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Men Hunt and Women Fish

hunting and fishing

There’s a lot of debate and moralizing about modern sexual interaction, including but not limited to the acceptability of catcalling and other compliments in public spaces, what constitutes creepy behaviour or harassment, and who has the most power in the sexual marketplace.  There seem to be a great deal of misunderstanding and miscommunication between men and women regarding these kinds of questions (and many others), and it all seems to center around the differing experiences men and women have within the sexual dynamic: men hunt and women fish.

What I mean by this is that, in heterosexual situations (generally speaking), when a man finds a woman attractive, he actively pursues her.  He approaches her, chats her up, tries to find topics to discuss with her, asks for her number, and other active, planned methods of initiating the dating process.  Men hunt.

Meanwhile, when a woman finds a man attractive, she dresses up nicely, behaves in a more friendly way when he’s around, and makes herself look as appealing as possible.  She puts out the signal that she’s available and interested, but passively, and she waits for him to come to her. Women fish.

To be clear, despite existing connotations, when I use these terms, they’re not meant to imply any kind of inherent predatory behaviour.  Hunting and fishing are both strategies which can include predation, but most people don’t prey on others.  For the purposes of this essay, assume that these are value-neutral terms.

In any case, this male hunter/female fisher dynamic is an interesting one, because of how it contrasts with the majority of the animal kingdom, where it’s typically males with the brightly coloured plumage doing a mating dance to attract attention until a desirable female approaches.  But in the human species, it is females who wear the bright colours and dance to attract attention, and the males who approach them.  In both cases, however, the females select the males.

This is generally accepted to be the result of the disparity in risk that either sex takes on in the reproductive process: a male can reproduce nearly as often as he wants without expending many resources or risking harm to himself, whereas a female can only reproduce (in the case of humans) a little more than once a year, and must accept risk to her health, great expenditure of bodily resources, and meaningful vulnerability for extended time in order to do it.  For these reasons, the female of most species is necessarily more selective than the male when choosing a mate, in order to ensure that when she does take on that risk she minimizes her odds of harm to her health in the process and produces a child that is healthy and successful.

I’m not usually that interested in evolutionary psychology as an explanation of human choices (as a broad theory, I find it leaves little room for basic agency).  Indeed, in previous articles I made it clear that, for the most part, I see gender as a combination of roles that were necessary only in the pre-industrial world, and purely constructed cultural norms that sprung up around them, but for better or worse, this risk disparity does appear to inform a lot of behaviours, both in the animal world and the human one, even though modern technology has more or less mitigated the risk disparity for humans (and in may cases reversed it).  Hunting and fishing may have evolutionary roots and be chosen in a somewhat unconscious way by those who follow gender roles without examining them, but they are choices, and those choices have consequences.

FISHING

Like any human dynamic, the “hunting and fishing” relationship comes with pros and cons for all.  The pros for women include the following:

  • A fisher’s experience in the sexual marketplace is one of constant validation.  Men must approach her in order to win her attention, and they must do so often and with many women in order to have a chance of success, so (especially if she’s conventionally attractive), she will be constantly approached.  This means that the average woman will receive regular compliments, appeals to her interest, offers of free drinks, and other forms of validation that keep her feeling attractive and appreciated.  On dates, men will try to impress her with creativity and knowledge of her interests, pay for her drinks and meals, and do their best to charm her so that she chooses them.
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  • Fishing comes with the benefit of very little up-front effort.  Constructing the bait can be time consuming if the fisher chooses (depending on how she styles her hair, makeup, clothing, etc.), but most of fishing is sitting peacefully in a boat and waiting for something to bite.  She may not have to do anything at all in order to be approached.  On dates, she is generally expected to make an effort to be attractive and interesting, but she is rarely expected to plan or pay.  She gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience that someone else has curated for her.
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  • Fishers enjoy a buyer’s market, due in large part to the disparity in selectiveness discussed above.  Because a hunter must play the numbers game, many hunters are constantly vying for her attention.  This makes her interest, sexuality, and beauty extremely valuable.  For this reason, not only is it much easier for her to get a date than it is for a hunter, but she also has the ability of profiting monetarily from her own sexuality in ways that men are less able to do, via modeling or sex work, but also by virtue of the many opportunities that arise for a woman who is seen as attractive (any job where her beauty will be an advantage to her when interacting directly with clients, from waitressing to sales to reporting the news).

But these benefits, of course, come with drawbacks:

  • When you fish, you are simply putting out the signal that you are available and interested, and that signal is broadcast to everyone who can see you.  This means that every available and interested hunter is going to approach you, whether or not you find him sexually attractive, putting you in the awkward position of regularly rejecting any hunters who were not the target of your initial signal.  If this happens often enough (and depending on the amount of social energy a given fisher has), many fishers will stop experiencing a deluge of hunters as validation and start to perceive it more as pestering, especially those who attract mostly hunters they don’t find attractive.
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    Especially given our culture’s particular sexual morality which casts overt sexuality as demeaning, dirty, or rude, in addition to the guilt and awkwardness of regularly rejecting others, the knee-jerk disgust reaction toward overt sexual interest expressed by someone perceived as sexually unattractive, and the feeling of being pestered, it’s common for fishers to develop a prejudice against hunter (male) sexuality that is composed of the assumptions that it is base, superficial, irritating, disgusting, or even predatory.  These prejudices and assumptions are, of course, also a disadvantage for the hunter, but they make it difficult for fishers who possess them to fairly and objectively evaluate hunters for the qualities they are seeking.  Prejudiced fishers have a very hard time finding dates, because they see most hunters as “not my type” (or worse), even when they’re not.
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  • Fishing is not a proactive strategy.  Someone who fishes simply casts the line and then waits.  Depending on their location, it may not take long for someone to bite, but the target of interest may not be among those who bite, or even be aware that a line has been cast.  Choosing to fish makes it very difficult to ensure interaction with the person you’re attracted to, and gives you little to no initial control over interactions.

HUNTING

Hunting comes with more or less reciprocal pros and cons.  Their advantages are as follows:

  • Hunting comes with the advantage of a great deal of up-front control.  Hunters get to determine, to a large extent, who to interact with and how.  They decide the terms and circumstances of how and when to approach someone.  They have creative control over the details of most dates, and because their strategy is direct, they make many of the decisions at the start of this process (for better or worse).  They are also almost never approached, so they very rarely have to reject anyone.
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  • Hunters have typically been raised as such, taught through the male gender role to actively pursue women.  This gives them a lifetime of experience approaching others, getting used to rejection, and asking for what they want, developing a thick skin and assertiveness that will serve them in many other aspects of life.

