Dissents Of The Day

A reader writes:

Your post “The Roots Of Rape” was disappointing to read. I know testosterone is important to you; you’ve posted about its impact on your health and identity many times. The problem with using Bruni’s op-ed as an excuse to talk about testosterone and the physiological differences between the sexes, is that, whether you intend it to or not, you commit the same bait and switch that’s endemic to rape culture: substituting a discussion of men’s physiology for a discussion of the culture that allows that physiology to be used as an excuse for rape.

Such a substitution is particularly insidious not just because most men do not rape, but also because current research shows that most men who do rape are serial rapists who get away with their crimes over and over again by relying on the pervasive belief that what happened between them and their victims, who are nearly always acquaintances, was a hormone-fueled “misunderstanding” that wasn’t really rape.

I know that you didn’t intend to feed into these beliefs with your post, and that you went out of your way to say that rape is a heinous crime. But using your public platform to segue from Bruni’s discussion of rape culture to your own discussion of male physiology is at the very least an awkward non sequitur. At worst, by responding to Bruni with the observation that men on a physiological level are men, you implicitly reinforce a culture that has a long history of dismissing rape with “boys will be boys.”

Perhaps you’ll consider instead devoting some blog space to research on Predatory Theory, which describes how serial rapists, who it’s worth repeating tend to commit acquaintance rapes rather than rape strangers, rely on rape culture to get away with their crimes over and over again. Two posts that include thorough citations are here and here. A post that deals with the most frequent objections to the above posts is here. Thanks for taking a look.

Happy to do so and to invite readers also to look at this aspect of the issue. But I specifically did not argue that we should “substitute” a discussion of testosterone’s power for a cultural campaign against rape. I merely argued that any cultural attempt to rein in sexual violence should take into account the power of testosterone, in order to be more effective. Starting from a premise that it’s either DNA or culture misses this critical factor.

Testosterone is correlated with a tendency to physical violence. And rape is an act of violence. Of course, I am not arguing that this excuses violence – simply that there are causes as well as culture that are in play.

Look at the murder statistics, for example. 90 percent of homicides are committed by half the population, i.e. men. It is a remarkably stable statistic through time and space and culture. Does anyone truly believe that this is random or generated by sexist discrimination against men or entirely a function of cultural expectations? Why is it so staggeringly resilient, if culture is so important? Why is it the same now as it was long before feminism?

My point is that you will more successfully counter rape by going with the grain of the male psyche, rather than insisting that it is a function of mere culture. And I suggested the model of the gentleman as a better way to appeal to the better angels of the male nature. I’m open to other suggestions.

Another female reader is less forgiving:

I found your piece on the roots of rape logically and ethically disastrous. You don’t quite come out and say “boys will be boys,” but really, your argument that “men will never be women” comes insultingly close to the mark.

To argue that somehow systemic, glorified violence against women across the globe is attributable to testosterone (which, as I’m sure you know, women also possess, just in lesser quantities) is not just simply untrue, it is dangerously close to declaring that the “naturally” violent proclivities of men are to be expected as part of life.  You see, the men just can’t help it – it’s the hormones!

Your remedy for this allegedly unalterable reality is to “appeal to male pride.”  This throwback to the supposed days of gentlemanly chivalry (when women were so well treated) is, like the argument of the writer you critique, a case for a shift in culture. You simply want to shift it backwards 50 years or more.  Your logic seems to be that we need to stroke the egos of would-be rapists and hopefully cajole them out of a crime they are somehow designed to commit.

Really? Would you argue then, that the answer to terrorist, gay-bashing or child-molesting violence would be to find a way to “channel testosterone to calmer waters” for the men who commit these acts?  Would you argue that we’d have less religious violence if we stopped condemning terrorism and instead praised jihadists for their “courage, confidence and prudent risk-taking?” No, of course you wouldn’t.

But when it comes to rape, somehow it’s the job of would-be victims to be be deferential and make sure the would-be perpetrators feel duly appreciated.  We should celebrate military academies and the Boy Scouts (both institutions with a painful history of sexual abuse, by the way) in the hopes that puffing up male egos will keep them from the need to rape? By extension, then, men are rapists because they aren’t sufficiently admired, because their “self-esteem” is not sufficiently fed. They then turn to violence to feed it. Are you kidding? Who was more admired than Catholic priests were by their parishes 50 years ago? As we know from allegations that still continue to surface, rape was unquestioned and unpunished precisely during the era in which the military, the Boy Scouts, and the notion that Father Knows Best received national applause. I’m really at a loss for why you would think a return to this era would help anyone.

There’s a lot packed into that email. So let me address this point first:

Would you argue that we’d have less religious violence if we stopped condemning terrorism and instead praised jihadists for their “courage, confidence and prudent risk-taking?” No, of course you wouldn’t.

But would I hold that abolishing religion as a cultural facilitator of this violence would solve the problem? No, I wouldn’t. Because the religious impulse is so strong and universal – like testosterone – that it requires taming, not attacking. And you tame it from within, by supporting non-fundamentalist faith, by arguing for the incompatibility of true religion with violence, just as for the incompatibility of real manhood with rape.

And I’m not talking, pace my reader, about appealing to the aspirations of rapists – but of all men – in order to reduce the rate of sexual violence. That doesn’t mean a return to the 1950s. It requires new models of male virtue – like a president who is devoted to his family and daughters, or a clerical hierarchy that brings women in as full equals, or a sportsman who combines daring on the field with restraint in his own life. These role models are culturally important. But will they ever end rape? Tragically, no. Just as they will never end the maleness of much violence.

Does this mean I am complicit in things I believe cannot be abolished, but merely ameliorated? I sure hope not. I do not believe, for example, that homophobia will ever disappear among young men. To be different sexually in adolescence will always be stigmatized by peer groups. We can do all we can to stop it by targeting bullies and offering role models and a future for gay boys; but we will be more effective if we recognize that homophobia – like all distrust of out-groups – is an enduring part of fallen human nature and work from there.

This is a core distinction between a conservative approach to such issues and a liberal one. I plead guilty to conservatism, because, in its proper understanding, it is more reality-based and less utopian.