This morning I made a reference to the fact that men are often assumed to be potential rapists as an example of how sexism negatively affects men as well as women. The argument, commonly referred to as “Schroedinger’s Rapist”, goes something like this: because you can’t know for sure if the stranger approaching you in a dark alley or other unsafe place is a rapist or not, it is generally a good idea to be on your guard. Men can enhance their interactions with women by being aware of this mindset, and adjusting their own behaviour accordingly.
I have often heard from people making an anti-feminist argument that Schroedinger’s Rapist is profoundly sexist and unfair. After all, most men do not rape – why should every man be treated like a rapist? Isn’t that discrimination? How can you claim to be opposed to sexism, yet promote a fundamentally sexually prejudicial idea? The next step is often to draw parallels to racism – is it fair to treat all black people as potential criminals simply because, statistically speaking, there are more black criminals than white ones? Isn’t that racist?
As much as I hate it when white people use anti-black racism as a cudgel with which to beat other people, I can understand the conundrum as it is expressed. The problem with it (and the reason why it’s so bothersome to hear white people talk about anti-black racism) is that it fails to address the question in a meaningful way. To demonstrate what I mean, I’d like to share a couple of personal anecdotes from my own life. I’ve never shared these stories with anyone before, and I’m not sure why because there’s nothing particularly embarrassing about them, and they’re extremely useful in this context.
When I was in high school, I was the de facto manager of my string quartet. We were gaining a bit of a reputation – we were pretty good, and young people are a novelty – and had picked up a lot of gigs playing weddings. One particular evening, I was supposed to meet the bride-to-be at her church. I had been hanging out at my friend’s house, and was walking from his place to the church. Unhappily, I realized that I was running a bit late – very unprofessional – so I decided to pick up my pace. It was cool outside, so I had my hoodie up.
I was trucking along at a fairly decent pace when I noticed an older woman ahead of me on the street. At first I didn’t pay any attention to her, so intent was I on making my appointment. However, as I drew closer, she became more visibly agitated, constantly looking over her shoulder and speeding up. There was no way she was going to walk faster than me, though – I was way taller than she. When I was about 50m away, she suddenly broke to the right and crossed the road – over 6 lanes of high-speed traffic. I thought it was an unusual move, considering we were nowhere near a crosswalk.
Then it finally occurred to me (when I noticed she had crossed back over once I was safely past her) – she didn’t see someone in a hurry to get to church – she saw a young black kid motoring toward her with no safe haven in sight. She took the risk of running out into the road rather than assume that I wasn’t trying to assault her. I remember that quite clearly, because it was the first time that I realized that I was a frightening sight to strangers.
Years later I was working for a friend of mine who was doing his PhD thesis on perceived access to park facilities. I, along with my friend Suzie (not her real name), had to canvas the neighbourhood, going door to door and asking people to fill out surveys about their level/type of outdoor activity. After a few streets, I noticed that Suzie’s refusal rate was much lower than mine. Waterloo (where we were) is not exactly a cosmopolitan hub of multiculturalism, and the area we were in was populated by mostly older white people.
Thinking back to my traffic-dodging friend, I asked Suzie to go back to some houses that I’d had trouble with – people closing the door in my face or saying ‘no’ before I finished my sales pitch. Much as I suspected, blonde and 5’5″ Suzie was able to obtain consent from a number of people who had said no to me. This wasn’t about how I was dressed – we were both wearing identical t-shirts and jeans – this was about a huge black dude showing up at your door unexpectedly and asking questions. I learned to knock and then take several steps back from the door so as not to startle people.
One more story. Because I prefer to be able to knock off early from work, I start my day at around 7:45. This means I have to leave the house pretty early in the morning. There are often young women walking around my neighbourhood with their dogs and in their pyjamas. It’s often pretty dark at 7 am, especially in the winter. Despite my size, I am a particularly light stepper, and because my winter coat is black, I am not terribly visible. After scaring the bejezus out of my neighbours by coming up behind them completely unexpected, I have learned to start shuffling my feet when walking behind someone – giving them an auditory clue that I am there and approaching.
Now there are two ways I could react to these encounters. I could rail against people for being racist and sexist and size-ist (if that’s a thing) – I’m so gentle and warm and loving! How dare they act as though I’m not? That’s one way – and it’s the stupid way. The other way is to recognize that while I strongly dislike the fact that people see me as dangerous because of how I look, it is up to me to decide what to do with that information. If I don’t care about spooking my neighbours, I don’t have to shuffle my feet – let them deal with their fright. But if I do care, then I have to find some way of mitigating that fear so we can coexist harmoniously.
Bringing this example home, men in the freethought movement have a decision to make. They (we) can rail against the hypocrisy of claiming to be anti-sexist whilst engaging in sex-based prejudicial behaviour, or we can recognize that if we want to be accommodating to women we have to make some adjustments to how we behave. It comes back to the central question: do we want women to be more comfortable? If not, then we should say so explicitly – “we don’t care about your comfort, toots! Nut up or shut up!” On the other hand, if we do care, then we can’t simply maintain the status quo of behaviour and berate women for being afraid of rape. That doesn’t solve any problems.
The other point I want to make here, which goes back to my objection to anti-black racism being used as a rhetorical device by those who will never face it, is that black people engage in tons of behaviours to make white people feel safer. We do this all the damn time. We make accommodations in speech, behaviour, dress, mannerism, conversation topic – a wide diversity of adjustments that we make in the presence of our white friends. We want them to feel comfortable around us, and we accept the inherent racism of the need for such changes. The fact that you rail against its manifest unfairness is indicative of the fact that you have no idea we’re doing it – which means, in turn, that we’re doing it well. Until I am convinced that you actually understand anti-black racism (which would take quite a bit of doing), I don’t appreciate being deputized into your anti-feminist screed in this way.
Anyway, this is obviously simply my opinion and personal experience. I personally don’t have a problem with the argument, and I have done my best to illustrate why I think that Schroedinger’s Rapist, while unfortunate, is not unfair. If you disagree, I hope you will explain why in the comments.
TL/DR: I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.
Update: Comrade Physioprof has made this excellent observation: “It is not “sexist” for women to view all men as potential rapists, because (other than in prison) men possess the privilege of being subject to a vanishingly small likelihood of being raped by either men or women, while women are subject to a substantial likelihood of being raped by men. In contrast, it is “racist” for white people to view all black people as potential criminals, because (as far as I can discern from available crime statistics) white people are the ones who possess the privilege of being less likely to be crime victims than black people, and they are more likely to be victims of crimes committed by white people than by black people.”
Update 2: Greg Laden offers another perspective on this issue.
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