However, the disadvantages are many:

  • The high energy and effort one must keep up in order to be a successful hunter are nearly untenable (especially for introverts).  Hunters must constantly approach fishers and endure rejection time and again before any fisher accepts their appeal.  Attractiveness, charisma, and other positive characteristics increase their chances of success, but even the most attractive hunter must put in the effort of approaching and impressing fishers just to determine which fishers are attracted to them.  Even after finding an interested fisher, hunters must obtain phone numbers, initiate dates, and plan everything out.  They are also usually expected to pay for any food, drinks, or cover charges in further encounters.  And while a date for a fisher is a relaxing, curated experience (assuming the date goes well), for a hunter it’s more like a job interview.  He knows that in order to compete with the other hunters who are all vying for that fisher’s attention and affection, he must be charming, witty, interesting, generous, respectful, and just the right amount of invested, so that he appears interested but not desperate, flattering but not aggressive.  This is as stressful as it sounds.
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  • A large concern with hunters is that fishers don’t communicate much while fishing.  The hunter must read his audience carefully, because he needs to know exactly how to appeal to someone whose desires and preferences are unclear.  Most of hunting is trying to determine exactly what a given fisher will find attractive, charming, thoughtful, or interesting, usually without clear language.
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  • Since many fishers read initiating as pestering, harassment, superficiality, degradation, or foolishness, hunters run the risk not only of rejection, but also of ridicule, being labeled a creep, or worse.  This places the hunter in a catch-22 situation, where he must initiate to find a partner, since women almost never hunt, but any initiating can be read as disrespect or impropriety (often based entirely on his attractiveness, rather than his actions), so that the only remotely effective strategy men have at their disposal is to subject themselves to many forms of disapproval, from regular rejection, to disgust, to ridicule, to offense taking, to even fear or lashing out, on the off-chance that the target of his interest also finds him attractive.
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  • This collection of disadvantages inevitably leads many hunters who lack the social energy, confidence, patience, or luck necessary to maintain this strategy to disillusionment, loneliness, and depression.  When the only effective method for finding a partner requires constant effort and subjection to disappointment, in a world where most people have very little free time and come home from work already exhausted, the hunter often doesn’t have the time or energy to pursue love or sexual gratification.  Those who are less confident or unlucky in love often find this entire situation too daunting to even start, and I talk to such men all the time.

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

I mentioned at the start of this essay that I see a lot of misunderstandings between men and women that stem from this dynamic, due to their wildly different experiences in the sexual marketplace.  Perhaps one of the largest factors in this misunderstanding is that fishers, by the nature of their strategy, communicate their desires very infrequently.  For many fishers, this is because she wants to determine if a given hunter is genuinely the type she is seeking, rather than running the risk of hunters simply saying what she wants to hear in order to win her over.  Others want to be swept off their feet by someone who automatically knows what she wants.  Others still are too timid to communicate their preferences, or aren’t sure what they want in the first place.  Nevertheless, any interaction in which one party is decidedly non-communicative is bound to be frustrating.  Women often complain that men don’t understand their needs and boundaries, while men complain that women don’t communicate their needs and boundaries.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous manifestations of this failure to communicate is the game of playing coy.  Many women will feign disinterest because they enjoy being pursued, sometimes leading her to say no when she means yes.  This phenomenon is not unknown to men, which puts them in a difficult position.  They must gamble on every sign of disinterest, and every “no,” which could mean “prove how much you want me” or “I’m sincerely not interested.”  What this means is that conscientious hunters will take every “no” at face value, so a lot of secretly interested fishers will go home with their hands (and so will those hunters).

Meanwhile, more enterprising and perhaps less scrupulous hunters will win over fishers playing coy, but also run the risk of taking a genuine “no” as a secret “yes.”  This means that fishers who play this game will sometimes be rewarded for lying at the expense of honest women, and those who don’t play this game will suffer anything from the annoyance of not being taken at their word to downright sexual assault, because hunters have learned from experience that “no” sometimes means “yes.”  This puts both parties in an ugly situation: the hunter who is now labeled a consent violator for doing what other women have taught him to do, and the fisher whose consent was violated because other fishers aren’t honest about their intentions and desires.  Because of a lack of clear and honest communication, everyone loses.

Another concern that seems to inform a great deal of misunderstandings is the “buyer’s market” aspect of the dynamic.  Because women are constantly approached and appealed to, their perception of this experience is going to be different from that of men’s.  While women with more social energy enjoy this flattery, those with less find it tiresome (before you add in the ideological interpretations, such as the feminist assumption that it’s meant to be demean or control women).  Hunters hear from both kinds of women, and this often feels like a mixed message.  Hunters aren’t sure what degree of engagement is appropriate, because different women have different preferences and comfort levels.  And fundamentally, hunters struggle to understand how fishers could be annoyed or unimpressed by being constantly complimented and sought out, since the average hunter, who endures rejection and disapproval as a necessary part of seeking dates, would kill for a fraction of the validation or appreciation that the average fisher receives.  While a fisher may consider a given behaviour superficial or harassment, a hunter may see it as a sort of genuine human connection for which he feels starved.  Similarly, (largely because of the sexual morality of our culture) fishers see their ability to profit from their sexuality and beauty as cheapening or dehumanizing, whereas many hunters just wish they could do it.

Less of a miscommunication between the sexes and more of a broad misunderstanding, the hunting/fishing dynamic leads to perception of males as more sexual and females as less sexual than they actually are.  Because hunters must play the numbers game, they are perceived as “always on” or being driven by sex.  Meanwhile, because fishers play the gatekeeper, they are perceived in the extreme as frigid or asexual, in the less extreme as having a default of disinterest.  This leads to asymmetrical sexual advocacy, in which women are protected from sexuality like Victorian-era prudes (even by progressives), and men are excluded from advocacy against sexual misconduct, because someone who always wants sex can’t fail to consent or be victimized by harassment or assault.  This isn’t just a misperception between the sexes.  Generally speaking, I have seen that women perceive women this way and men perceive men this way, too.

Finally, because the bait for fishing is mostly physical beauty (as well as its value and profitability outside the sexual marketplace), many women suffer from the misconception that a woman’s societal value is limited to her physical appearance.  Because of this, they worry that they will become devalued, less respected, or less appreciated as they age.  What these women don’t realize is that just like women, men value physical attractiveness and a wide variety of personality traits in their partners, and that once a hunter learns that a given fisher is far more beautiful than she is interesting, he’s likely to move along, just as a woman might do with a man who is more beautiful than he is interesting.  Furthermore, her value to society is not, and never was, limited to her value to a prospective partner.  However, any fisher who worries about this can assuage her worries by being sure to cultivate a personality and a variety of practical skills (which is something that hunters must do in order to have even initial success, since they appeal to fishers with attributes like charisma and wit).

SOLUTIONS

I’ve outlined a lot of problems that result from the wildly different experiences men and women have in dating and sexuality, from the initial drawbacks of either side to the ways men and women fail to understand each other through the lens of these differing experiences.  Here are my proposed solutions.

