Not All Men™ Categorize People Into Unhelpful Categories

[Content note: sexual assault]

Let’s talk about Not All Men™, and specifically about the disconnect between people who say “not all men!” and people who maintain that this is a useless thing to say.

One bitterly funny and perhaps illuminating meme I’ve seen over the past few weeks goes something like this:

You say not all men are monsters?

Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned.

Go ahead. Eat a handful.

Not all M&Ms are poison.

I’ve seen many variations on this, and all of them get at the idea that it doesn’t matter that “not all men” are violent, just that a significant, non-zero percentage of them are, and when you don’t know until it’s too late which ones those are, you can never be too careful.

(I would love, by the way, if not a single man who has ever seriously said “not all men” has ever believed or stated that women should “take precautions” to avoid getting raped, such as not talking to strangers, accepting drinks, flirting, etc. I would love it if that were the case, and nobody could possibly be so hypocritical as to hold both of these beliefs in their heads simultaneously.)

The M&M metaphor certainly makes sense. But if I rewrote it to be more in-line with the way many people actually think about sexual violence, it would go something like this:

Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. Most M&Ms are delicious and safe to eat, but some very small percentage of them are poisoned. Luckily, the poisoned M&Ms are easily identifiable: they have a gross sewage-green color and are marked with a skull and crossbones rather than the usual M&Ms logo. Most responsible M&M eaters are easily able to avoid them and stay safe. But others are careless, snatching M&Ms at random and not even bothering to check whether or not they may be poison. Of course it’s terrible that some people get poisoned by M&Ms, but they really should’ve been more careful.

So it is, supposedly, with sexual violence. Predators are easy to spot. They’re Bad Boys; they give off a lot of red flags. They have tattoos. They drink and smoke excessively. They’re not white or middle-/upper-class. They hang out in seedy bars, not in fraternities, prestigious companies, government offices, or schools. If you’re careless enough to ignore the warning signs and interact with someone like that, well, it’s not that it’s okay that you were sexually assaulted, buuuut you should’ve known better.

This version of the metaphor also takes some of the focus away from the fact that the M&Ms are poisonous and transfers it to the people eating the M&Ms and their behavior. Are they “careful”? Are they aware of the “risks”? Are they “attentive” to the “warning signs”? Are they “smart” about the way they dress and where they go? Have they “prepared” themselves by taking a self-defense class or carrying pepper spray? Now I’ve gotten my metaphors mixed up.

This view of sexual assault holds that rapists are “evil.” They’re “monsters” who bear no similarity to other men: “Good Guys,” the “not all men” being referenced by men eager to dissociate themselves from the subjects of #YesAllWomen tweets. This view is convenient for a number of reasons:

  • “Good Guys” never have to consider their own role in the perpetuation of sexual violence. (And yes, there are roles in its perpetuation that do not include actually committing it. I am not saying you are all rapists. I’m saying that most of you to some extent buy into a dangerous and toxic masculinity that makes widespread sexual violence possible.)
  • All rape prevention work must fall to potential victims, because it’s easier to demand that women drastically limit their opportunities for work and play (even more than they already do) than it is to try to proactively stop perpetrators who are evil unstoppable monsters. It’s easy to say Don’t Walk There Don’t Work There Don’t Live There Don’t Wear That Don’t Drink Don’t Smile Don’t Flirt Don’t Dance Don’t Relax when you’re not the one upon whom the burden of all those Don’ts will fall.
  • Our emotional responses to stories of sexual assault will be less painful and severe if we are able to shrug and say that the poisoned M&Ms were clearly labeled and the victim should’ve bothered to look before eating than they would be if we had to acknowledge that usually there is no amount of carefulness that will actually keep anyone safe.
  • When someone we know and like gets accused of sexual assault, we are able to avoid the cognitive dissonance of realizing that someone we like did a very bad thing by refusing to believe it. That’s impossible! He’s such a great guy! He’s so great with kids! He’s so white, conventionally attractive, and middle-class! (Though we never actually hear this one in those words.) Look at everything he’s done for our community! Look how great he is at catching a ball and running all the way to the edge of the field with it without being tackled by the other men!

It’s very important to understand and analyze what’s at stake when it comes to ideology. In this case, that means understanding why people are so vested in this view of Rapist-As-Subhuman-Monster, and there it is.

In this view, it’s understandable (if not justifiable) that well-meaning men get so offended during discussions of sexual violence that do not explicitly state “not all men.” Because those discussions are happening in a way that acknowledges that we’re not talking about some rare, recently-discovered species called Homo rapus. Because there is no subtype of man who rapes; people of all genders rape, and they’re much more likely to be men, but otherwise there are no distinguishing markings or migratory patterns that help us identify rapists in the wild.

To these men, to whom it seems so obvious that rape is something that Those Other Men Do, it’s offensive to have that distinction blurred or ignored altogether.  To all people who are used to thinking of other people in terms of categories rather than degrees or spectra–so, most people, because we’re all taught to think that way about other people to some extent–the intentional refusal of many anti-sexual violence advocates to make that distinction seems ignorant at best and insulting at worst.

They hear “It’s impossible to tell who’s a rapist and who isn’t just from looking” and interpret it as “Anyone could potentially become a rapist.” The latter claim is inaccurate and not what’s being said. There are plenty of people who would never, and will never, rape anyone. But we have to be very careful when we consider how much information we need to be able to say that with near-certainty. It’s more than you think.

That risk-assessment calculus will look different for every individual. I try to stay away from making definitive statements about what anyone I know would or would not do, and when it comes to people I don’t actually know, or don’t know very well, all bets are off.

People will continue talking past each other on this issue until there is widespread acknowledgement of the fact that our brains are designed to categorize everything, and while this can be a useful heuristic and an obvious evolutionary adaptation, it’s leading us astray when it comes to sexual assault prevention.

~~~

*I should emphasize that there are definitely competing and intersecting popular views of sexual assault besides the one I’ve discussed here. Some people claim that you can’t tell who’s a rapist, and that’s why women should just avoid “risky” behaviors altogether. It’s possible to understand that you can’t tell who’s a rapist and still put the onus on women to avoid rapists, and it’s possible for this view to actually coexist with the view that rapists are Monsters and Others. People tend to haul out whichever popular view best serves the point they’re trying to make at the time, or whichever one makes them feel the least cognitive dissonance in that particular situation.