[CONTENT WARNING: rape, violent crime, racism]
[EDIT HISTORY: This piece was widely circulated and critiqued after first being published, and I received a lot of feedback, some of which was good and some of which was bad. I have entirely rewritten the piece to try to respond to some of the complaints, especially those in the comments and those raised here. The original version of this post, without which some of the reactions and complaints will not make sense, is available here. The bottom of that post gives more information on particular edits. Thanks to everyone who gave helpful feedback both positive and negative.]
From this article:
When the odds of being assaulted are 25 percent, something is dangerous. If any other activity or object presented the same odds of injury or death, then a revolution would be ignited against it. If one-fourth of Americans faced armed robbery in their lifetime, then you’d better believe armed robbery would be a major national issue covered everywhere in the media, and it would be right up there alongside the economy and national defense in the presidential debates.
We’re all willing to make a strong, concerted efforts to see that safety is followed in cases like these, with no margin allowed for error. It’s a shocking contrast to how we deal with women’s safety from the men who harm them.
It makes me wonder, what if men were declared as a public safety hazard?
Could you imagine if they were recalled? Pulled off the street? “Sorry sir, you’ll have to come with me; we’ve had reports that men have been raping, beating, and killing women, and we can’t take the risk that you will, too.” Yes, it’s a ridiculous idea. But men are way more dangerous than Tylenol [which was recalled for being dangerous].
You may also say, “There are plenty of men out there who don’t abuse or sexually assault women — what about them?” I say: Well, what about them?
I can’t quote the whole thing, but you should probably read it if you want a clearer picture of what’s being talked about.
So when I read this article, I feel a couple things. I feel sad about the high prevalence of rape and domestic violence, of course. But I already knew that one. I also feel other emotions. As a man who hasn’t done any of these things, I feel kind of scared and singled out and unfairly guilt-by-associationed.
I know this isn’t the first time this has happened. Articles That Tar All Men With The Same Brush are pretty common, followed by Men Who Get Offended, followed by People Telling Them They Are Wrong To Be Offended Because The Problem Of Rape Is Much More Important Than The Problem Of People Getting Offended.
But, well, I still feel unfairly guilt-by-associationed. So here’s an intuition pump to try to communicate why.
A Visit To Racist Dystopia
Suppose you woke up one morning and started hearing public service announcements on your radio: “Black people are defective! Black people are a public safety hazard! Black people commit lots of violent crimes! The police should just arrest all black people, because they’re too dangerous to allow on the streets!”
You do some investigation and find that it’s just a small fraction of the population that believes this – maybe 10% – and they’re not immediately advocating any actual consequences or policy toward black people. So that’s good. But you keep hearing this same message. All your favorite blogs publish a steady stream of wildly popular articles trying to “helpfully explain” to black people why all white people are justified in fearing them. Any black person in college has to walk past posters every day listing their name and reading THIS PERSON IS A POTENTIAL MUGGER – and when they complain, they are met with indifference and an administration claiming it is merely a helpful way to raise awareness of black violence.
Hopefully you, like me, would be horrified by this state of affairs. Although certainly crime is a problem in many places, and although crime is worse in poor neighborhoods which are also disproportionately minority, this is an offensive and unproductive way of thinking about the problem.
The Value Of The Analogy
If we had to specify our exact complaints against Racist Dystopia, I think there would be at least three good ones. First, we would want to protest that only a tiny percent of black people are guilty of violence. Second, we would want to protest that people of all races are capable of violence, and that the existing campaign unfairly portrays it as solely a black problem. Third, even apart from those two complaints and even assuming raising awareness of racial violence is something we want to do, there would be ways of sending that message that encourage stereotyping and sweeping judgments and ways of discouraging them, and the current campaign seems specifically intended to promote the former.
Let’s start with the first complaint: only a tiny percent of black people are guilty of violence. How tiny? Statisticians project that about 30% of black men will go to prison sometime in their lives. Somewhere around 30-40% of prisoners are serving time for violent offenses, so if we combine those two numbers (something which requires a few assumptions, but I can’t find the statistic directly so it will have to do) we get that about 10% of black men will go to prison for violent crime sometime in their lives. If we assume that black women do not go to prison (I can’t find good data on this), then about 5% of black people will go to prison for violent crime at some point.
This number is very similar to another number: according to an article from the early 2000s in a feminist blog, about 4.5% of men are estimated to be rapists.
Our second complaint is that violence is a problem committed by people of all races: most notably to the public service campaign, it is committed by white people as well. But as noted before, violence concentrates disproportionately among poor populations, these are disproportionately likely to be minorities, and the effects scale up. America is about 50% men/50% female. Suppose that America were 50% black/50% white. We know that black people currently commit homicide at a rate 7.5x greater than white people, so in this hypothetical society – in the implausible case where nothing changed about neighborhoods or poverty or income gap – 88% of murders would be committed by black people. Murder is an unusually good statistic because almost all murders are investigated and so there’s a low chance that much of the differential is due to racist policing, but the numbers are about the same for other violent crime. For example, in New York City, which is approximately 50% white, 25% black, and 25% other, 78% of all shootings are black compared to 2.5% white. If we extrapolate New York City into a hypothetical 50% black/50% white society, we find that the black half would commit about 97% of the shootings and the white half about 3%. Let’s average these two statistics and say that in our hypothetical society where race works like gender, 95% of violent crime would be black.
And once again, these numbers are in the ballpark of male/female rape statistics. What percent of rapes are committed by men? This is very hard to determine, because rape by women is almost never reported (victim is too embarrassed) and almost never prosecuted (people just laugh and say they bet the guy liked it). I have seen claims from 99% male (which seems very high) to 75% male (which seems very low). I do not think that 95% of rapists being men to 5% women is an impossible number. Other forms of violence are even less male-dominated; male-initiated and female-initiated domestic violence seem to be about equal.
The last complaint we might have against Racist Dystopia is not statistical but moral. Even if it was socially necessary to raise awareness of violent crime, and even if everyone was so racist that the decision to fixate on black crime had already been made, there are ways to do it that are super-awful and ways to do it that are only kinda-awful. I think the most important criteria for landing a campaign in the coveted second category would be:
- Absolute avoidance of any claim or implication that the problem is with all minorities and extreme and frequent repetition of the fact that the overwhelming majority of minorities are non-violent.
- A focus on the fact that white people can commit crimes as well, made at least proportional to the amount of crime they actually commit, and if possible even a little more so in order to hammer home the message that crime is not a racial problem.
- A focus on additional reasons why you need not be terrified of every single black person you met. For example, if the majority of muggings tended to occur in a few very specific situations, like after both the mugger and the victim had been drinking, or after the mugger/victim had accepted an invitation to go to the victim/mugger’s house, that would have a pretty big effect on whether or not you should live in fear of your random black co-worker or college professor.
My thesis is that we should make these same complaints against efforts that try to tar all men as rapists.
How To Use The Analogy
There’s a possible fourth complaint here in which the two situations are not similar: black people are a really oppressed group. The more one spreads fear and stereotypes about them, the more likely it is you awaken someone’s latent racism and cause damage disproportional to the “limited” fear and stereotypes you were trying to convey. For example, traditionally people have been pretty quick to engage in hate crimes against black people based partly on stereotypes exactly like the one mentioned above.
One answer to this objection might be that some men are murdered, sometimes horribly because of the climate of fear around male rape. But since I’ve tried to stick to statistics thus far, it would be dishonest to claim that this happens in anywhere near the numbers that would be necessary to make the analogy stick.
A better objection might be that the issues of disprivilege and oppression, while important, are not necessary to make the Racist Dystopia horrible. Imagine a world in which we somehow magically prevented any white people from having their opinions influenced by the public service campaign vilifying black people. They somehow continue at exactly the same level of racism they had before, and the “only” problem with the campaign is that black people have to listen to themselves be attacked all the time and get “educated” on the importance of crime prevention if they complain. This world would be less bad than the world in which they also had to deal with the additional racism, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park either.
Even removing the racism angle, the Dystopia above is still bad just because of the pain and dehumanization it causes people to have to read about their group in terms of some evil Other who must be a threat to all right-thinking people.
Men are blessed with many positive role models, but the divide between social and structural power is worth taking into account here, and the sort of men who are exposed to feminist articles like the one above (exactly the sort of men who are in the best position to help women!) have to take in quite a bit of information. For example, this morning when I checked Facebook I was helpfully suggested links to the “all men should be taken off the streets” article above, a blog called “Creepy White Guys”, an OKCupid app that claimed to be able to tag people you looked at as “likely rapists” based on a sketchy machine learning claim about their profiles, and a link to an article called “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Level There Is”. My RSS reader then directed me to my favorite blog, which had suspended its usual discussion of abstruse philosophy to host an article called “Submissions on Misogyny”, which included bits like where someone talked about her boyfriend raping and physically assaulting her and then claimed “You might think my ex was a sociopath, but no — he’s a normal male”.
This was, more or less, a typical day for a somewhat liberal guy on the Internet. So this idea that men never have to hear anyone speaking against them and these sorts of “all men are dangerous and defective” articles are just an unexpected breath of fresh air no longer track reality, if they ever did. And if you think that a man can’t possibly be hurt by seeing people insult and belittle his gender (which, no offense, is actually a kind of patriarchalist opinion right there), all I can say is that my personal experience begs to differ.
This is not a demand that people stop talking about rape, or even that they stop talking about the importance of preparedness for rape! I know my feelings aren’t as important as that!
But it is a polite request that you follow the three suggestions I would have made to the Racist Dystopians above:
- Absolute avoidance of any claim or implication that the problem is with all men and extreme and frequent repetition of the fact that the overwhelming majority of men are non-violent. 95% of men have never raped anyone and would be horrified by the idea. Insofar as you give yourself the task of “warning women what to expect from men”, one thing they should expect is to start with a 95% probability a given man is not a rapist, and then start adjusting from there based on evidence.
- A focus on the fact that women can commit rape and gendered violence as well, made at least proportional to the amount of rape/violence they actually commit, and if possible even a little more so in order to hammer home the message that what we’re against is rape itself and not This One Hated Out-Group.
- A focus on additional reasons why you need not be terrified of every single man you meet. This is something that feminists already do very well, in that they help explain what the warning signs of rapists are and what situations and requests are red flags for someone who might try to rape you, but this tends to be forgotten in articles like the one above which focus on scare-mongering the idea that it could be anybody! While it’s true that it could be anybody, it’s also important to keep in mind that it is somewhat more likely to be some people than others.
It’s easy to see why doing this would benefit men, and I admit that’s mostly why I’m writing this, but I can think of many reasons this would be good for women as well.
First, encouraging a woman to fear and distrust all men is probably not a useful strategy in a society that’s fifty percent male, especially if that woman happens to be heterosexual. A strategy of “be aware of this possibility and of the warning signs, but also that most of the people you interact with are nice and trustworthy” is probably both psychologically and socially more healthy.
Second, women have a vested interest in fighting sexism and sexist stereotypes. Sexism is basically a flawed cognitive algorithm. It’s the tendency to think “I can think of a bunch of people of this sex who do X, therefore I’m just going to classify that sex as X-doers and promote that idea to society.” A big part of fighting sexism is discouraging this process. Saying “No, you can’t just say that because some women like cooking in this society, cooking is a Thing Inherent About Women. Further, we can’t even create a climate where women are constantly portrayed as cooking and doing things relating to cooking, because that’s going to make non-culinary women feel bad.” And if you laboriously train people out of this habit of thought, and then say “But definitely do this for men, they don’t count because they’re privileged oppressors”, it’s not going to work for women either. You’re creating a natural Stroop effect where people have to keep conflicting category-based rules in their head.
Third, and most speculatively, I’m kind of worried that this sort of stereotype actually promotes rape. There was a very interesting study where researchers interviewed some people about their relationships, and then told half the subjects (at random) that they had been commendably faithful, and the other half that their actions suggested they were of an unfaithful personality type and their mental infidelity might destroy their relationship. Then they asked the subjects for their opinions on infidelity. The subjects who had been told they were commendably faithful told them fidelity was extremely important to them; the subjects who had been (randomly!) told they were unfaithful told them that fidelity wasn’t important to them and that infidelity wasn’t a big deal anyway.
The researchers theorized that this was a process called “cognitive dissonance”. Most people like themselves and want to continue to like themselves. If they are told that they, or their group, has a particular flaw, then instead of ceasing to like themselves it may be easier to just decide that flaw is not such a big deal and they can have it while continuing to be the awesome people they secretly know they are.
If rape is portrayed as inherent to men in some way, men have two mental choices. They can think “darn, I guess I got the evil gender.” Or they can think “well, if my gender does it, I guess it isn’t so bad”. Psychology suggests there will be at least some small tendency to react with the second.
I don’t know how important this effect is, but given that just stating the case for rape awareness respectfully and non-prejudicially is an easy and desirable solution anyway, I don’t see why one should take any chances.
Disclaimers That Should Not Be Necessary, But Are
I am not trying to compare the experience of men to the experience of black people in any way other than the very simple numerical comparisons listed.
I am not actually saying that black people should be seen as criminals, I am using this as an example of a bad argument in order to show that tarring all men with the crime of rape is also a bad argument.
I am not claiming straight white men are not privileged or do not have things easier than other groups.
I am not apologizing for rape or claiming it is anything other than really bad. I am not denying women the right to avoid or fear men if that is what makes them comfortable.