Most obviously, men and women simply need to communicate more, on an individual level and in groups.  On the individual level, women need to say what they need out loud and be willing to clearly communicate their boundaries, or men are going to continue to live in the dark.  Women need to stop playing coy, because this leaves everyone lonely at best, and harms other women at worst.  On the group level, men and women need spaces to air their grievances and be heard as equals.  No privilege checking, no victim contests, no arguing over which side has more pros or cons.  Everyone needs to be willing to listen in earnest, with an open mind to the existence of real problems and drawbacks on both sides.

Second, I’ve noticed something with the rise of the normalization of queer relationships: it’s helping break down gender roles for all, including heterosexuals.  Who should pay for a date between two men?  When two women are attracted to each other, who should ask the other out?  How should an existing poly couple approach a prospective third?  These kinds of questions inherently raise questions about the necessity of dividing the roles in heterosexual dating so simplistically as they have been in traditionalist societies.

When there’s no default role for any party in the pursuit of relationships (when both are the same sex, for example), roles develop naturally as a result of individual personalities, rather than individuals feeling that they have to fit gendered expectations of how to approach interaction.  The result is that queer relationships, especially in media representation and discourse on relationships present public examples of alternatives to the male hunter/female fisher dynamic.  The availability of such examples have, I’ve observed, led to more heterosexuals choosing an approach that suits them better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, women need to bite the bullet and start hunting.  I started doing this at a young age (when I was only dating men), but it became even more important when I started dating women (since many women, even queer women, tend not to initiate).  From the very beginning it dramatically shifted my perspective on the entire dating process, and I think every woman would benefit from hunting at least sometimes, and men would benefit too, in the following ways:

  • Women would share in the burden of constant rejection and the up-front effort of approaching targets of attraction.
  • This basic role reversal will help men and women better understand each other’s experiences, perspectives, and complaints.
  • Women will start to understand that hunting isn’t predation, harassment, or the purview of the shallow
  • Men will get a piece of that sweet, sweet validation pie.
  • Women won’t have to sit around waiting for a partner to come along.
  • Even if only some women choose to start hunting, this will start to shrink the massive disparity in sexual value between men and women.  When more women are actively pursuing men, more men will have a chance at dating.
  • Experience on the hunter side of the dynamic will give women more of an opportunity to develop thicker skin and assertiveness.
  • A role reversal will reduce the perception of women as chaste and men as always on, leading to more respect and understanding for women’s sexuality and men’s capacity for non-consent.

In short, I constantly hear from men who are at a loss because they struggle to find the time and energy needed to be successful hunters, the patience and determination necessary to endure rejection, and the finesse required to navigate the catch-22 of sexual morality.  They suffer from loneliness and depression, and often self-loathing, and don’t know how else to proceed.  They could try fishing, but with so few female hunters, it’s not a viable strategy.  As is so often the case, what needs to happen is the breakdown of gender roles.  Men need to try fishing sometimes, and women need to try hunting sometimes.

 

EDIT: Understand that these assessments of human behaviour and experience are meant to be comparative, not absolute.  So while I understand that women who fish experience some rejection, for example, which varies with level of attractiveness and other factors, I think that this is substantially less the case for a given woman/fisher than for an equivalently attractive man/hunter.  Furthermore, for hunters it is more direct and explicit rejection, as opposed to the subtle and arguably less painful rejection of simply not being approached by the target of your interest.

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Filed under equality, gender roles, sexuality, Uncategorized

On Gender and Astrology

 

open-cluster-in-perseus_shutterstock_55193803

For the amount that I write about gender, I’ve never really attempted to define or explain what I think it is, much past its relevance to the social and political sphere.  In truth, gender as a personal identity was never something I could quite wrap my head around, and here I’ll try to explain why.

When I was growing up I was super into astrology.  And so was a lot of my family.  I even had a grandmother who learned how to draw up those elaborate charts for people.  As it happens, I thought my sign fit me like a glove.  It was uncanny.  So I would memorize my chart, read my horoscopes, and even read up on who I was supposed to date and be friends with based on my sign.  “Yeah, I never stop talking — I’m a Gemini!”  I liked it so much that I thought about who I was through this lens.  It was more than just fun, it was part of my identity.

I would also try to guess what signs other people had based on their personalities, and sometimes I was even right.  And I noticed something: unsurprisingly, the people I met who were as into astrology as I was, like me, felt that their signs fit them perfectly.  As for the folks who felt no connection to their signs?  They tended to reject the zodiac and pursue other interests.

As I got older I started to do the same.  I realized that the list of characteristics associated with my sign didn’t describe me nearly as well as I’d thought.  I might be gregarious and communicative, but I’m not superficial and two-faced.  If anything, I’m brutally honest and even blunt to the point of rudeness, more like an Aries.  And I don’t flit between friendships without committing much to any.  I’m fiercely loyal to the people I love, like a Cancer.

If I wanted to, I could choose one of these as a new sign to identify with.  I could come up with some explanation, like “this is my rising, and it fills in a lot of the gaps in describing me,” or “these signs appear more on my chart than Gemini does,” or even “I was born a month before my due date — I’m actually supposed to be a Cancer.”  But a much better explanation is that my mother is blunt and honest and my father is loyal, and I acquired these traits through my upbringing as most people do.

Don’t get me wrong.  Astrology is a fine source of entertainment when it’s done light-heartedly, and I don’t begrudge the people who buy into it and enjoy it.  It’s an easy way to group personalities (if you don’t mind simplifying them), and it can be fun to compare yourself to these archetypes.  But if your sign doesn’t fit you, it’s not because you need to discover what your real sign is.  It’s because astrology isn’t real, and the quasi-spiritual musings of the ancient Greeks were never meant to predict human personalities and behaviour several thousand years into the future.  If your sign does fit you, it’s a coincidence, not the workings of some mystical part of the universe that has a tap on your true inner self.  I’m not really a Gemini or a Cancer.  I’m a person who is both talkative and loyal, and the fact that those traits exist in some archetypes from the ancient world is completely irrelevant to who I am as a person.

This is exactly how I feel about gender.

There seems to be a fairly heated debate here on the internet about whether there are two or many more genders, and I’m of the firm opinion that this is the wrong question to ask.  I don’t see gender as a fundamental truth about a person that needs to be discovered and actualized.  A gender is a series of traits, tasks, expectations, and stereotypes associated with a traditional sex role, which was (and still is in many respects) used to pigeonhole people.  It’s not something that’s found in oneself as some personal but objective truth.  It’s something that’s placed on a person based on stereotyping, which some individuals choose to use as the language through which to self-identify.

In most western cultures, there are two of these pigeonholes, though some eastern cultures and much of the ancient world seem to have a more nuanced approach (which is to say, three or more pigeonholes). Theoretically we could construct as many as we want, on the societal or individual level. But since we have modern technology and a fairly progressive first world that is trying its darnedest to move away from pigeonholing people (by gender or by any other demographic features), it strikes me as counterproductive to identify ourselves and others using this outdated and limited system.

If I say that I identify as a woman, I most likely mean one of two things: that I am comfortable with my female biology, or that my personality is more in line with the feminine gender role than any other. In the former case, I consider this fair but superficial. My view of my body, positive or negative, is worth addressing, but it doesn’t define who I am as a person. In the latter case, my identifying as a woman may well fit the typical feminine description, but it’s superfluous. If I were a devoted mother who liked shopping and fashion, and those aspects mattered to me, they could be part of my identity without validating stereotypes, just as I can see myself as talkative and gregarious without validating astrology by claiming that this is because I’m a Gemini.  It’s reasonable to acknowledge and discuss the physical reality of one’s body, how one views or feels about that body, or which archetypal traits apply to one’s personality.  These linguistic shortcuts make sense in context and I have no objection to them.  But I differentiate meaningfully between an acknowledgment of any of the above and a personal identity.  To proclaim that one’s perception of one’s body or one’s degree of adherence to a given pre-industrial sex role is what fundamentally makes someone who they are is superficial and sexist.

If I haven’t made it clear, I am a staunch social constructivist.  That obviously doesn’t mean I think that genders were invented by The Patriarchy(TM) to oppress women (or the reverse).  Indeed, they were once necessary to survival.  But just because I am the only person in my household who could bear and nurse children doesn’t mean that’s the most fulfilling occupation for me as an individual or an inherent aspect of who I am as a person.  The very basics of pre-industrial division of labour — men use their muscles to provide and protect, women use their female anatomy to produce and nourish children — were biologically dependent and necessary to functioning society before modern technology, but the cultural practices and beliefs that sprung up around those roles over the millennia — women are better at cooking, men are better at driving, women like shopping, men like sports, etc. — are probably arbitrary and socially constructed.  A substantial amount of these assumptions are outright wrong (the best chefs in the world are predominantly men, and women are less likely to get into car accidents, for example), and even those stereotypes that are borne out in trends of human behaviour have enough outliers to be poor predictors on their own.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many people who adhere, to a large extent, to these descriptions, and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with those who do.  But what it does mean is that, since these aren’t natural kinds of people determined by some mystical force, there are going to be a lot of us who just want something different out of life than the pre-made cookie cutter existences labeled “masculinity” or “femininity.”

In short, after all the hard work that’s been done to liberate many of us from these expectations, I don’t see the point of constructing an identity based on the degree to which I do or don’t adhere to them, and I find it confusing that anyone who views themselves as anti-gender-roles or anti-sexism would want to do so.  I don’t know how many genders there are.  I guess the answer to that question depends on which culture or how many cultures you’re looking at when you ask.  But the more important question, which nobody seems to be asking in these terms, is how many genders should there be?  To that I argue zero.  Zero pigeonholes.

To be clear, this essay isn’t meant as an instruction for how one ought to self-conceptualize, a judgment upon others’ self-expression, or some TERF manifesto — by now you should have noticed that my thoughts on this subject apply as much to cis identities as it does to anyone else.  I support the vast array of human expression, and I want to see more people feeling free to act and live the way they prefer, whether or not that fits in with a prescribed role.  But I question the act of self-labeling to communicate that this makes one more or less of a man, or more or less of a woman, as if there were traits or interests that a man or woman somehow must or couldn’t possess.  Those stereotypes need to be eliminated, not reinforced by a gender discourse which identifies individuals within them (as I would argue for astrology, were it used to enforce expectations and judgments upon others).

The fact that I am good at party planning, painting my nails, and reading people doesn’t validate female gender stereotypes or make me a woman any more than the fact that I like whiskey on the rocks and combat sports and sit with my knees far apart validates male stereotypes or makes me a man.  I could do any of these things as a man or a woman.  The fact that I, like every other human being living or dead, possess some combination of both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits also doesn’t necessarily validate the concept of alternative genders.  What these things say about me is that, like everyone else, I’m a real human being who is too complex an organism to place neatly onto this clumsy spectrum that is better suited to illustrating the differences between Betty Boop and Johnny Bravo than it is to understanding human identity.  As I see it, the fact that everyone deviates from the poles of this spectrum in some ways does less to validate the idea of many genders and more to invalidate the idea of gender as a natural kind.

And this spectrum is not just a poor basis on which to identify people, but I also see it as a strange preoccupation.  Identity really shouldn’t be something that must receive external validation in order to exist or bring satisfaction, and yet most people, cis or trans, are so tied up in their gendered interpretation of their identity that they are concerned with how that gender is perceived by others.  This is utterly alien to me.  Just as I’m not concerned with whether or not someone can guess my astrological sign (or my race, sexual orientation, national origin, etc.), I can’t imagine being bothered that someone perceives me as a man.  This is not only because there’s nothing wrong with being a man, but also because these demographic tidbits tell you nothing meaningful about a person.  My identity isn’t built on superficial things like race, sexual orientation, anatomy, or where I fall on some simplistic imaginary spectrum.  It’s built on things, such as being gregarious and speaking frankly, that make me who I am, traits which I feel lend me toward virtues I value.  These are things that I think matter about myself, that affect how I see myself and make me proud of who I am, and they are things I can be and do regardless of my sex or what time of the year I was born.

Is there any reason it should matter to me whether another person perceives me as a man, woman, or neither, provided they respect me as a person?  Is there a reason I should perceive myself through that lens at all?  At what point do we simply acknowledge that gender archetypes are not the best tool for describing people and not a basis on which to build a human identity?  Instead, we should acknowledge that an identity is something that is based on one’s personality and accomplishments, and any labels which have been constructed for us by a myopic and limited past society are nothing but superfluous to that process.

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A Critique of #NotAllMen

no one thinks all men

A lot of feminists have a bee in their bonnets about the hashtag campaign “not all men,” on the grounds that it detracts attention from the conversation asserting that men cause certain problems, and because, as they argue, exceptions don’t disprove the rule.

I suppose I’m glad that there are folks out there who at least acknowledge that ALL men aren’t responsible for the ills caused by some, but I maintain that #NotAllMen, far from being a distraction from a more important conversation, isn’t good enough at absolving men as a group from blame for social ills.  “Not all men” still implies that a significant enough proportion of men behave in these ways (oppressive, sexually aggressive, violent, etc.) to discuss it as a male behaviour in the first place.  The overwhelming majority of men do not do these things.  This would be like rebutting the racist statement “black people steal!” with “not ALL black people steal!”  This rebuttal would be questioned on the grounds that most black people don’t steal, and describing stealing as a black behaviour at all (rather than a human behaviour that anyone can engage in) is still racist.

#NotAllMen isn’t good enough because it still implicates men as a group, or the majority of men.  It doesn’t communicate the reality that the group responsible for the problems described is not a significant proportion of men, but rather a tiny minority of people consisting of men and women, and it’s just as sexist to describe rape or violence as a male behaviour as it is racist to describe theft as a black behaviour, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge “exceptions.”

I suppose hashtag campaigns aren’t meant for clarity or nuance, but far closer to the truth would be something more like #ASmallProportionOfMenAndWomenAreViolentAndDangerousButMostPeopleSimplyArentLikeThatSoWhileWeShouldCertainlyAddressItWhenItDoesOccurYouCanStillGoAboutYourBusinessFeelingRelativelySafe.  I know, it just don’t roll off the tongue the same way.

So, while the above meme is clearly presenting the image of throwing a bone to men’s advocates and those who oppose the feminist narrative, it still manages to maintain the overt sexism of any claim that all men do engage in the aforementioned behaviours.  OP is essentially saying that as long as she acknowledges that there is at least one man in the world who doesn’t, it’s okay to continue to describe men as a violent group whose behaviours justify fear, distrust, and hatred from women.  This is like saying, “I acknowledge that SOME Jews aren’t greedy!  I’m not an antisemite!  I just want to address Jewish greed as a social problem!”

If you follow my posts, and if you read the studies I link to, by now you probably know that the vast majority of men aren’t violent toward women, and that the small proportion who are is comparable to the proportion of women who are violent toward men.  I shouldn’t need to remind you that violence is not a male problem.  It is a human problem, with perpetrators and victims on both sides.

Sure, all women have met a male asshole, but this is a disingenuous way to frame the phenomenon of assholery, let alone the phenomenon of violence.  All people have met assholes of both sexes.  The existence of male assholes says no more or less about maleness or men as a group than the existence of female assholes says about femaleness or women as a group, just as the existence of some number of Mexican rapists in no way justifies Donald Trump’s implication that this behaviour characterizes the Mexican people.

By now, over the course of my blog, I’ve probably repeated most of these points ad nauseam, so I want to talk about another problem related to the debate between the #NotAllMen folks and the #YesAllWomen folks.

“All women” is a ridiculous claim.  This meme and a truly astounding number of people I’ve spoken to assert with a straight face that most or all women have had experiences with individual men that caused and justified fear.  I’ve written at length about the popular and horrendously inflated violence numbers that are peddled to us by the media.  The wildest of these is the infamous “one in three” statistic, followed closely by the “one in five” statistic, whose studies suffer from severe definitional skewing, double standards applied to classification of men and women who perpetrate or are victimized, sensational reporting, focus on unreliable lifetime data, biased or small samples, poorly worded survey questions, and a number of other methodological problems and biases.  But even if we take the highest and most skewed statistic, 1 in 3, at face value, this still falls remarkably short of “all women,” or even “most women.”

This is important, because there is a very popular narrative that male bad behaviour toward women — everything from disrespect to discrimination to violence — is institutionalized, culturally acceptable, and ubiquitous.  Women are taught that they should be afraid of passing strangers, that they should be cautious when men approach them or are in the same spaces as them.  We’re taught that strangers want to hurt us, that there are gatekeepers throughout education, business, and academia who seek to prevent us from success.

We are taught to expect men to hurt us, even though the majority of men won’t hurt anyone, and the majority of women won’t be hurt.  We are taught to expect to be paid less for the same work, even though apples-to-apples comparisons show that in much of the country the truth is the opposite.  We are told to expect discrimination against us that harms our careers, even though only ten percent of women, according to Pew Research, believe they have ever had a negative impact on their career due to gender discrimination, and even though some studies indicate that many women enjoy discrimination in their favour in the workplace.  We are taught that we live in a culture that condones violence against women, even though the reverse is closer to the truth.  We are taught that the criminal justice and social work systems will treat us with disbelief and ridicule if we try to report violence victimization, even though these systems are so dedicated to protecting women from men that it routinely treats male victims as perpetrators, and even though we lock away enough innocent men that one small organization has already identified and exonerated hundreds based on pre-existing DNA evidence alone.  We are setting women up with expectations of harms they are unlikely to encounter, and this itself harms women.

We have been taught to be paranoid in public spaces, on edge with male friends, suspicious around potential male partners, and to feel a complete lack of bargaining power with male employers and coworkers.  We are teaching our young people to live in fear, and I have met many women who have swallowed this narrative wholesale, who are very much afraid.  This alone is a crime against women.  There is no good reason to be afraid of an entire demographic of people, and I think we can all agree that part of a good life is being able to relax and enjoy your time, rather than being hyper-alert and fearful of others.

When I see this false narrative repeated over and over, and I see the number of women who believe it so wholeheartedly that they are desperately upset, I can’t help but wonder:

How many women are raped, assaulted, or discriminated against, and do nothing about it?  How many don’t report it, don’t go to the police, don’t talk to HR, and don’t try to seek help because they assume that what happened to them is so common and culturally supported that no one will help them?  We are teaching young women not only to be afraid of others, but to believe that there is no recourse for them if they are actually victimized.  Would you report your rape or domestic assault victimization to the police if you thought they’d blame you for it?  Would you talk to HR about sexual harassment or discrimination if you thought they supported it?  This BJS study shows that many women don’t, and that the proportion is growing of female victims of sexual assault who have this fear of the system.  From 1994 to 2010 the proportion of female victims who did not report due to the belief that the police couldn’t or wouldn’t help them increased from 8% to around 15%, almost doubling.  I imagine it is no coincidence that this increase seems to have coincided with an increase in the prevalence of activists claiming that we live in a culture that accepts or condones victimization of women, and that police and social workers routinely blame and shame women who report, claims for which in ten years of research and dedication to these topics I have found not the remotest shred of substantiation.

These toxic misconceptions aren’t just harming women’s ability to comfortably move through the world.  We are teaching women an ideology that, if believed, will cripple their ability to seek help if something terrible happens to them.  What a horrible thing to do to women.  This narrative of all men, or most men, all women, or most women, needs to be dismantled and set on fire, not just because of the flagrant misandry that underpins it, but also because of what it does to the quality of life of the women who believe it.

The fact that the harm done to women by this fear mongering and rampant misinformation isn’t a major feminist issue alone makes me highly suspicious of the feminist movement.

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On Gender and History

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I’m really surprised that I haven’t written on this yet, since it’s something that so fundamentally underpins my perspective on gender issues and relations. Unsurprisingly, my view of gender, history, and power is not the commonly accepted view. I don’t see men and women as part of a gendered hierarchy by which women are subordinated under men’s power. And even more controversial, I don’t think it has ever been that way.

Gender roles are and always have been a division of labour by biological aptitude, a set of reciprocal entitlements and responsibilities under which neither gender was objectively better off than the other. If women can be said to be oppressed by their expectation throughout history of motherhood and relegation to the household sphere of duties and childcare, despite their entitlement by virtue of being female to any protection and provision their male relatives could provide, then I see no reason not to say that men were equivalently oppressed by the expectation of hard and dangerous physical labour, providing for their families, and participation in war, despite being entitled to more overt political rights in some socioeconomic groups. Even in modern times, can we really say that the women who are not allowed to drive or leave their homes without an escort in oppressive theocratic nations are definitively worse off than the men who are tasked with going out into the very dangerous world and enduring hard labour to provide for them, or drafted into the military as adolescents or children? Gender roles aren’t unilaterally harmful. They’re restrictive and harmful to everyone, especially under pre-industrial or third world conditions.

Sure, women didn’t have individual property rights until fairly recently in history, but they had the right to occupy, use, and benefit from the property of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, who were tasked with providing them food, shelter, and protection. Women didn’t have overt political rights, but they ran their households, which gave them influence over their husbands and sons at home. Further, almost every woman had a household to rule, but very few men throughout history had the chance for any political power at all. Just because the tiny minority of politically or religiously powerful people in the pre-industrial world usually constituted far more men than women doesn’t mean that men had more power or advantage than women across the board. That tiny proportion of powerful men tells us very little about what it was like to be the common man or woman.  The average male peasant through the vast majority of generations had no more ability to influence his government or state than his wife did.  He had no more opportunities than his sister to become a lord or cardinal.

Under gender roles, women were expected to spend their days cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, and to risk their lives in childbirth. Similarly, men were expected to spend their days wearing out their bodies in fields. They were expected to risk their lives by protecting their families from intruders or wild animals, to go to war where many would experience indescribable suffering, and to be the last pulled out of a burning building. Yes, women were kept in the kitchen, patronized, and talked down to. But men were used as pawns whenever the king or lord wanted to squabble with neighbouring powers.  Women were treated, in many ways, like children, but men were treated like cannon fodder.  Both sexes suffered from a lack of freedom, respect, and human dignity, but in different ways.

The word “patriarchy” gets used a lot to describe this division of roles, but it seems simplistic and disingenuous to refer to the above scenario as a system of male dominance and female subordination or a system where men benefit at women’s expense. Men and women benefited in ways, but men and women were subordinated to their roles. Men benefited by having some property and political rights, and having their homes taken care of. Women benefited by having a near-guarantee of protection and provision, and exemption from compulsory projects like the draft. Men were subordinated to a role that destroyed their bodies in wheat fields and risked their lives on the battlefield. Women were subordinated to a role of labour in the home and the more dangerous labour of bearing children.

But neither of these roles were implemented out of spite. In a much older world, they were necessary. We didn’t have factories, breast pumps, baby formula, tractors, or many of the other modern conveniences that allow practical mobility along the gender spectrum. We had women, who could bear and nurse children, which made them incredibly important but also very vulnerable. And we had men, who were built with far more muscle mass and bone density, and thus the physical strength and constitution to dig ditches, work iron, build walls, and fight wars. Thus, over millennia women and men were separated, as they are in the rest of the animal kingdom, into roles that were suited to them by their respective unique physiological abilities. A man couldn’t stay at home and feed the baby even if he’d wanted to, and a woman couldn’t go out and lift heavy things for 16 hours, physiologically speaking. (Women could do less physically demanding jobs, though, and in fact, brewing and weaving were common enough female professions that the surnames Webster and Brewster have been historically passed from mother to daughter. Baxter – for bakers – is another example, and midwifing was a more or less exclusively female profession for most societies.)

Then the industrialization happened. Up sprung the factories, allowing traditionally male work to be done by just about anyone (including children – there’s a downside to everything). It is no coincidence that this was when feminism also sprung up.  However, by the time most women were physically able to do what had been men’s role for all of human history, it was a long established norm that each gender had their sphere, and ne’er the two shall meet.  So, like any other harmless deviation from long-established norms, they had to fight for their right to mobility across those spheres, even though the physiological barriers no longer applied. Which is to say, women weren’t kept out of male spheres because they were considered “less than.”  Women were kept out of male spheres, and men out of female spheres, because we had a very specific, socially enforced, bilateral division of labour.  You’ll notice that now, 150 years later, there is no stigma for women working outside the home, but men who want to do what was traditionally women’s work (from nursing and childcare to being a stay-at-home dad) still face a great deal of stigma and ridicule.

This is because when feminism arose, it sought to eliminate women’s gendered role, and the disadvantages associated with it. I am glad we have had a movement to liberate women from relegation to the home. I’m glad I can vote, choose any profession, go to school, buy a house, and use birth control. I’m glad for Roe v. Wade and the Equal Pay Act. But I am so disappointed in the unilateral nature of the movement that gave us these things. The feminist movement took a one-sided look at a complex and bilateral problem, and addressed half of it, the half that affects women.

Without a broader gender equality movement exploding into the mainstream sphere as feminism did, men are still held to exactly the same traditional male roles, from the trivial (it is normal for women to wear pants, but men cannot wear skirts without severe judgment) to the extremely disadvantageous: men’s historical role as protector means that men alone must sign the draft registry, although muscle-dependent swords and shields have long since given way to tanks and jet planes; and similarly men’s historical exclusion from the female sphere of childcare means that men lose the majority of custody battles, while still being expected to foot the bill for their children’s care, even though men could just as easily be the primary parent or women the primary breadwinner in today’s society.  Men protect, and men provide, and there’s very little else that they have the opportunity to do, because we have done nothing to change the role they filled when feminism started to address women’s.

Men also face a tremendous amount of disadvantage due to schemas associated with being seen as the actors, protectors, and aggressors of society.  For example, every criminal justice bias we point to as evidence of racism also affects men. Because men are seen as aggressors and agents, people who do not need protecting, people who commit but do not suffer violence, they are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced than women. Men on average receive 63% longer sentences than women, when controlling for the crime, criminal background, and other relevant factors. Women, on the other hand, are regularly dismissed as perpetrators by judges who do not believe such a thing could exist, or who know that no jury will convict a woman. This disparity evokes the days when a man could be arrested for his wife’s crimes or held responsible for the debts she incurred before marriage. Men were, and still are, viewed as actors and do-ers, while women, any time a man is involved, are viewed as beings to whom things are done.

This is especially troubling when we get into issues of domestic and sexual violence, which, due to the prejudices I listed above, we view as male-perpetrated acts of violence against women, even though they are committed at least as often by women against men. There are only two men’s shelters in the US, so when men seek refuge, they are regularly turned away. When men call domestic violence hotlines seeking help, they are routinely referred to batterer’s programs. When they report victimization to the police, they are about as likely to be assumed the primary aggressor and arrested as they are to be assisted. Never mind the disappointingly prevalent police officers who will unabashedly laugh in your face if you try to tell them a woman raped you.  This is a clear manifestation of the traditional belief that men can and should take care of themselves, be stronger than those who would try to attack them, and protect others.  A man who cannot defend himself from an assailant is not a protector, and thus renders himself invisible or worse.

