Confronting Rape Culture: Empathy & Defying Cultural Norms

This post is going to be a bit different. Oh, don’t worry, it’ll have all the snark and sarcasm of my usual posts, but about twice the profanity! It’ll be different because (a) it will be far more personal and (b) only tangentially about a current news story. You guessed it, it has been inspired by the Bill Cosby rape trial and the mishegas at Uber.

Rape really pisses me off. I’ve known too many women to have been sexually assaulted in ways big and small. I’ve seen too often the traumatic after effects of even “small” scale sexual aggression. Anyone with an ounce of empathy in their souls will be pissed off when hearing about a sexual assault. But, it still amazes me when I see the traditional reaction to hearing about sexual aggression… oh, do you have proof? I don’t want to hurt his feelings. What if you’re wrong? And, I say a big old FUCK OFF to that shit. Don’t bring that weak shit to my house. Hey, ya Ol’ Pussy Grabber, did you have her permission to grab her pussy? Did my question hurt your fucking feelings? Oh, it did and you did? My bad. Fuck off asshole.

Why the hell would you worry about hurting a man’s feelings when questioning a sexual interaction between him and anyone else? How many sexual assaults are happening right now? RAINN estimates that there is one rape every 98 seconds. That’s 36 in an hour, 18 in half an hour, 9 in fifteen minutes. How long will you be reading this post? You do the math! How many were raped while you were hurting Romeo’s feelings? That’s why I say, Who gives a fuck! Odds are pretty good that the SOB sure could have.

It’s ALL Men

If you add in all the little aggressions: gropes, lewd suggestions, pinched asses, unwanted kisses, and whatever the fuck else men do to women in their effort to fulfill their evolutionary purpose because men can’t be expected to override their dumb monkey-assed brain with their rational thinking brain, then it is gonna take ALL men to produce those numbers. It’s all men! Me, the guy next door, your father, every fucking guy. Show me a man who hasn’t gone one step further to look down a woman’s blouse, reach a little further to cop a feel, lean just a bit further to look up a skirt at some point in his life. Every man will commit sexual aggression, the only difference is that some of us will do it in a larger number of circumstances than others. That’s the dividing line. Congratulations, you’re one of us dumb fuckers who has a very narrow range of circumstances that you’d grab a pussy in. Pick up your medal at the door.

Degrees of Empathy

I like the Simon Baron-Cohen approach to aggression of all types: the varying presence of empathy. Baron-Cohen theorizes that there are many factors that will cause empathy to wax and wane: genetics, alcohol and drugs, emotional turmoil and stress, all kinda things. So, I figger, any man that finds himself in that spot with waning empathy and waxing opportunity will take his shot when he hits his sweet spot of the lack of empathy and abundance of opportunity.

Right fucking now, on CNN there is a story about the rape culture at Uber, and the reporter is saying that in the tech world she goes to the conventions and talks to women in the industry and EVERY woman has a “story.” Then she goes on to offer the EXCUSE that the companies grow too fast and have such weak HR and there are so few women in leadership, the poor boys just didn’t know it wasn’t okay to have dinner meetings at strip clubs with their female colleagues or suggest blow jobs all around or whatever the fuck these “men” are doing to harass women. Yeah, it’s all fucking men.

Ask yourself, how drunk would you have to be before you would commit a sexual assault? How safe from being caught would you have to feel before you would commit a sexual assault? How weak or vulnerable would the victim have to be before you would commit a sexual assault? Yeah, that’s what I thought. This pisses you off? How do you think your mother, sister, wife, daughter have felt when exposed to the sexual aggressions of the men who pass through their lives? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

A Story of Sexual Assault

I live in an expat community and have for twenty years. Since I am a well trained and experienced social scientist and my god-given super power is careful observation of social situations, I noticed pretty much right away the effect that living outside of their home culture has on people. Culture and society set rules for behavior: what is okay, how to interact, what’s not okay. These are known as cultural norms and social mores. Most of us have internalized these rules to a degree, and these restrain our worst instincts even when the external controls are removed, but there are others who have not, and they tend to behave badly when those constraints have been removed. Living abroad, by definition, means those constraints have been removed because you are now living in a culture that does not (a) follow the cultural norms and social mores of your culture of origin, and (b) does not have the same expectations of you as they do of each other because you’re foreign, and (c) has way different social norms of you if you’re white and American. Add stress and alcohol, a large population with little or no English and a non-confrontational culture, then you’ve got fertile ground for sexual aggression.

Here I present one such story in which all of these factors meeting in an ugly ugly way. This story has a villain, victims, witnesses, and very few heroes. I first met the rapey villain of this story late one Saturday night on a sidewalk outside of a pub where I had to drag him off of a young woman who was clearly saying no to him. No to his desire to hug her. No to him trying to touch her. No to him actually grasping her. Their interactions had been going on for some minutes before this. Him aggressively conveying his interest in her, and she clearly not as interested in him. This “hug” was the last straw. I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back saying, She’s saying no; you have to respect that. She left. And, we, the group including our “friend” walked in the opposite direction down to another bar. He proceeded to annoy every woman in the place with lewd propositions until someone’s husband chased him out threatening to beat him to the protestations of his wife.

