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.

On Women Who Lie About Having Boyfriends

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Lately one of those articles has been going around again about how women should stop saying “I have a boyfriend” to deflect unwanted male attention. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to make my entire post about that one article. I’ve seen that argument made in many different ways and from many different perspectives.

One I often see from men who date women, who are either not feminists and do not recognize the reality of systemic male violence against women, or are, sort of, but only recognize that reality to some extent and in certain contexts–never ones involving themselves, of course, because they’re good guys.

Another I often see from women, many of whom are feminists, who believe that it is each individual woman’s duty to uphold the author’s vision of Feminist Principles regardless of the individual woman’s priorities or needs.

Here’s the first argument, steelmanned:

It’s wrong to lie to people without a very compelling reason. If a guy is interested in you but you’re not interested back, just tell him so honestly. I’m a decent and respectful guy and I always back off when someone says they’re not interested. Besides, if all you say is “I have a boyfriend,” I might assume that that means that you’d be interested if that relationship ended, and it’s really hurtful to find out that you were lying and I got my hopes up for nothing.

Here’s the second one, also steelmanned:

Women have the right to have their desires and preferences respected. The reason you shouldn’t keep hitting on a woman who isn’t interested in you isn’t because she “belongs” to another man, but because she isn’t interested in you. If we keep using the “I have a boyfriend” excuse, men will never learn to respect our agency as individuals rather than as someone’s girlfriend. Being honest with men you aren’t interested in about the reason you aren’t taking them up on your offer is the only way to promote this feminist goal.

I resent both of these arguments. Both of them, even the second one, place the individual woman’s needs last and instead prioritize other needs: the man’s need for honesty, the feminist movement’s need for women to stand up for its ideals. Both of them expect women who are being harassed to just shut up and take it for someone else’s good.

Let’s start with the first one. I think we can all agree that, in general, lying is to be avoided. I think we can also all agree that sometimes lying is preferable or necessary. Where I think we disagree is where that line should be drawn. And I would argue that the person who stands to lose the most in a particular interaction is the one who is more qualified to determine where that line goes.

It’s like Schrödinger’s rapist. And I know dudes have so much trouble grasping the rape version of this principle, so I don’t expect them to have an easy time grasping the sexual harassment/unwanted flirting/whatever you want to call it version.

Say I am approached by a dude at a bar. Ignoring all of my signals (looking away, checking my phone, answering monosyllabically, desperately pouring my drink down my throat), he keeps trying to chat me up and hit on me, perhaps even propositioning me directly. At this point, I could say, “Actually, I’m not interested in you and I don’t want to keep talking to you.” Or I could say, “Sorry, but I have a boyfriend and I’m not available.” Which should I choose?

Given that this guy has already showed an apparent lack of interest in my desires and preferences by not reading my nonverbal cues, and given the wealth of experience I have with these situations (“Come on, why do you have to be such a prude?” “Fucking bitch, I was just trying to be nice.” “What are you talking about? I’m not even interested in ugly sluts like you” “Yeah, right. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t trying to get some.” [insert sexual assault here, and yes, groping is sexual assault]), I’m not likely to have a lot of confidence in this guy’s ability to take it well if I politely tell him I’m not interested.

Sure, this guy could be different. He could be perfectly nice! He could politely say, “Oh sorry, my bad, have a great night”! He could clarify that he’s not interested in anything sexual and we’d have a great conversation and maybe even become friends!

And that’s what men making this argument always say. “Yeah well how do you know he’d take it badly if you just told him the truth?” Exactly, I don’t know that. If I did, I’d have cleared the fuck out of that bar as soon as I saw him walking up to me.

I don’t know that, but I live in a world in which it can be very dangerous to assume that I can know that before it’s too late.

Now, a lot of men making this argument will sorta-grudgingly include the caveat that, well, if the woman is afraid for her physical safety, then of course she should do whatever she needs to do to get out of the situation! But otherwise, lying is not okay.

So. Why are we prioritizing physical safety over emotional safety? If you accept that ending up assaulted or raped is bad, why do you not accept that ending up feeling violated, terrified, or even traumatized is also bad? How much emotional pain and damage is worth avoiding hurting a guy’s feelings by lying to him? (Don’t ask me how telling a lie that he’ll never know is a lie hurts him more than saying “I’m not interested in you,” but ok.) How much emotional pain and damage is worth fulfilling some bullshit philosophical ideal of Not Lying?

Things impact different people differently–a point I’m always trying to drive home in all mental health-related discussions. Personally, I got over my sexual assault rather easily. What I still haven’t gotten over is feeling like a fucking piece of meat, a deer being chased by hunters no matter where I go. That’s the feeling I try to avoid on those rare occasions when I feel compelled to say, “Actually, I have a boyfriend.”

As for the “feminist” argument that we all, as individuals, have the responsibility to Uphold Feminist Principles in our daily lives at all times: I’ve already dealt with this more generally here. Specifically, the feminist movement will not be destroyed by some individual women choosing to prioritize something other than feminism at certain points in their lives. I promise.

Besides, any feminism that prioritizes The Good Of The Movement over individual women’s safety and happiness is no feminism of mine.

Of course, if we’re ever to get these remaining men who harass women and on whom “Actually I have a boyfriend” works to stop viewing women as property, we have to speak up. But we, as individuals, get to decide where and when and how we do that. Demanding women to turn every bar outing into a one-woman feminist protest is puerile beyond belief.

I completely understand that some women choose not to lie about boyfriends and husbands, and they find this empowering despite the risk. That’s great. Where I start to get irritated is when they translate this into “…and therefore all women have to do this too.” Your empowerment may be someone else’s trauma.

