As Matt Damon said, there are a lot of men who have never committed a sexual transgression. He’s probably right, right? While every man is capable of committing sexual transgressions, most men never or rarely do. But, in this time of accusation, denial, and faux-apology, what is the unaccused man to do? As Matt Damon found out, it isn’t exactly clear. Fortunately, social psychology has addressed this problem before, and I’ve come to a pretty solid conclusion — actually three or four of them — that might just help.
Open Mouth, Insert Foot
We’re in this watershed moment, and it’s great, but I think one thing that’s not being talked about is there are a whole shitload of guys – the preponderance of men I’ve worked with – who don’t do this kind of thing and whose lives aren’t going to be affected.
Matt Damon and so many other men really communicate to women two fundamentally wrong things about the sexual misconduct problem: we don’t get how often it occurs or how upsetting it is.
The #NotAllMen Problem
When men respond with some version of #NotAllMen, it is saying to women that we are not taking the problem seriously and that we aren’t understanding how often sexual transgressions occur. Men don’t understand how often it occurs. We just can’t. We don’t experience it. We don’t see it. We don’t hear about it. So, using our anchoring heuristic, we “know” that it just doesn’t happen that much. But it does. It happens so very often to so many women. And, we don’t have any business trying to say otherwise. We have no direct experience other than as witnesses or perpetrators — and by design, witnesses are few and far between.
The “How Bad Can It Be?” Problem
Matt, clearly exemplified the other problem, too. Hasn’t anyone ever told you, Matt, that when you find yourself in a hole, you should start digging up and stop digging down? Hunh? What’s that Matt? Minnie Driver did once? I’m talking about his now infamous conflated spectrum quote, in which he managed to put all his feet in his mouth and all of Al Franken’s, too.
The whole spectrum thing says to women that you don’t get just how upsetting it is to have some stranger or celebrity or your gross drunk uncle grab your ass or tit or pussy. Who’s to say whether having Poppy Bush grab your ass while your husband takes a picture of you and he tells his horrid “joke” about David Cop-a-Feel is worse than having a Fox News executive take his penis out of his pants and force your head onto it as Tamara Holder was paid 2.5 million dollars not to talk about unless someone at Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, besmirched her? Certainly not this guy who’s never had anyone commit sexual harassment against him.
I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?
To Each Their Own Trauma
Trauma is all in the psyche of the traumatized. Being traumatized by an incident is not a measurable effect. It is not a right given to one kind of incident but not to others. A traumatic response to an incident is completely dependent on the person responding. What one person can shrug off as no big deal can haunt another for the rest of her life. I believe Minnie Driver was making some kinda point like that.
Trauma is also additive. One incident in isolation is one thing, but numerous incidents one after another, especially if there is no time to process the resulting emotion and integrate it into your existence, can be traumatizing for anyone. After all, a lot of little ones can add up to be one big one.
Me and My Friends Don’t… Or Do You?
Because non-rapey men don’t get the scope or depth of the problem, there are statements like, I never have done anything remotely close to sexual harassment and neither have any of my friends, so there! The so there part is exactly how it comes off, too. I can’t argue with anyone’s self-declared innocence unless I have evidence to the contrary, but the neither have any of my friends bit should be quibbled with.
Sexual misconduct has some analogies to racism and racial insensitivity. Most white people are not overtly racist, but it doesn’t mean that we haven’t done and said things that aren’t racially insensitive or downright discriminatory without having fully realized it. Many of these behaviors take place outside of the realm of conscious awareness. But, surely not sexual misconduct? You know when you’ve misconducted yourself, right? Quite possibly.
The other part of that analogy, though, is that most of us know it is wrong, so we don’t share our beliefs unless we are relatively certain it is safe to do so. If a fellow finds himself in a group of people who would disprove of sexist behavior and sexual misconduct, he isn’t likely to talk about the woman’s ass he grabbed on his way to the toilet at the McDonald’s or his open propositioning of the drive through order taker or his comment on the breasts of the girl mopping up the vomit in the men’s room or the fact that he exposed himself to her while he masturbated in front of her, amirite?
