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Are Men Socialized to Prey on Women?

How men are encouraged to see themselves as predators and their mate as prey.

Source: Pixabay/jc112203

The recent flood of sexual allegations and the #MeToo movement have led to the largest national conversation on sexual misconduct in history. Every day, the list of powerful men accused of engaging in sexual assault or harassment grows.

One word that has popped up again and again when describing these men’s behavior is “predatory.” The term “sexual predator” is certainly not a new one, but in the past, it was usually relegated to serial rapists and pedophiles. In the current discussion, the term is being used in a broader way to describe a general pattern of unwanted romantic advances and harassment.

The idea that men are equated to predators and their object of attraction equated as prey is not a new one. In fact, it is a metaphor commonly used to describe dating relationships more generally (especially heterosexual relationships). Just take a look at some of these examples from popular songs and movies:

Animals by Maroon 5

Baby, I'm preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals

Hungry Like a Wolf by Duran Duran

Woman you want me give me a sign
And catch my breathing even closer behind

Stalked in the forest too close to hide
I'll be upon you by the moonlight side

I'm on the hunt down I'm after you
Smell like I sound I'm lost in a crowd
And I'm hungry like the wolf

Scene from movie Swingers describing how a man should pick up a woman

Trent: "You know what? You're like a big bear with claws, with fangs-"

Sue: "Big ****ing teeth, man."

Trent: "...with big ****ing teeth on you. And she's just like this little bunny, just kind of cowering in the corner-"

Sue: "Shivering!"

Trent: "Yeah, man. You got these claws, and you're staring at these claws, man, and you're thinkin' "how am I supposed to kill this bunny".

Sue: "You're pokin' at it. You're pokin' at it."

Trent: "Yeah, you're not hurting it. You're just gently battin' the bunny around. You know what I mean? The bunny's scared, Mike. The bunny's scared of you."

Sue: "And you got these ****ing claws, man."

Trent: "You got these ****ing claws and these fangs, man. And you're looking at your claws and you're lookin' at your fangs and you're thinkin' to yourself, 'I don't know what to do', man. 'I don't know how to kill the bunny. With this, I don't know how to kill the bunnies', man."

Some might argue these descriptions are harmless, that they don’t actually teach men or encourage them to prey on women, but psychological research shows that metaphors are more than just words. They make people see abstract concepts (e.g., love) in concrete, simplified ways (love is a journey). As a result, just being exposed to metaphors can unconsciously alter people’s behavior.

My colleague and I recently decided to test if this men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphor of dating is harmless or not. In our study, men and women of varying ages read a passage that described a man on a first date with a woman. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to read a neutral version of this reading. The other half read a version that included several references to the men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphor. For example, instead of referring to a “night on the town,” the metaphor version stated, “a night on the prowl.” And rather than saying he “enjoyed the get-to-know-you phase” of dating, the metaphor version stated he “enjoyed the chase.”

After the reading, all participants completed questionnaires designed to measure their attitudes about rape. The results indicated that there was no significant difference for women who read the neutral and metaphor versions of the reading. But the results for the men in our study was quite different. Men who read the metaphor-laced reading were significantly higher in beliefs that perpetuate rape (e.g., women who are raped while drunk or sexily dressed asked for it; if a girl doesn’t fight back it's not rape; women often lie about being raped) than men who read the neutral reading. Similarly, men who read the metaphor version were also more likely to indicate they would engage in rape if given the chance.

The implication of these findings is alarming. Just a few minutes of exposure to these metaphors was enough to encourage men to see themselves as sexual predators and women as their sexual prey. This is especially concerning given how the pervasiveness of the men-as-predator and women-as-prey metaphor. It appears in popular movies, songs, even children’s cartoons (e.g., Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood; Might Mouse and the Wolf).

To be clear, this work is still in its early stages. The effects we found need to be replicated by an independent lab and should also be extended to the study of homosexual relationships. Furthermore, our study only focused on one type of sexual misconduct—rape—but it is important to explore if this metaphor effect also occurs with other types of behaviors, such as sexual harassment or sexism more generally. Lastly, there may be rare situations where the dynamics are reversed and women are seen as the predator and men as their prey. For example, when a woman is considerably older and therefore assumed to be more assertive than the man she is dating, she is often referred to as a “cougar.”

The take-home point is that depictions showing men as the predator and women as their prey are not harmless, as some claim. Exposure to them has real-world consequences. Given that we live in a world where one in three women report being sexually harassed and one in five being sexually assaulted, we need to be looking at as many ways as we can to try and reduce these numbers.

Suggested Readings:

Landau, M. J., Meier, B. P., & Keefer, L. A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6), 1045.

Rudman, L. A., & Mescher, K. (2012). Of animals and objects men’s implicit dehumanization of women and likelihood of sexual aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6), 734-746.

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