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Why Do Men Sexually Assault Women?

Sexual violence against women manifests, rather than violates, society’s norms.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." —Margaret Atwood

Versions of this stark reality have been true since the beginning of time. Living while female has always carried considerable risk. It continues to do so today, even in unexpected places, for example, on college campuses, which advertise themselves as—and often are in many ways—bastions of tolerance, nonviolence, and open communication.

Scientific field expeditions are another place we might expect women to be safe, but as research indicates, they are not. Even the armed forces, which have a solid record of success with racial integration, have not managed to solve the problem of sexual violence. A woman’s odds of being harmed by a fellow soldier dwarf her odds of being harmed by the enemy.

Considering that sexual violence against women in all these places is by all accounts vastly under-reported, and considering that it is probably even less commonly reported in other arenas (such as in the home), we must face up to the fact that women are under sexual siege in the U.S. The attackers, almost exclusively, are men.

What accounts for this? Why do men sexually assault women?

First, because they can. By their genetic lot, men are on average stronger than women and can overpower them physically. Anatomy is destiny, Freud said. And so it’s the destiny of women that if men wish to impose their will, physical force is one available tool. The same is not true in reverse. This biological difference is not fair—but there is no fairness in nature; there is only nature in nature. And the difference is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Another reason sexual violence is so common is that sex and violence are closely linked in our internal architecture. Sex has inherently violent undertones (in the same way that violence has sexual undertones). This is not a new observation. But the sex-violence link has traditionally been discussed in the context of over-stimulated male sexuality.

In late Victorian times, for example, the male sex drive was considered so explosive and animalistic as to render men unable to control themselves when stimulated (women were not considered to be much interested in sex for any reason other than procreation). This storyline is good for justifying male misbehavior and has also been used far and wide to justify men’s efforts to control where women go, what they say, and how they dress. However, it falls apart upon close examination. As a student in my sexuality class put it: “If your parents walk in on you having sex with your girlfriend, you stop what you’re doing in a second, no matter what…” Yes, men have ample control of their sexuality.

In truth, the sex-violence connection is not the providence of over-aroused men, but rather an inherent feature of the male-female mating dynamic. This is an uncomfortable realization, yet the evidence appears to support it. First, the sex drive and the propensity for violence (in men and women) are both linked to the same hormone: testosterone. Second, acts of dominance and violence are common ways by which males attract and protect their mates among our primate relatives.

In humans, male aggressiveness is often rewarded by greater access to, attention from, and success with women. It is no coincidence that the theme of being taken by force by an attractive, lustful man dominates (pun) female erotic literature and features prominently in women’s sexual fantasies. Finally, as Freud noted, the act of sexual intercourse itself (the “primal scene”) bears a striking resemblance to violent struggle, marked as it is by raw physicality, sweating, bodily penetration, vigorous thrusting, grunting, etc.

The fact that we have a sexual appetite for things we find otherwise abhorrent has to be acknowledged if we are to make progress on controlling and counteracting sexual violence, in the same way that we must acknowledge the thrilling aspects of war if we want to advance peace, or nicotine’s powerful medicinal and pleasurable properties if we are to make progress against smoking.

However, our biological constitution, which privileges men physically and rewards male aggression, is only one major determinant of behavior. The other is social influence. For humans, group pressures and social situations often shape behavior more strongly than biological impulses. They also tend to override individual character, values, and inclinations.

People have biological tendencies and individual preferences, but whether, when, and how they act on these is often decided by the social context and social identity. Some people are more conscientious than others, by temperament or by conscious choice. But more people will act conscientiously, and more of the conscientious people will act on their tendency more often if the values of the culture around them cherish and reward conscientiousness.

Genetic endowment sets the boundaries for what one can do, but not for what one should do. In fact, society can, and does, choose whether to elevate and encourage certain genetic attributes or seek to minimize, conceal, and resist their influence on social life. That women are more physically vulnerable by nature need not mean that they should be fair game for attack. The fact that you are stronger than me does not mean you get to shove in front of me in line. Biology says you could. Society says you can’t. And generally, you don’t.

To deal effectively with sexual aggression we must recognize that we are dealing with one of those issues where social aspirations (like “Right makes right”) buck against our evolutionary heritage (where “Might makes right”). This is true in other areas as well. For example, we expect young people to delay childbearing far beyond the biologically selected starting time (the onset of puberty and fertility), because our society needs them to get educated, and that takes time. Most of the time they follow society's rather than biology’s dictates.

Once we understand the challenge, we may begin to look for ways to meet it. A good question to start with is: Who are the men who attack women? It is convenient to assume that the culprits are violent, sociopathic, sexual deviants, and some definitely are. However, most men who violate women’s spaces, rights, and bodies sexually would not meet clinical diagnostic criteria as either sociopaths or sexual deviants. Most violence against women is committed by normative people—around campus, at work, or on the base. This raises the possibility that the violence they perpetrate appears, in context, normative to them.

A thought experiment: How many of the offenders are acting against social norms to satisfy sociopathic personal values or urgent individual needs? And how many act chiefly to adhere to group norms or accommodate peer pressure? I would argue that in violating women, most attackers are not acting alone, spontaneously, or out of some twisted personal fantasy; rather, they are manifesting and adhering to the consciousness of the culture in which they are immersed.