As a quick aside, this is why we don’t tell racist or sexist jokes (called disparagement humor) because those who harbor those beliefs think (a) the teller also harbors those beliefs, (b) such behavior is being approved of by everyone who is laughing whether laughing uncomfortably or in enjoyment of the humor, and (c) is more likely to act in a discriminatory way at his next opportunity (Prejudiced Norm Theory). So, don’t do it.
So believing that your friends haven’t, don’t, and won’t commit acts of sexual aggression is a logical error. You simply don’t know. And, it is one of the biggest reasons why one of the most effective rape prevention techniques is to assess every male encounter for the likelihood that it is going to go to sexual assault and cut it off early. There is real scientific evidence suggesting that it might cut the incidents of rape in half.
What’s a Non-Rapey Fella to Do?
What’s a fella to do? I think there are several things. One, recognize that it is a very difficult topic to discuss openly, so maybe don’t discuss so much as ask questions and listen. While, as my friend, Infidel753, maintains, it would only take 5% of the male population sexually misconducting with 20 women each to account for all of the sexual misconduct, it doesn’t mean that only 5% of the male population is committing all of the sexual misconduct. We simply don’t know. Ask you female friends about their experiences and see where it takes you. Listen and try not to get defensive.
Two, be open to being wrong about your presumptions about men. Again, the evidence that being aware that every man is a potential perpetrator is an effective way of cutting the incidents of sexual assault in half suggests that there are a lot more than 5% of the male population committing sexual indiscretions. Just because something could happen, doesn’t mean it does.
Milgram’s Obedience Study & the Standford Prison Study
Three, be aware of the big lesson coming out of World War II and strongly supported by social psychological findings: about two-thirds of us will commit any atrocity known to human kind in the right circumstance or at least go along with it. Milgram’s Obedience Study has been repeated several times across several cultures and it ends up the same way: two-thirds of the participants are willing to kill or do serious harm to another human being even while being uncomfortable and not wanting to do it as long as there is a nice person in a lab coat (position of authority) telling them to do so. That authority figure can be an internalized voice reinforced and encouraged by the disparagement humor addressed earlier or, in the case of Brock “I rectally rape unconscious women with splintering hunks of wood” Turner, his dad (allegedly).
The Stanford Prison Study strongly suggests that seeing yourself in a role will alter your behavior to match that of the role. You could be doing that which you never thought you’d be doing. This tendency was also seen at Abu Ghraib Prison. And, even a cursory look at Weiner Circle tells us that there is a bit of misconduct in all of us… in the right circumstances.
If you discount the abhorrent behavior of the people at the Weiner Circle as being that of drunken louts, then consider the swift and predictable change in behavior of third graders in Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes experiment. She heartlessly set her students (and many others since then) against each other based on their eye color. Watch the discrimination, prejudice, and bias take over the hearts and minds of her students and thousands of participants since then.
All of these examples have one thing in common, the lowering of empathy for the target or victim of the behavior. Alcohol, roles, stereotypes, dehumanized groups all lower the empathy that the perpetrator feels for the victim. Those situations that lower our empathy drag us one step closer to violating other people. Anyone of us, each and every one on us is vulnerable.
#MattDamon, and others, if you’ve read this far, here’s what I think all of the above is telling you that you should do: You should understand that the problem is a lot more widespread than you believe possible — you might be surprised what your friends are getting up to, too. Realize that you don’t have to worry about rape just about ever, although men are raped, but women make the rape calculation just about every day. It weighs on their minds and even a seemingly small infraction like grabbing a woman’s ass is intrusive and upsetting. It means that she cannot control her space or her body. And it is okay not to know what to do other than to say, Holy shit! This is happening a lot more than what I ever figgered it could be. I am so sorry.
Sage Advice from a Sage Person
Focus on what you can control. Be a good person everyday. Vote. Read. Treat one another kindly. Follow the law. And don’t tweet nasty stuff.
— Michelle Obama, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts