Talking Sexual Assault

[CONTENT WARNING: The obvious]

I honestly can’t remember a time when we, as a society, have discussed sexual assault with this intensity and for this length. Hopefully we’ll make a dent in the problem.

Some discussion is more effective, though. Recently I came across a pretty good example of what not do to.

Where does the article on Aziz Ansari land on the spectrum of #metoo moments? Are the old-school feminists correct when they say women ought to say no and call a cab? Today’s episode is a discussion between two people who come out on different ends of some of these questions. It’s an attempt to find some common ground and understanding on a very important issue.

First off: what’s the common ground between flat-Earthers and the rest of us? Between feminists and the alt-right? Most of the time, one side is more aligned with reality via better arguments or evidence. Aziz Ansari committed sexual assault, quite plainly; here’s the most blatant example from that article:

Ansari also physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night, from the time he first kissed her on the countertop onward. “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.” But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.”

So someone like Chris, who denied that was sexual assault on Thomas Smith’s podcast, is straight-up denying reality. Hearing him out is not useful, because we’ve heard most of these denials a million times before.

It’s made worse by the format of said podcast: despite being billed as a panel, it was structured as a debate. Smith, though disagreeing strongly with Chris, acted as a neutral moderator. Debates promote the view that “there is something worth debating,” that both sides have their merits. If you doubt that, answer this: who works harder to hold a debate with the other side, creationists or biologists? If debates were truly effective at changing minds, you’d expect creationists would cower away from them.

Instead, they realize that debates tend to “rally the troops.” The creationists in the audience walk away more convinced they’re in line with reality! Much of this is due to confirmation bias: the audience focuses on the strongest arguments for their position, the weakest ones against, and discards the rest. If there isn’t much to pick from, you can substitute subjective measures like tone or emotion and bend them to your will. There’s also an element of psychological defense here, as well: imagine how devastating it would be to learn the world wasn’t created with a purpose and reason for “evil” to exist, as you thought, but merely exists with no promise of a joyous afterlife. So if someone starts throwing out arguments showing there’s no divine hand in biology, you’re highly motivated to bias the hell out of their arguments.

Sexual assault cranks all this up to 11. If it is a common occurrence to be a victim of sexual assault, and it is, this implies it is common to carry out a sexual assault. One of the largest studies of intimate partner violence, spanning several countries, found that anywhere between 10% and 59% of men had raped an intimate partner. If vague promises of an immaterial eternal life can cause us to grasp for straws, what do you think those men would do to avoid admitting they’d caused material pain and suffering to their loved ones?

I have no idea which side of the percentage Chris falls on, and quite frankly it doesn’t matter. The activists’ secret weapon is that a small number of loud people can sway a large number of indifferent ones. But this also means that the assault apologetics developed by a small number of desperate people can infect an entire society, making all of us complicit in protecting their egos.

The passing centuries, combined with pressure from feminists, have evolved these apologetics into highly-effective scripts.[1] Chris didn’t deploy older, less effective defenses like “what was she wearing?,” instead preferring more modern and effective ones like “it was a miscommunication” and “consent is fuzzy.” We have a soft spot for the argument to moderation, so rushing to the centre or invoking shades of gray is an easy way to win sympathy. Chris also had a lot epistemic flexibility; when Smith and Tracy (his debate opponent) read straight from the to refute Chris’ claims, he accepted their arguments… then minutes later repeated those claims unaltered. A general rule is that the point repeated most often is the one most likely to be remembered (hence why politicians repeat talking points), and by that metric Chris’ “miscommunication” line will stick in people’s heads.

This is not to say Tracy did a bad job. Far from it, actually; she grounded the debate in what Ansari actually did, and brought up solid arguments. She was just working on a playing field hopelessly tipped against her, and you have to be really sharp to merely realize that. Think about this from the other side: the same effects that lead creationists to become more confident in their views also work on biologists. If you walked into this debate on Tracy’s side, you’d conclude she’d schooled Chris and be perplexed at anyone who says otherwise. I can’t fault Tracy nor Smith for being ignorant of the nuances of debate, nor clueless at understanding why people objected.