For some background information, the MRM is fundamentally a human rights movement that seeks to dismantle men’s traditional roles, not a group of outdated traditionalists as the popular myth suggests. An MRA is necessarily opposed to gender roles, which are the cause of most of the issues we raise. It is important to understand, for example, that we as a society permit men to be drafted, circumcised, and socialized to take dangerous jobs because their well-being was not and is not valued under a gender role system. They are labourers and protectors, not the protected.  It’s “women and children first,” “end violence against women,” and headlines like “60 Confirmed Dead, Including 4 Women;” not “save as many as you can,” “end violence against everyone,” or “60 Confirmed Dead, Most of Them Men.” It’s #bringbackourgirls, not #avengeourboys.

Men’s job, according to their gender role, is to wear down their bodies to provide for their families and risk death to defend them. In centuries past, we couldn’t afford compassion for people in that role.

This goes well beyond “patriarchy hurts men, too.” If we lived in a system adapted for men’s benefit at women’s expense, in which women were seen as less than, men wouldn’t be the majority of the homeless, overworked, and suicidal. They wouldn’t be asked to sacrifice themselves in mines and on oil rigs so that their wives and daughters can have food on their tables.  They wouldn’t get half the federal funding for their cancers that women get for ours. They wouldn’t get their genitals cut at birth, while girls are protected by law and basic human decency from ever having to experience that. Men would always have access to their children, and they wouldn’t be extorted for their care when women have every reproductive option available to be or not be a mother. In a patriarchy, women would be punished, not ignored or enabled, for raping or abusing men. Women wouldn’t be the only victims we care about, and men wouldn’t be the majority of those shipped off to die in times of war.  In a patriarchy, men, not women, would be the group whose issues get attention and redress, rather than an elaborate network of women’s organizations and government initiatives forwarding women’s issues while widespread censure and protest stand in the way of the same progress for men.

The popular understanding of gender roles is skewed and one-sided. Patriarchy Theory is a polemic oversimplification that ignores half or more of the gender issues we face as a society. Men didn’t make this happen. They aren’t accidental casualties of their own arrogant folly. They are and have always been just as much a victim of the narrow and now-obsolete system of gender roles as women.

The only difference is that we’ve spent the past century and a half addressing women’s side of the problem.

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On Subjects and Objects

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Laci Green, from her video on objectification

Lately I’ve been mulling over some thoughts on the subject-object dichotomy that feminists talk about sometimes, and I think there’s a grain of truth to it. While I disagree with many of the ways feminists characterize it (particularly that it is unilaterally harmful), there is definitely a binary paradigm of actor and object by which we view men and women respectively, and this is true within both feminist and traditionalist gender philosophies.

Men are viewed as agents, as actors: assertive, capable, and often dangerous. They are viewed as protectors and providers, and sometimes even as heroes, or as the perpetrators of violent crime. Men are the ones, as the perception goes, who make the first move in the dating scene, negotiate shrewdly in business, rush into burning buildings, and violently harm others. In positive and negative ways, men act.

Women, conversely, are viewed as victims. Women are definitely objectified, but not sexually. We are objectified by the idea that women are leaves on the wind, that our fate is to be guided by social norms, controlled by tradition and society, and victimized by violence. Women are acted upon.

Thus it is easy for us to garner sympathy by describing the ways in which we perceive we are acted upon. When we are or believe we are victims of violence, mistreatment, systemic disadvantage, or bad luck, we are viewed as the sympathetic protagonists of a story of struggle. People are willing to listen to our complaints, come to our aid, and rally behind us. The other side of this coin is that we are ignored, apologized for, or minimized whenever we act as harmful agents (either toward ourselves or others). When we commit acts of violence or mistreatment, when we make mistakes or otherwise fail to act responsibly or respectfully, we are told it isn’t our fault, and our victims are swept under the rug. When we fail to express a lack of consent in sexual situations or attempt to negotiate for better pay or a higher position, we are seen as victims of socialization and cultural pressures, rather than individuals who made choices. When we act violently against another person (especially if that person is male), we are excused, presumed to have acted in self defense, or dismissed as though our actions have been minimally harmful.

If we put our hand on a hot stove, we are victims of that stove’s mistreatment. If we put someone else’s hand on the stove, we are victims of the stove’s coercion (and this plays out regularly in courts when women are charged with a violent crime).

A man’s identity, however, is tied up in his agency. He has responsibilities as a man, and he is seen as less of a man if he does not fulfill them, including providing for his family, sacrificing for his loved ones, and the competent execution of his life goals. As such, it is not part of the general conceptualization of men to be the victim of violence or systemic disadvantage. When men are victims of these, they are ignored or explained away. Men themselves will often acknowledge, for example, that as males they are more likely to be victimized by violence, but will still argue that violence against women is worse or more of a problem. This is because of the strange cognitive dissonance that happens when someone who conceptualizes himself as an agent or actor is acted upon by forces outside his control. Usually he is assumed to have done something wrong or stupid to earn the event that happened to him (such as in the case of violence victimization or the gender gap in criminal justice), or to have sought it out or enjoyed it (such as in sexual assault). He is seen as having failed to fulfill his responsibilities as an agent, or questioned for complaining at all. As such, most of mainstream society is reticent to accept that men can be legitimate victims. Or if they are, they are victims by virtue of other factors (such as the black victims of racist violence, who are seen by their colour but never by their gender, unless they are female).

If a man puts his hand on a hot stove, he is blamed for his foolishness and expected to learn from the mistake. If someone else puts his hand on a hot stove, he is likewise blamed for his inaction to prevent the harm that is done to him (such as the many male victims of partner violence who are asked, “why didn’t you fight back?”).

A woman’s identity, on the other hand, is often tied up in her victimhood or reception of action (especially for feminist women, but again, this is not specific to the feminist worldview). She isn’t seen as less of a woman if she demonstrates competence or agency, but she is inundated with ubiquitous messages about her victimhood, and her supposed inability to transcend that victimhood. In stories, the villain is identified by his willingness to harm her, and the hero by the sacrifices he makes to protect or rescue her. In real life, she is told even by those who purport to empower her that she will meet barriers in almost every part of life erected by those who actively seek to prevent her success. She is taught that the world will place her into an unfair role from which she will be unable to deviate, as though her personal choice to do something different were immaterial or unable to be actualized. She is told that she is likely to be harmed by others, regularly showered in skewed statistics about violence that, if she believes them, will make her fear for her safety whenever she is in public. She is taught to carry keys between her fingers and cover her glass in bars, but ultimately that if someone means to do her harm, there is little she can do about it. She is taught to be afraid of those pesky actors, men, who are very likely to harm her just by their natures.

