So it’s one thing to tangle with evolutionary psychology as a blogger. It’s quite another to butt heads with it in person. Or, as in my case, to get verbally head-butted by it. And I’m feeling a little distressed, because a student got traumatized in the process and I didn’t manage to stop it.
Though I have friends who are trained biologists, I don’t normally have any direct dealings with people who believe the urge to rape is hard-wired and unalterable. My comfy little bubble popped a few days ago – in the university’s women’s center, of all places. I had just given an informal lunchtime talk on men in women’s studies, which was more of a discussion than a talk. (It was mostly based on material I presented last summer at the NWSA conference.) One of the attendees who spoke up was someone I’d never met before, a biologist who emphasized that she challenges budding health care workers to question their homophobia and gender stereotypes. The rest of us all made happy noises about how great it was that people were doing feminist work in the natural sciences, too.
But after the event, while people were hanging around chatting, this biologist collared me and said, “Well, I piss off a lot of the pre-meds with what I teach them. But I also piss off everyone else, because not all of what I teach is so politically correct.” Curiously, I asked what she meant (and oh, we all know what happened to the cat!). The earful I got was not just un-PC but downright triggering. (That’s your cue if you’d rather not keep reading.) And it was delivered in a loud monologue so everyone else in the women’s center got to listen along, sans trigger warning.
“You know how the college girls walk around uptown on Saturday nights with their butt cracks showing and their tits hanging out? And everyone’s drinking? It’s no surprise that they get raped. It’s bound to happen! Never in human history have young people had this much freedom. Never have they been so unsupervised, with so much access to alcohol. You’ve got these guys who are at the peak of their sexual prowess. They’re programmed to want to have sex with anything that moves. They’re animals – we all are. And men are visual. So someone is going to get raped.”
Okay, that’s not quite verbatim, but it’s also not exaggerated. She kept getting into infinite loops, especially when it came to the girls’ exposed anatomies and the boys’ uncontrollable libidos. By now there was a circle of a dozen women surrounding us. The conversation was impossible to ignore, with her haranguing me at 120 decibels and barely pausing to breathe.
Eventually I squeezed in a question: “You’re right that we’re in a historically new situation, compared to 50 years ago. But we’re not gonna go back to locking girls up. We’re not gonna veil them or seclude them. And women aren’t necessarily safe in their homes, either. So what would you do to fight rape?”
“Well, they have to stop dressing like they do. It’s like they have a bulls-eye painted on them. Then they get raped and wonder why! The boys can’t help it! It’s what they’re made to do! Girls dress like that and rape will happen. They have no one else to blame!” (Sorry about all the exclamation points. I’m actually toning her down from the ALL CAPS that would be a more faithful transcription.)
I said: “What about the boys? Can’t we teach them that no means no – that date rape is real rape and it’s against the law? Sure, we’re all animals, but aren’t boys capable of learning?” (Nods and murmurs from the crowd.)
“No! This is what young male animals do. They would rut all day and night if they could.”
I tried to get her to engage on a different level – that is, discussing with me rather than haranguing me – because I really am interested in science. When she repeated that guys are visual, I mentioned the study from last fall that showed men respond erotically to the color red but didn’t investigate at women’s responses, though the researchers suspected women would respond similarly. She said, “Oh yeah, women are visual, too!” and went right back to her auto-rant about how men’s visual orientation predisposes them to rape.
I’d chock this up as just another lesson in how inflexible some folks can be, except that a former student of mine walked out with me afterward and told me that one of the young women who was forced to listen to this had to walk out because she’d recently been raped.
I’m dismayed that my colleague’s rape-blaming opened up this student’s wounds. I don’t know the girl, and I’m not sure I’d recognize her on the street. Yet I feel that I should have seen this coming. I should have found a way put the brakes on my ev psych colleague – even though she’s way senior to me, and even though she was shouting at me rather than conversing. I didn’t have any real control over that conversation, but I feel like crap that I didn’t know how to shut it down once it was out of control.
It would be unfair to pin the failings of a whole field on a single individual. In fact, it’d be bad science to make her stand in for all of ev psych – and don’t we already have enough bad science in this realm? Still, this conversation resonated with all of the worst features of ev psych. In the discipline there’s sometimes a kind of macho swagger that goes along with claiming to have the only clear-eyed view of the world, while feminist scholars supposedly indulge in wishful thinking. There’s an unwillingness to grant authority to “fuzzier” disciplines. There’s a media filter that plays up ev psych’s most retrograde tendencies, which frustrates me no end because I like science and want to understand it with some nuance. And there’s a willingness to write off people’s moral capacities – especially men’s – which helps women not one whit. In my personal ev-psych smackdown experience, all of these traits derailed the chance at real dialogue – and retraumatized a sexual assault survivor as a special bonus.
Yes, we’re all animals. But fortunately, we’re animals with moral reasoning. Not to mention the ability to understand that laws have consequences. At The American Virgin, Trixie writes:
Helping young men understand these issues and learn to take responsibility for their actions doesn’t make women victims. We can take all the self-defense and empowerment classes we want, but unless we put the responsibility in the hands of the guys, we won’t change a thing.
That’s exactly it. Even if men’s behavior were completely resistant to change, there’d still be no reason to blame women. Men would still be morally culpable when they commit rape. But education does matter; men’s behavior is malleable. The only redeeming feature of the “men are hard-wired to rape” argument is that it pisses men off, as I’ve found in my teaching, and it puts them in a position where they want to claim a moral high ground. So maybe there’s a use for the cartoon version of ev psych, after all.