Monday, October 16, 2017

Root Causes

What, one wonders, is the cause of sexual assault?

I ask this question because I'd heard about the negative reactions to part of Mayim Bialik's op-ed in the New York Times on Friday.

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.
And this prompted what has become by now a standard response to pretty much any talk of taking precautions against sexual assault; charges of victim-blaming and/or slut shaming. If Ms. Bialik was in the least bit taken aback by this, I'm impressed that she could both resuscitate her acting career and live under a rock simultaneously.

And it occurs to me that the heart of this are two different narratives about the root cause of sexual misconduct among men. (While there is also criminal sexual misconduct among women, it's typically not viewed as either common enough or damaging enough to warrant much discussion.) As an outsider to the overall conversation, in that I only really interact with it when the media takes note of the more fiery aspects of it, I wonder if the way the conversation plays out actually gets in the way of the conversation itself, because the various narratives are never directly spoken of.

Of course, as an observer, rather than a participant, I'm conjecturing about what other people are thinking, so take what I'm going to say here with a grain (or a mine's worth) of salt. But, generally speaking, Ms. Bialik's self-protection policy makes sense if one thinks of sexual assault as, to some or another degree, as arising from a failure of control on the part of the attacker. So Jack sees Jill's sexual self on display, and lose some level of control of his own sexuality. It's worth noting that this doesn't automatically implicate Jill - after all, American society has no problem will labeling any number of other issues, obesity being a notable one, as being the result of failures of individual self control and personal responsibility. And it's worth pointing out that in my grandparents' time, were someone like myself, say, were to have any noticeable reaction of Ms. Bialik's sexual self, that could end very, very badly for that someone. And although for many young people, much of what one might reasonably consider recent history is beyond an event horizon, for the middle-aged and older, it's in living memory. And so we recall a time when as respected a source as _The Joy Of Sex_ could refer to "a man's rape instincts," and posit that those instincts responded to women in the vicinity, without being viewed as hopelessly regressive.

But there is a counter-argument, and one that claims that sexual assault isn't at all a matter of sexuality, and more about the way that men express their socially sanctioned (if not expected or even demanded) traits of power and aggression around women. By this logic, sexual self, flirtation and modest clothing be damned, if Jack sets himself to showing his dominance over Jill, he's going to assault or abuse her in some or another manner, and the only factors that make any difference are Jack's choices and the acceptance of the greater society of those choices. This view effectively makes Jill into a completely passive object of Jack's desire to demonstrate his masculinity, there's nothing that she can reasonably do in the way of taking precautions to either shift Jack's choices or the social reaction to those choices. Taking precautions against sexual assault may reinforce the perceived social order but they don't do anything to deter anyone but those unlikely to do the deed in the first place.

While these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, given the overall population of the planet and the differences between individuals, they've become pitted against each other. But in that, it seems to me that people don't discuss them directly. Rather, they debate the upshots of them. And in that respect the debate between "there are precautions one can take against rape," and "rape can only be prevented by men making other choices" are proxies for the differing world views that underlie those statements. And each sees the other as dangerous; naïve on the one hand, and victim-blaming on the other.

Of course, as I noted before, I'm basically a bystander in this whole situation. And being mostly disengaged, I could be missing a raging debate that I'm simply not a part of. But if it's there, perhaps it would benefit from being more open and more public.

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