According to the people there that night, this was not the first time this fellow had behaved so badly. In fact, he is well known to the expat community. Everyone just stands in witness and tsk-tsking among themselves, especially his male colleagues and drinking “buddies.”

What is driving this dick to behave so dickishly? Why would he repeatedly assault women in our community? The excuse his friends gave me is that he gets this way when he’s had a few drinks. That’s no excuse. And, it also isn’t true. I’ve seen him sober using questionable language and making questionable suggestions to minors and adult women. He doesn’t get as handsy or rapey sober, but all the other components are there. So, it ain’t the alcohol or inebriation… it is internal to him. It is something he brings with him wherever he goes and in whatever situation he finds himself in.

According to Baron-Cohen, he has a significant lack of empathy on his best days, and when he’s drunk, he has zero-degrees of empathy. He sees women as being there for his sexual gratification and part of that is obviously inflicting pain and discomfort on these women. One way to describe such a person is misogynist another way is psychopath and a third would be a sadistic misogynistic psychopath.

Conformity & the Bystander Effect

What about the witnesses? Why aren’t we doing more to stop an asshole like this? He is a big man — over six feet tall and muscular. He obviously takes pride in his looks. There is a physical intimidation factor involved. But, there has to be more.

Social psychology tells us about the bystander effect in which multiple witnesses to an unusual event, a crime or even a threat like smoke entering a room will not act believing that someone else will or that it is unimportant to react if no one around them is reacting.As unbelievable as that sounds, have a look at this video of a woman sitting in a room slowly filling with smoke.

Also at work here is conformity in which people match their responses to those around them, especially when the situation is ambiguous or violates social norms. In other words, they do what everyone else is doing.

We are inhibited by several social fears: embarrassment. What if we’re wrong? No one else is doing anything about it. They all know that it is unimportant, and they will know that I didn’t. I’ll be the only one over reacting. My advise when it comes to suspected sexual assault, it is better to be embarrassed than it is to have allowed a sexual assault to occur. It is easier said than done, however.

Another inhibiting factor: social exclusion. We evolved to work in groups. We survived because we worked in groups. The group is paramount in our unconscious psyches. If we act against the group, then we could be excluded and that could mean that we could very well die. It is a serious threat that occurs outside of our conscious awareness. So, if no one else is reacting, and you do, then maybe they’ll spurn you. Again, in the case of possible sexual assault, risk the exclusion. Again, easier said than done.

So, that is the people who witness him in action. But, what about people who have a closer connection to him? His “friends” and work colleagues? What about their behavior? As it turns out, he is not a lone wolf; he runs with a pack. In fact, he is the pack leader. He is not the only handsy, gropey, rapey SOB in the room. When he’s there, there are usually two or three more, too. So, you escape one and you’re in the arms of another. Or you’ve got two on you increasing those feelings of helplessness and suffocation. It also provides a group that is not reacting to his transgressions to influence the other unwitting witnesses not to react either.

Instead of being appalled by this heartless arse, these men are stimulated and encouraged to act in the same way. Being around him has lowered their empathy. More than likely there is an inherent trend towards misogyny, sadism, and diminished empathy in each of them. Get them into a pack and groupthink takes over. They spend less time voicing concerns about what they are doing and more time policing everyone else to make sure they aren’t! They are almost consciously suppressing any concern they might feel in themselves and each other.

I once asked one of them why he thought it was okay to grope women. He lied. He claimed no one in their pack groped women, least of all him. Of course, at the same party, he was groping women on the dance floor. I’m sure it was all just innocent flirtatious fun, except it wasn’t. I spoke with at least one freaked out woman that he had molested. I also made sure that she left the party without one of these predators following her.

I ran into one of the senior people in the organization that the rapey villain works for, and I asked about the rapist. The man was clearly nervous talking about it. He admitted that not only does he know about this behavior, but he is aware of the behavior of the pack, and not only that, senior management is, too. They won’t do anything, unless it threatens their bottom line. Then, he laments the effect it has on the younger members of the organization that are in the pack.

It was clear that he feels powerless to do anything about it. He is conforming to the behavior he sees in senior management for fear of social ostracization, which in this case means possibly being fired for making a stink.

It is hard to stand up to rape culture even when it is in your face, but especially when it might impact you socially. Some guy gropes a woman, who’s to say it wasn’t consensual or she wasn’t asking for it or whatever? She didn’t object, even though you might find her crying in the bathroom where she might feel safe from him.

I’ve found very few welcome these conversations when I bring it up to them. The rapist both this asshole and the universal kind is violating social norms in a major way, but the community tolerates him. I bring it up, and I’m the asshole. I’m violating social norms by talking about the taboo, which means that people have to confront themselves. Instead of confronting themselves — it is hard, scary, and difficult — they engage in cognitive dissonance and attack me. It can’t be them, after all they are a good person who would never do anything that would hurt anyone else, so if they’re uncomfortable with what I’m saying, it must be me who is wrong.

We can see this playing out in a very big way at Uber right now. Every dynamic that I’ve described here, applies there. We can see it playing out around the Bill Cosby trial, too. In his career as a serial rapist, these dynamics played out. You can see the damage that these situations did to the women involved. I maintain that we must focus on the needs of the women, and not the needs of the men.

320,000 rapes a year. 27,000 a month. 900 a day. 36 per hour. 1 every 98 seconds.

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