Some misunderstand this as some sort of convoluted Choice Feminism (not actually a real thing, by the way) about how All Women’s Choices Must Be Respected Because They’re Made By Women. It’s not. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum, and nobody has more information about a given choice than the person who made it.

I wish people who preached at women about not lying actually listened to the words of the women who do and tried to understand the circumstances that might lead someone to do something that most of us agree is usually wrong. For instance, from a piece at Shakesville by Ana Mardoll:

I live in a community where I have on more than one occasion been forced to haul out the words “because my husband doesn’t like me to” in order to get out of situations where I was being bullied and pressured into doing things that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. After saying firmly and repeatedly that I didn’t want to do these things, that I wouldn’t do these things, and that I didn’t feel comfortable being repeatedly asked to do these things — all to no avail — I dragged out the magic words that I hate-hate-hate to use. “My husband doesn’t like me to” is the mantra that evaporates every objection in my community; a protective cloak that I resent being forced to wear by a community that considers my own consent to be meaningless even as it values my husband’s consent not for who he is but for what he represents. (And, for the record, my husband respects my consent even when our community does not. I have his consent to use him as an excuse when I am forced to navigate these social hurdles.)

And because I am a feminist and because I care about the social messages involved in this daily navigation and specifically because I have entrenched issues with being Hard On Myself, I frequently feel guilty for making the compromises I have to in order to navigate safely through a conservative patriarchal environment. And I feel cowardly for not being more vocal, more obvious, more “out” — and professional and personal consequences be damned.

But then I remember how much I need my job and my health care just to survive and how strongly I require a robust social network in order to live with my disability, and I remember all over again all the reasons why I don’t say the F-word, why I don’t openly and vocally identify as a feminist in facespace: I can’t afford to. It’s too risky. It’s too dangerous. And so I creep back undercover and long for the day when my online activism can meet my facespace movements without fear of reprisals.

Ana isn’t talking about the exact sort of situation I’m talking about, but it’s similar enough to warrant a mention. Namely: not everyone always has the privilege to be honest and open.

Most people don’t lie for the fun of it; they lie because the alternative doesn’t seem reasonable. Others may judge them as taking “the easy way out,” but again, I’d question why there’s anything morally superior about subjecting yourself to sexual harassment and possibly violence.

It’s not surprising to me that people who don’t have a personal stake in this often start discussing it in grand abstract terms like Ethics and Honesty and Morality. Here’s the reality on the ground: I’m at a bar, some dude won’t leave me the fuck alone, and I’m scared and uncomfortable. Maybe you want to philosophize, but I want to escape this situation however I can.

And incidentally, for anyone who’s worried that I’m somehow abdicating my responsibility as a feminist by inventing a fake boyfriend, believe me when I say that I’ll be a much more effective activist if I take care of my mental health and emotional safety before I try to do activism.

The fact is that many women apparently feel like they can’t escape men except by lying to them. I would think that more of the responsibility for this should be allocated to the men who won’t accept any answer besides “I have a boyfriend” than to the women who feel they have no choice but to say it. And if you’re a guy who’s more concerned about the fact that women sometimes lie to you about having boyfriends than about the fact that women are subjected to constant sexual harassment just for existing in public, you’ve got your priorities pretty screwed up.


Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

[guest post] A Thought Experiment In The Style of Schrödinger

I’m traveling to Columbus, Ohio for the Secular Student Alliance conference, and CaitieCat has written a guest post so that you’re not too bored in my absence!

I was thinking about Schrödinger’s Rapist, the concept that to a woman faced alone with a man she does not know, it is rationality in action if she decides to be careful about how she interacts.

Now, this concept makes MRAs lose their NUT, and I can’t help but think it’s got to do with an inability to understand how reasoning works. That’s the charitable answer; the uncharitable ones are, I think, obvious.

So here’s an analogy: You’re walking down the street. You see a dog, loose, no collar. You don’t know whether the dog is escaped from someone’s house, or feral. You know nothing about the dog or its history.

Would you go over and start petting its muzzle?

Probably not. Why? Because you don’t know. It could be that this dog is feral and rabid, or it could be a sweet-natured lap dog. Basic rationality says that there’s little to be gained by treating the dog as anything but a possible object of fear at this point. You don’t know the dog, you don’t know its habits, you don’t know its mind, you don’t know if it’s been trained as an attack dog. You just don’t know.

Now, that rationality? That’s not in any way saying “all dogs are trained attack dogs which will bite you if you give them any chance at all”. That would be irrational; many dogs you encounter will be with people who love them, people who care about them, people who would help that dog not be a dog who bites people.

So you act as though any dog you don’t know could bite you, because it’s basic common sense, no?

Now go back up there, and change the concept of “dog” to “man”, and “bite” to “rape”.

THAT is Schrödinger’s Rapist. Not a belief that every man WILL rape. Simply a common-sense approach that any man you don’t know could rape, and when alone with such a person, taking a reasonably cautious approach.

How can men interact with this belief? By putting themselves in the mind of someone who doesn’t know what a wonderful person they really are, and thinking – hey, how would I as someone else know that I the real person aren’t a rapist? Well, they don’t. So you make a little effort to show the ways you’re not: you try not to walk close behind her, you don’t stare at her, you visibly involve yourself in other things, whatever.

It’s a simple issue in formal reasoning, the difference between:

- all dogs are dangerous animals which bite
- ANY dog could be a dangerous animal which bites.

One is an argument from the specific to the general, and is bad reasoning. The other is of an unknown-truth-value situation, where caution is obviously the prudent and rational answer.

And if you can’t see the difference between those two, maybe consider taking an intro course in reasoning.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).