If we start to believe that sexual harassment and rape is a result of the way men are we cede something crucial: the belief that things can be better
[O]ne of the many myths about feminists is that we believe all men are potential rapists – that men are inherently dangerous, their sexuality naturally predatory. It’s an absurd stereotype that runs counter to decades of feminist activism. After all, if you believe men’s natural instinct is to harass or rape, what you are really arguing is that harassment and rape are normal.
It’s true that the seemingly never-ending snowball of accusations against powerful men can feel as if there is an abuser around every corner. It’s also true that sexual harassment and assault are systemic and pervasive. But if we start to believe that this is just the way men are – that this kind of behavior is simply to be expected – we cede something crucial: the belief that things can be better.
That’s what makes Stephen Marche’s New York Times op-ed this past weekend so dangerous. Marche writes that male sexuality is “inherently brutal” and that properly reckoning with sexual assault includes admitting as such. “Pretending to be something else, some fiction you would prefer to be, cannot help,” he wrote.
Marche has a history of sexist writing, from pieces claiming that men won’t share equally in housework because “millions of women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor,” to articles bemoaning “the whining of girls”. But the real issue – in addition to how offensive it is to suggest that men are naturally predatory – is how this line of thinking normalizes assault and encourages resignation over action. If we believe a particular behavior is innate, it’s easier to dismiss as immovable.
And despite the bum rap given to feminists, it’s actually conservatives who’ve long bolstered “boys will be boys” nonsense that insults men and puts women in danger.
Abstinence-only education, for example, teaches girls that they need to prevent physical affection from escalating because boys can’t help themselves. The right-led protest against women in combat, too, is based on the idea that having men and women in close quarters will lead to sexual assault. Donald Trump himself believes this, tweeting in 2013 about rape in the military: “What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?”
And there was no mistaking the Republican defense of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape as “locker room talk”. The explicit message was that men, by default, are horrid, brutal, sexists.
And it’s feminists who are the manhaters?
The truth is that while the vast majority of rapists and abusers are male, they are an extremely small percentage of the male population. So when feminists talk about rape culture, we’re not saying that our country is filled with rapists – but that we make it too easy for them to flourish.
When newspaper headlines call rapist Brock Turner a “swim star”, when victims are blamed for what they wore, or when Nancy Pelosi calls her colleague accused of sexual harassment an “icon”, we are providing refuge to those that abuse others.
All these things are preventable; we can shift how the culture responds to sexual abuse and the way we treat victims. Feminism is built on a foundation of optimism in this way – its work assumes that we can change.
Marche ends his piece in the Times by writing that the only thing that can save us from sexual harassment and assault – “if anything can” – is for men to accept their “monstrosity”. I don’t believe in monsters, but I do believe that we can do better than this. Better than thinking so little of men, better than resigning ourselves to a world where rape and harassment are considered inevitable rather than aberrant.
First, though, we need to believe that change is possible.