What is this cultural consciousness that permits and pushes men towards sexual assault? On the most general level, it is one characterized by the sanctioning of all kinds of violence. As the psychologist Hans Eysenck observed long ago, what sex was for the Victorians, violence is for us. We officially condemn it, but actually reward and revel in it. An American child is rewarded for fighting back, not for turning the other cheek. An undercurrent of violence worship is apparent in American culture, where the symbol of patriotism is the soldier, the symbol of personal freedom is the gun, the most popular sport is football, the most popular entertainment are shoot-'em-up video games and vengeful movie superheroes blowing up things, and the most cherished demographic is youth.

Another aspect of this consciousness is that it objectifies people. The objectification of women—turning them into body parts that exist and have value only to the extent they satisfy male desires and move merchandize in the marketplace—has been discussed and acknowledged widely. But men are also objectified. In the unforgivingly competitive market system where most men (and women) spend their days, you are valued for your efficiency, your ability to advance the company’s bottom line. (Men are not even given the cultural license, still available to some women, to opt-out of this rat race and into full-time parenthood). America treats its workers as it does the products they make: like things to use up, throw away, and replace.

How many men sense, rightly, that no one cares about their subjective experience or their feelings independent of their economic value? How many believe, rightly, that they are interchangeable? How many are true agents in their lives, as opposed to tools of a trade? Americans work very hard, and most of this work is motivated by fear, the terror of being left behind, of falling through the gaping cracks in the tattered, so-called safety net, of becoming nonproductive and hence non-entities, useless objects. Objectified people are less able to treat each other humanely.

This is one reason why framing the sexual violence problem as a man versus woman issue is limiting. It may be more useful to frame it as a contest between violent objectification collaborators versus resistors. Just as specific rights movements tend to benefit from the creation of a more general civil rights conversation and consciousness within the culture, so will an effort to end the objectification of women and violence against them benefit from a more comprehensive social conversation about violence and objectification.

On a more concrete, immediate level, men who attack women are usually following either a well-learned social script or the immediate pressure of group norms. A social script dictates that certain things lead to other things. Those who have internalized the script as normal are loath to violate it. When the script is violated, those who have internalized it will tend to blame the violator, not the script.

If the common restaurant script says that you tip no matter how good the service, then most will tip no matter the service, and those who refuse to tip bad waiters will provoke outrage and retaliation. Likewise, if the sexual script dictates that the endpoint of flirting and foreplay is intercourse, then many will be loath to break it regardless of how they actually feel in the moment, and those who say, “Stop!” mid-script will be seen as offenders, deserving of retaliation or punishment. To change this dynamic, sexual scripts will have to change.

The other force often at play is immediate, in-group peer pressure. Young people who gang up on and violate a semi-conscious woman and post pictures on Facebook are not acting on some individually dreamed-up sexual fantasy, but rather are following group norms. We know from psychological research that once a group is established, the immediate pressure to adhere to the in-group code will often override the desire and ability to reach across to a member of the out-group. To deal with the problem of group pressure pushing young men to violate women, some concrete social norms of concrete groups in concrete places will have to change.

How is social change of this kind achieved? Two general approaches are available. The first is a top-down strategy, applied through changes in regulation or law, as California has done, or through official leaders’ declarations and orders, as Obama has done. The top-down approach has advantages. It can be enacted fast, and it can compel people to change the way they act. This is important because one of the best, quickest ways to change attitudes, norms, and scripts is through changing actions. Start smiling, and you’ll feel happier. Be legally required to treat others with kindness and respect, and your prejudices about them will diminish over time.

However, the top-down approach has limitations. Changing the law can have multiple unintended consequences: Prohibition didn't stop people from drinking, but it did spawn large-scale, organized crime. Moreover, law enforcement is usually based on punishment for those who break laws, not reinforcement for those who are following the rules. Psychological research from Skinner on has shown that punishment, while telling you what not to do, is not a good way to learn what to do. In fact, what people who are punished often learn best is how to avoid and resent those who punish them, and how to become good at not being caught.

There are limits to the law’s ability to regulate the complexities of human interaction. And sexual interactions are, if nothing else, complex. A case in point is the question of consent. Clearly, consent is a contextual concept. For example, we can easily agree that the inebriated person in a one-night stand is unable to give consent. But what about a long-term couple who likes to have drunk sex? And while marriage does not mean you can do whatever you want without asking, a "yes" response to marital sex initiation is rarely uttered or requested; such marital sex does not commonly constitute assault, but then again, sometimes it does. Moreover, sorting out what happened afterward is notoriously difficult: "He said-she said" situations, common in charges over sexual encounters, are inherently difficult to address legally.

A reliance on legislation alone is never optimal for alleviating social ills. A bottom-up approach is also needed, where individuals, families, and communities initiate action to create new terms, new scripts and expectations and, ultimately, a new social consciousness. As it happens, bottom-up approaches to cultural change have received a boost from social media. Online platforms provide ways for people to coordinate, inform, and encourage each other at the grassroots level, often circumventing top-down structures and traditional power centers and ideologies.

In the old Zen tale, a master and student are eating on the grass. A fly buzzes overhead. The master reaches with a quick flick of the hand and catches it mid-air.

“How can you do that?” asks the awestruck student.

“How can you not?” asks the master.

Not that long ago, it was unimaginable that women could or would engage in advanced intellectual discourse, pursue careers in science, or join the armed forces. Now, it is unimaginable that they wouldn’t. A lot of things that are hard to imagine eventually—with changes in law and cultural consciousness—become taken for granted. Similarly, right now it is difficult for us to imagine how we could have a world in which a woman would feel, and be, as physically safe as a man walking on campus, dusting artifacts at a dig site, or staffing her army post.

Yet how can we justify not having such a world?

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