I’ve presented Smith with an rougher, citation-free version of the above, and his response is ….. hmm, the only word that comes to mind is “lackluster,” but it’s poor fit. He does acknowledge some of the critiques and takes them seriously, but he also seems to have missed some of the points made and tossed out a few questionable arguments. What do his past podcasts have to do with the debate one, for instance? He’s a good three-quarters of the way to “getting it,” and his future plans for covering #MeToo are much better, but it’s like watching a driver who doesn’t realize cars have more than two gears. They’re not harmful, but could do better. Look, I’ll even dish a few tips to kick things into higher gear:

  • Awareness Isn’t Enough. Despite my praise for #MeToo, awareness campaigns against sexual assault are a dime a dozen. Remember SlutWalk? Project Unbreakable? It’s On Us? Carry That Weight? The US has had Sexual Assault Awareness Month since 2001, and that short list just scratches the surface. Yet in Canada, our sexual assault rate hasn’t budged in over a decade. Don’t get me wrong, these campaigns are valuable and important, but it’s time to go beyond creating awareness.
  • Mind The Sexism. Belief in rape myths is correlated with sexism of all types.[2] People rate the testimony of women as less credible than men.[3][4] Ergo, in a debate between one man and one woman, the scales tilt even further towards the man. If you only feature women when discussing sexual assault, as Smith has pledged to do, you run the risk of having sexual assault seen as “women’s issues” and thereby devalued and de-fanged.
  • Switch to Consent. An easy way to follow the last point is to think of sexual assault as a consent violation. This removes gender from the equation and allows men and non-binary/trans* people a voice. I know, this seems like a minefield given mansplaining and MRA silencing tactics, but the rewards are more than worth the effort. Consent as Tea is the most famous example, and enthusiastic consent is another great angle.
  • Model Good Behavior. Above and beyond the sexism angle, people who buy into rape myths tend to view that belief as common and normal. One easy way to push back against that is to bring in male voices to talk about sexual assault. Jackson Katz is a near-perfect template to follow, and there’s a tonne of science if you’d like to wander away. Another approach is to bring up men who realized they bought into those myths, then shed them, or committed sexual assault then realized it was wrong.
  • Discuss Bystander Intervention. Katz is a big fan of bystander intervention, and there’s evidence that it works.[5] You can find great resources online, but basically bystander intervention involves making bystanders alert to potential consent violations and encouraging them to take low-risk actions to defuse or clarify the situation. Remember the fake phone-call tactic for bad dates? This is the same, but in the third-person.

#MeToo is valuable, but it’s not enough. By incorporating some of these tips and tactics, we should make our discussions more effective at combating sexual violence.

[HJH 2018-01-31] Add this to the pile of evidence for “debates are a bad idea:”

When the feuding between various pundits reached critical mass, alt-right figures who promote “race realism” and white nationalist advocates for the creation of ethnostates offered themselves up for debates with YouTube personalities who have channels much larger than their own. Taking advantage of the attention that the feud was providing, alt-right figures were able to secure spots on YouTube channels that boast hundreds of thousands of followers and to go up against some of YouTube’s biggest political commentators, such as Carl Benjamin (“Sargon of Akkad”), who were eager to inject themselves into the public hype. […]

The series of debates and interviews hosted on channels like [Andy] Warski’s have inspired near-daily discussion threads on the internet cesspools of 4chan and 8chan, and have attracted large alt-right audiences that have taken advantage of the pay-to-type “YouTube Super Chat” to spread messages promoting white nationalism. … While Warski and others present the “bloodsports” as neutral exercises in free speech, alt-right YouTube personalities are happily using the debates to make money via the streams’ “Super Chats” and to expand their reach among young audiences.

Beyond the obvious issue of “that would look great on your CV, not so good on mine,” there’s a parallel to the research on disparagement humour. Exposure to sexist jokes make bigoted people more sexist, but has little-to-no effect on non-bigoted people, while exposure to sexist statements has little effect on people of any kind.[6] Different people can come to different conclusions based on the same evidence, and how you frame things can change your interpretation of said evidence. It’s quite plausible that something similar happens within debates, as I outlined above.

(Thanks to Caine for the tip)

[1] Clark, M. Diane, and Marjorie H. Carroll. “Acquaintance rape scripts of women and men: Similarities and differences.” Sex Roles 58.9-10 (2008): 616-625.

[2] Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): 2010–35.

[3] Johnson, Craig, and Larry Vinson. “‘Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t?’: Status, Powerful Speech, and Evaluations of Female Witnesses.” Women’s Studies in Communication 10, no. 1 (1987): 37–44.

[4] Tuerkheimer, Deborah. “Incredible Women: Sexual Violence and the Credibility Discount.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, February 16, 2017.

[5] Fenton, Rachel A., et al. “A review of evidence for bystander intervention to prevent sexual and domestic violence in universities.” (2016).

[6] Ford, Thomas E., and Mark A. Ferguson. “Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8, no. 1 (February 2004): 79–94. pg. 83