Feminist advocates will assert that she needs a social movement to overcome gendered expectations (such as that to shave her legs or become a mother), as though she lacks the ability as an individual to choose her own behaviours, aesthetics, and pursuits. They will tell her that she cannot overcome the existence of sexist assumptions without sweeping policy changes and ubiquitous social campaigns. She is taught that real, insuperable harm is done to her by men finding her attractive, catcallers, magazine ads, and beauty standards, reducing her to hollow, childlike puppet to the culture, media, and beliefs of those around her. Meanwhile, a traditionalist father will threaten to sit on the stoop with a shotgun to scare off any men who come knocking, presuming their ill intent and her inability to consent, effectively deny consent, or ensure her own safety.

Apart from this, not only is she ignored or excused when she acts in a way that harms herself or others, but she is generally conceptualized as someone who cannot or does not act, not in positive or negative ways, not to prevent herself from being harmed, not to harm others, and not to move forward and be successful on her own merits. She is a non-agent, and as such it is practical or even necessary that she be afraid, vigilant, and protected and supported by others. But of course, because of this perception, she is protected and supported by others, even when she doesn’t need to be.

Obviously both of these perceptions, reinforced in a host of ways by feminism and more traditional viewpoints, are harmful to both men and women. But in many cases, as Warren Farrell puts it, “men’s greatest weakness is their facade of strength, and women’s greatest strength is their facade of weakness.”

Of course, each side has its own privileges as well. Agents are given the respect of presumed competence and autonomy. Women are, quite rightfully, tired of being infantilized. They should be treated as beings who are capable of directing their own destinies, as men are, rather than frightened with fear narratives and patronized with social campaigns. Conversely, victims are afforded empathy, compassion, and the willingness to help (and they are subject to lesser consequences for harmful or foolish actions). While an excess of victimization leads to infantilization, fear mongering, and a lack of respect, a dearth of it leaves real victims without the help they need. Sometimes men need help from others, and it’s a real tragedy that we are so reticent to acknowledge this, let alone provide that help.

It would benefit all of us to consider both sides of this coin and the harms we perpetuate when we, feminists, traditionalists, and everything in between, promote this binary narrative of subjects and objects. The world is not divided into male actors and female victims. Men and women can act and be acted upon, and we would do well to remember this as we wade through all the false statistics, skewed definitions, and popular wisdom describing men and women as centuries-old stereotypes of human beings.

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Victim Blaming vs. Empowerment

Put on your seatbelts, kiddies, because this is going to be controversial.

Obviously we’re all aware that we shouldn’t blame victims of crime or suggest that they deserved what happened to them.  That would be shitty.  But a lot of folks take this basic ethical principle to an extreme and use it to slam anyone who makes reasonable suggestions about how to avoid crime.  We’ve all heard “Don’t tell me how not to get raped — tell rapists not to rape!”

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people do rape, murder, assault, and steal from others.  Crime happens.  Some people are shitty human beings, and there is just no avoiding that fact.  So do we pretend to live in the idealized word we’re working toward to the detriment of anyone too ignorant to know how to protect themselves, or do we provide solid advice for reasonable precautions against crime?  I think we can all agree the latter is best.  Choosing to leave my front door wide open because people shouldn’t steal would be downright idiotic and divorced from reality.  There’s nothing wrong with suggesting I lock my door, or keep an eye on my drink at a bar, or avoid bad parts of town at night.  Telling me not to do those things because people shouldn’t take advantage of me might actually result in people taking advantage of me, if I take your advice, couldn’t it?

But I’m going to take that a  step further (and this is the part you may disagree with me).  About a month ago I was robbed.  My house was broken into and everything of value that I owned was taken.  This was understandably pretty devastating, and I experienced all the feelings of fear, violation, and a lack of control that come with being the recipient of this type of crime.  It sucked.  So I started trying to make sense of what had happened.  I tried to determine how the person got in, and discovered that my back door was unlocked.  I had apparently forgotten to lock it.

This realization actually filled me with relief.  Stay with me, now.  The realization that it was likely that something I had done had led to the break-in meant that I could choose not to do it in the future in order to avoid another break-in.  It wasn’t a broken window, or a lock picking, or anything else that was completely out of my hands.  I wasn’t helpless to prevent my home from being invaded.  I was, in fact, partially responsible for what had happened.

Realizing the part I played in my own victimization helped me to feel safer and more in control in my life.  It made my home feel secure to me again.  Sure, I felt like a idiot, but everyone makes mistakes, and I know better than to beat myself up too much.  Far more important was the sense of control and security I regained by acknowledging my mistake and taking responsibility for it, thereby acknowledging that my actions can and do determine if my home is safe. My safety is up to me.

So let’s really crank up the controversy here.  I apply this same principle to my abusive relationship.  I wasn’t kidnapped from my bed at night, or kept with my ex at gunpoint.  I made a long list of choices, some of which I knew were bad choices as I was making them.  Red flags appeared over and over, and I chose to ignore them.  He got jealous and uncomfortable when I so much as talked to my friends, and I chose to try to work with him to get him more comfortable, rather than running the hell away.  He called me dozens of times a day after I left him the first time, and rather than acknowledging that this was creepy stalky behaviour, I agreed to give him a second chance.  The first time he hit me I decided to forgive him.  And the second.  And the third… I had so many opportunities to GTFO, and I chose not to.

Sure, there are always circumstantial and psychological factors in these kinds of things.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.  But the point stands that choices were made.  I chose to be with him.  I chose to stay after things got nasty.  I chose not to call the police, even after the many times he called my bluff and continued to berate me and slam me into things.  I chose not to have him arrested and charged when I was asked privately, point blank, by the cop I talked to when I fled to a nearby station, bruised and crying.  I made a laundry list of bad decisions that perpetuated my position in a bad situation, that made my bad situation increasingly worse.  But I also chose to leave the relationship when I had finally had enough, because the ability to guide myself and my life was in my hands all along.  I am a person with agency.

And you know what?  Realizing all the things I did that led to my circumstances, good and bad, has been one of the most empowering things I’ve done.  As Henley said in his poem, I am still the master of my fate.  I still have agency and control.  I won’t be treated like that again because I won’t allow it.  I know this because I recognize that the first time around I did allow it. Having recognized my role in my own victimization, I will move forward to a better life with the lessons I’ve learned, and I feel stronger, smarter, and safer for having learned them.  Like the kid who touches the hot stove, I was burned and won’t do it again.

None of this is to say that I “asked for it” or that I deserved to be abused.  I was young and dumb, and that’s not a crime.  This isn’t about blaming myself (though sometimes I do, which is wrong but natural).  This is about acknowledging the part I played to regain a sense of control and agency, to regain my dignity as an autonomous human being whose actions affect her reality.  To tell me I was a helpless victim to his inevitable violence is to strip me of that, to infantilize me, to call my will ineffectual, to deny me my humanity and autonomy.

So no, you shouldn’t blame the victim.  But there is no harm at all in tracing back your steps to find where you went wrong.

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