We’re all talking about sexual violence right now. There’s Jian Ghomeshi’s accusation and the violent threats of #GamerGate. If that corner of the internet isn’t your thing, maybe you have heard of Sam Pepper, Tao Lin, disgraced college athletes or the NFL. Pick your subculture. The details change, but the story is the same. Sexual violence has always been a systemic issue. What gets lost in all the back and forth about specific cases is the larger pattern that permeates our culture. There is certainly a gendered component at the heart of this problem, but it’s helpful to occasionally look beyond the rape culture explanation and explore more general power dynamics driving this violence.
One aspect of power is credibility. Any time someone makes a public claim of being assaulted, listeners are presented with a small snapshot of a scenario and instantly make a judgement based on their personal bias. We all do this. There’s the inevitable cry of “innocent until proven guilty” that pretends it’s not taking sides, but those calling for hard evidence or a jury trial are siding with the status quo, which is overwhelmingly in favor of the accused. According to the FBI, 92 out of 100 rapes aren’t prosecuted, and that’s not including the counts of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a call thrown out by people who know that the system has their back. People who aren’t in that privileged position know that it can just as easily flip into presumed guilt if you don’t have the right skin color or genetics. Frat boys can rape drunk girls cause they know police won’t take a drunk girl seriously enough to start an investigation. A well-known media personality can use his fame to manipulate women knowing that his fans will defend him. It’s easy to paint women as crazy vindictive bitches or sexy vixens because there’s a ready-made narrative for that.
That narrative is in the Texas courts, where a defense attorney paints an 11-year-old girl as a spider luring older boys into her web. Or the judge in Montana who gave a teacher a 30-day sentence on a rape charge because the 14-year-old student looked older than her age. Thankfully, these narratives are being called out as inappropriate and dangerous, but they are the legacy of men’s voices being privileged over women’s.
Still, it’s not a simple matter of men vs. women in broad collective terms. There are plenty of women who love misogyny and men who are devoted to non-violence and equality. Gender alone is not a determinant factor in who will or will not be a violent predator. The problem arises when people who are prone to violence are raised in a culture of fear and intimidation that reveres dominance and rewards predatory behavior. When applied to sexuality, we call it rape culture, but more generally, a violent culture presents the world as a grand competition for limited resources, sex, and status. In this mindset, fear is abundant, anger is glorified, and threats are everywhere.
While both men and women can be predators who are quick to anger, it would be disingenuous not to point out that angry, aggressive, predatory men perpetuate the vast majority of physical violence. Women’s predatory methods are more manipulative and psychological. Also, because women have less access to the higher institutions of power, they have a diminished ability to wreak havoc of a grand scale. But that doesn’t mean that all women are benign. Predation is not limited to physical violence. Horrible people of both genders might be after your money, your resources, your time, or your productivity.
It’s also useful to acknowledge that there are both men and women who are extremely vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Gender is a spectrum, and gendered power is also a spectrum. People who use their predatory drive to scam others out of their money certainly come in all shapes and sizes. But naive people who are easy to trick also come in all shapes and sizes. Weakness is not a uniquely feminine trait. There are both men and women who are easy prey.
So, to bring it back to sexual violence, the problem is predators. But beyond that, it’s the enabling of predators through the conflation of normal and predatory behavior. It’s normal to buy someone a drink on a date to start a conversation. It’s not normal to get someone so drunk that they can’t resist any advances. But there’s a middle ground, where you help someone get drunk in the hopes that they’ll loosen up and take risks. Or maybe the middle ground where you gravitate towards people who are prone to getting themselves totally fucked up without much prompting. In these grey zones people aren’t necessarily predators, but they are in situations that lend plausible deniability to those that are.
This is where the slippery nature of proof comes in. In light of plausible deniability, how can you conclusively prove someone’s intentions? Especially when all you have is a survivor’s word that he or she felt totally dehumanized in what should be a normal situation, how do you know who to believe? If the accused is in a place of power in society, the automatic bias of most people will go with him. The audience will hear that he’s just flirting, and surely, there is nothing wrong with flirting! The underlying message to other men is that if this happened to me, it can happen to you. And that is understandably terrifying. So, otherwise decent men get wrapped up in the predator’s game and gather round to call the accuser a liar, a slut, and demand that she prove that he did something wrong.
Now, of course, due process is important and it’s not reasonable to just flip the bias and punish people based on one person’s word. But we can do better by recognizing the unequal power structures at play and understanding that this bias exists. With so few predators actually being held accountable, we have to recognize that the system isn’t working and fix it. Affirmative consent laws are a great move in this direction, but they aren’t enough. We also need to change the cultural norms so that empathy and respect are rewarded more than domination and control. We need to be better at recognizing predators for what they are and not falling into their traps.
The reality is that most people are susceptible to getting caught up in fear. The world does contain legitimate threats, and it’s important to address them. But for all the internet fighting about feminists vs. MRAs, it’s important to remember that it’s never going to boil down to a question that can be neatly summed up in terms of gender. There are biases and privileges that matter, but the root cultural problem isn’t simply the patriarchy. It’s the need for control. It’s the need to win, no matter the cost, and the mindset that sees other people as nothing more than players in one’s own game. However, as the ruthless mocking of #GamerGate spreads father through the internet, and reputable media outlets publish Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu and Laci Green, there are signs that the system is changing.