the harmful impact widespread street harassment has on women.
On the August 28 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered, hosts highlighted a New York Post opinion article that suggested women "deal with" "flattering" catcalls. Co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle defended street harassment saying, "let men be men," and, "look, men are going to be that way. What can you do?" Guest host and Fox contributor Arthur Aidala reenacted his personal signature "move" -- aiming a slow round of applause at women on the street, which one host said she'd find flattering.

Bolds are mine. 

As a complete aside, ask yourself this question:  What populations of looks does Fox News draw its people from?  Are the women random samples from the look distribution of American women?  Are the men random samples from the look distribution of American men?

Here's the picture of the people who discussed whether catcalls and such are flattering to women:

Back to the topic, sigh.

The Interrogation

So what is going on here?

Let's begin with the last story because it's so innocent and pretty and clearly not about any kind of violence.

Am I wrong by putting it into this post?  After all, the quoted woman finds catcalls flattering and assumes that this (helpless to stop cat calling) is how men are and what can you do about it anyway?

There's a clear difference between a compliment and harassment, right?  But are catcalls compliments?  Does the person wolf-whistling at you ask first if you are going to your grandmother's funeral** or if you'd like a complimentary wolf-whistle?  Does the person ask for your time and attention the way someone who is lost usually does before asking you where some street might be located?

This is subtle stuff, perhaps almost meaningless stuff.  But I think it shows the one barb in the rose of a street compliment:  The giver has no intention to inquire if you want the compliment.  That is up to the cat caller.  It's his street, to all practical purposes.

Or suppose that what the compliment is changes a bit.  Perhaps the caller tells you to spread your ass cheeks or show him your c**t.  Is this still a compliment?  Or is it unacceptable just because it has become "rude?"  Where is that border between a compliment and something much, much closer to a threat.  Though in both cases the next step:  how to respond to all this, can be dangerous for the recipient of the compliment.  It's probably best to look like you appreciate it but somehow you must manage that enough not to be actually groped, say.

And another thing:  If someone smiles at me in the street and expresses admiration in his face, that is a compliment and pleasant.  If that someone cat calls at me in the street, he is exposing me to everyone*** who can hear what he is saying.  Even if he delivers a compliment in his own mind, he is also awakening any potential predator to my juiciness, and then my responses to the cat calls become equally public and harder to negotiate safely.

For those of you who haven't experienced any of this and think that being publicly admired for one's looks might be fun:  It gets old very fast because it really is out of your hands, in terms of the power balance and because it happens to so many women so very often that the odds are what we are experiencing is a game of something more than pure compliment-giving.

Let's try to look at from the imaginary guy**** side of the aisle:  All the stories I have linked to are about changing rules concerning sexual harassment, some of them go against traditional cultural expectations from men and many of them cause anxiety and anger and fear in men who would never do any of those kinds of things but tend to be lumped together with all men as the group to be blamed and feared and suspected.  Then there's the possibility that you misstep in your wooing because you don't get the rules anymore, the possibility that you get falsely accused of sexual harassment or worse (even though the odds of that are quite small), the way in which all this makes being the one who has to pop the question much more difficult.

We should change the ways we seek sexual partners and negotiate sex, sure.  It shouldn't be men doing the asking and facing rejection and women waiting (sometimes in vain) to be asked.  The old rules don't work, and the fraternity rules are even worse.  And no, men shouldn't have to pay for the dates***** (go Dutch or alternate or adjust by income levels) and paying for the date does not mean that the one who paid is then owed sex.  That would be a very cheap trick indeed.

Something beginning with the idea that the other person is a human being would be good.  That's not only true in dating but in wars and so on, sigh.

Then to the question of women's drinking as the cause of sexual assault:  What was wrong with those stories was the absence of men's drinking as part of the story.  At least one study showed that male inebriation was present in many instances of sexual harassment, in the sense that the men doing the harassing had higher inebriation rates than the also-inebriated women they harassed.

What connects the focus on women's drinking as a cause for sexual abuse and harassment in the first two stories of this post and the last one is the idea of what is "natural."  This comes out in two main forms, the first arguing something of the "boys-will-be-boys" type, about aggressive behaviors of a certain type as biologically natural. 

The other comes out in the form of arguing that sexual predators are a small number of men, impossible to affect, and that other men shouldn't be held responsible for what they do, whereas women could reduce their own odds of becoming prey by not drinking, by not going out, by dressing modestly and by otherwise being absent from the hunting fields.

And there may be some truth in the second of those arguments, given recent evidence about college rapists.  A fairly small percentage of men seems to be responsible for serial rapes.  But that small percentage can hide better and hunt faster in a culture which condones the kind of behavior I'm talking about here.  If it is women who should avoid being raped, where does that leave the rapists, in terms of responsibility?  Does certain kind of fraternity culture protect them?  Does that culture (or the culture we have seen in some schools) make serial rapists convinced that they are not that unusual, that it's most men who agree with them?

I don't know the answers to those questions.  But I do know that the argument of "let men be men" is a lazy argument.  It turns men into toddlers who bite other toddlers because that is what toddlers do.  It's actually more misandrist than anything feminazis can dream up!  After all, people learn to refrain from certain acts in public and from all acts in public and private, even though we may have desires to commit them.  I have never kicked Rush Limbaugh in the balls, for example, and that's not because I'm somehow biologically unable to have that desire.  It's because of the rules I have absorbed over time and the ability to think of the likely consequences.

What the Fox News Outnumbered tells us is that there should be no bad consequences from certain acts because they are natural acts.  It's OK to argue that, just as we argue many other types of behavior within the cultural and political arenas.  But it's also important to argue back to that assumption, and to point out that the rules about who gets to cat call whom in the street are gendered in all cultures, however hidden that teaching might be, and that programs like the one I linked to at Fox are a further teaching round of those rules.

*The article appears to have disappeared from the Bloomberg site.  At least I can't find it now.
**This memory haunts me enough to affect my viewpoint on street harassment.  I was dressed in black pants and a long black coat.
***To understand context, note that cat calls among friends (for a new outfit, say) are not at all the same thing.  It's the fact that streets are no-man's land (pun intended) which makes public compliments from strangers different.
****I'm making this guy up from all the counterarguments.  It's not based on any one real person.

That paragraph has oblique references to certain theoretically very tricky issues, having to do with the question of "genetic" responsibility because one belongs to a certain demographic group.  The answers are not at all easy, because we all have some power to affect our local cultures and we should bear the responsibility for that, especially those of us who have more power due to our race or gender, but at the same time over-generalization has always been one of the weapons of racism and sexism of the usual type.

Yet in this particular case the group situations are worth examining, because most women (and many men) are potential prey for the sexual predators, while most men (and almost all women) are not predators.  Predators cannot be easily identified by, say, a forehead tattoo, so gender serves as a possible sign of danger.  This is unfair from the angle of all men who would never be predators themselves.  Ignoring gender is not really possible, however, given the statistics on those who sexually abuse.

I think attempting to change popular culture in ways which makes it harder for predators to hide is important, and that would also reduce some of the thornier aspects of this whole dilemma.
*****This is a residue from the times when women had no money, in general, and so couldn't pay for the dates.  Later it was perhaps a show of the man's earning power in a culture where men worked outside the home and women in the home.  But it's a silly residue.