Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Attention Non-Men: New Rule About Vigilance

[TW: Sexual assault, child abuse]

Lenore Skenazy, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is upset that children and caregivers utilize a self-preservation technique of viewing men as potential predators. In fact, without evidence, she (or whoever wrote her headline) claims that doing so "doesn't make our kids safer."

What the headline should have said was that it actually makes Nice Guys feel like creeps. For, her article does little, or nothing, to demonstrate how utilizing her preferred strategy of not viewing men as potential predators actually keeps kids safe.

The article is a collection of various anecdotal instances of Nice Guys who have been asked to leave rooms when diaper-changing was happening, who have been called "perverts" for re-stocking the girls' panty rack at stores where they work, and who have in general been treated like pedophiles for being near children.

She ends:

"In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn't stop to help for fear he'd be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.

We think we're protecting our kids by treating all men as potential predators. But that's not a society that's safe. Just sick."

Anyone else left wondering how the girl "ended up at a pond and drowned"? As in, did somebody like, say, some other man, take her to the pond and drown her or did she just, like, fall in? I'm not trying to be crass or paranoid, but inquiring minds want to know, since Ms. Skenazy didn't leave us any such details about the case.

In any event, let's explore this new rule about vigilance.

First, Ms. Skenazy (and those who share her opinions) seem to interpret the phrase "treating all men as potential predators" as meaning "everyone thinks all men are predators." The conservative, anti-gay Ruth Institute blog jumps on the Poor Men bandwagon in response to this article, opining (inaccurately, natch):

"There are those who doubt that our society has come to the point where it has come to the absurd conclusion that men and women are exactly the same, but that women are better.
It has.

But that’s not the only absurd conclusion that it has come to. It has also concluded that men are, unless proven otherwise, unspeakably evil."

Could four sentences demonstrate any more hyper-defensive what-about-the-men ignorance of feminism? Treating men like potential (that's an important word there) predators does not mean we think all men actually are predators or that all men are inherently "unspeakably evil." It means we are cognizant of the fact that we live in a culture:

"[T[hat encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women [and I would add children]. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm."

No, it isn't fair to the good guys that they have to abide by rules, such as leaving a room when diaper-changing happens, that recognize the statistics that men are more likely to be child molestors than are women. Indeed, I think decisions like who is allowed access to other people's kids should be made on an individual case basis. For, it is my feminist proposition that men are capable of wanting to care for children without that want being grounded in sexual, abusive, or predatory desire.

Thus, I would agree that across-the-board rules like some of those within the article unfairly penalize many men. Unfortunately, organizations like the Ruth Institute, which are heavily invested in gender essentialism, seem to not recognize their complicity in the framing of male babysitters as deviant predators. Gender essentialists tell us crap like how men are inherently aggressive while women are inherently nurturing and then sit back and blame feminists, some of the only people in society trying to get people to recognize that caring for children can be a human thing rather than a "woman thing," for the fact that some people view men as "unspeakably evil."

That being said, if we get outside of the male-centric viewpoint for a moment, it's also disingenuous to not recognize at least two other reasons for why "society" treats men as potential predators.

1. Men, by far, commit the vast majority of sex crimes against women and children. Men are abusers in 86% of sex abuse cases against boys and in 94% of cases against girls. Yes, statistics vary and reporting of molestation by women is likely to be under-reported due to the stigma of being a male survivor of sexual violence, but most studies find that men are the vast majority of pedophiles. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has put 99% of sexual assault offenders as male.

2. Vigilance is a matter of self-preservation not only because we know these statistics but because we also know that if we are not vigilant in treating men like potential predators, then we are quickly and readily blamed when men victimize us and we are deemed to have not been vigilant enough. Cultural narratives about men, fostered by gender essentialists, are that men are inherently sexually aggressive and promiscuous and that if we don't take tangible steps in our daily lives that demonstrate awareness of this "fact," then we are to blame if anything bad "happens to us."

Gender essentialists regularly tell us that men love rape fantasies, that women should marry men in order to be protected from other men, and that men are inherently promiscuous- having evolved with the desire to impregnate as many women as possible.

And from the essentialist proposition that men are just inherently all of these things, lies the implicit argument for making violence prevention everyone else's responsibility. After all, if being violent is just the way men are, we can't expect them to do better, can we?

On the one hand, I admire Ms. Skenazy's attempted PR campaign for men. It is certainly a better one than what gender essentialists, especially conservative ones, tell us what men are. I am also in support of new narratives that do not invisibilize how women in same-sex relationships and men in relationships with women can also be victimized by intimate partners, or that women, too, can sexually abuse children. I think it's possible to acknowledge that we live in a culture that entitles men to sexual violence while also acknowledging that that doesn't mean women are incapable of committing violence.

However, in light of a reality in which men continue to commit the vast majority of sex crimes and where women, especially, and children are told that we're basically naive idiots if we let our guards down around men and go get ourselves killed, raped, or kidnapped by one, I feel like it's not exactly safe to just stop being vigilant about viewing men as potential predators.

Until the above statistics and rape culture narratives change, I feel like maybe we're letting men off too easy if we shut our eyes and collectively pretend that there aren't gender-based disparities in violence statistics.

Yet, Ms. Skenazy tells us that we now have a responsibility to not assume men are potentially predatory, because doing so is "sick." But, I guess, to me, that reads like Ms. Skenazy is saying that our instincts toward self-preservation are sick. And that, yet again, men are given a free pass to not address male violence, while everyone else has to work around the ugly realities of it.

And, instead of having a serious conversation about a culture that entitles men to violence and aggression, Ms. Skenazy's primary concern is on how men feel about our reactions to the fact that men commit disproportionate amounts of violence.

Not that men's feelings are invalid. It's just that, well, I guess in my scheme of things, keeping women and children safe from male violence outweighs this project of making sure men feel okay about gender-based disparities in violence.

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