Women, Feminism & Fear: Part 9

Dear Erin:

Natalie Angier had a recent column in The New York Times science section on research into sexual desire, and one particular bit caught my eye.

They gave men an extensive questionnaire to determine their relative scale of sexual excitability and inhibition — that is, how easily they became turned on and how easily they were able to tamp down those feelings. And then they had them hook their genitals up to a machine to measure how they actually reacted to sex showed them clips of erotic scenes — some just sexy and others showing violent sex.

Angier writes:

Analyzing the excitability and inhibition variables separately, the researchers found that the men who had scored high on the questionnaire in sexual excitability showed, on average, a swifter and more robust penile response to all the erotic films than did the low scorers, regardless of the comparative violence or charm of the material viewed.

More intriguing still were the divergent sexual responses between men who ranked high on the inhibition scale and those who scored low. Whereas both groups reacted to the nonthreatening sex scenes with an equivalently hearty degree of tumescence, only the low scorers — those whose answers to the questionnaire indicated they had scant sexual inhibition — maintained an enthusiastic physiological response when confronted with film clips of sexual brutality. [emphasis added]

The results suggest that having a good set of sexual brakes not only dampens the willingness to commit rape or sexual abuse, but the desire as well [emphasis added], giving the lie to notions that “all men are the same” and would be likely to rape their way through the local maiden population if they thought they could get away with it.

When I read this, I thought immediately of the discussion in your book about the relationships between male and female soldiers — that only a few of the male soldiers created problems for the women, and that most men were disgusted by this behavior. And if the troublemakers were controlled, sexual attacks on women weren’t a problem.

This is an important thing to understand, because it allows us to get away from the concept that women should be afraid of all men, and that therefore we need to conduct our behavior accordingly: Find the biggest guy and hook up with him, or hide behind locked doors all the time, or make sure to dress in a conservative way, or never go anywhere alone. If only a small number of men present the real problem, then our everyday behavior does not have to be built around protecting ourselves from them.

Instead, as a society we need to figure out the best ways to control the problem men. You make clear in your book that a commander who brooks no nonsense — and who immediately cracks down on sexual harassment — prevents problems. I suspect that if we get away from the idea that “all men” would like to treat women badly, it will be easier for men (as well as women) to rein in the bad apples.

The scientific research allows us to rethink our conceptions of male sexual behavior, but I’d be willing to jump a little farther ahead: I think most people — men and women — can tell whether a particular man is a problem or not. People who have suffered serious sexual trauma might have problems reading others, but I think most of us have pretty good instincts about these things.

Instead of teaching women to protect themselves against all men, we need to teach them to deal differently with the ones who set off alarm bells in their heads. There are people who are dangerous, but if we waste our time being afraid of everyone, we won’t deal effectively with the real threats.

And that brings me to another threat situation — one that I suspect is more difficult to read. The Washington Post ran a story on Monday about sexual and violent threats against women bloggers. Some of the attacks are very graphic and some highly visible women bloggers were so frightened that they shut down their blogs.

While the Post quotes some studies that indicate that, although male bloggers inspire nasty attacks as well, the ones on women tend to be sexually threatening, I’m not sure that all the facts are in — that is, I’m not sure this isn’t being sensationalized in the same way that many threats against women, especially those with an element of sex, are overblown. As a society, we tend to overemphasize threats against women, which I think is one of the reasons the issues of women and fear are such an important element of rethinking feminism.

But it also occurs to me that I don’t have the skills to instinctively react to online attacks. If someone threatens to rape or kill me in a blog post, I have no clue other than the words. I can’t see the person, watch how he moves, pick up all those clues that tell me whether I’m dealing with a dangerous person or not. So online attacks are frightening, especially for women who are highly visible. If you wouldn’t be hard to find, it’s not unreasonable to be frightened when someone threatens you.

However, this kind of reaction to women who speak their mind isn’t anything new — it’s just that the Internet means we see it online, instead of just in anonymous letters. It’s more visible, but that’s the technology, not the underlying cause.

While I think telling women to “suck it up” is rude advice, I do agree that women need to learn other ways of coping with threats besides shutting down their blogs and hiding from the world. I realize some of these women didn’t expect to generate such a reaction — they weren’t doing something as risky as, say, Salmon Rushdie did, — but they do need to learn how to live in a world where threats happen without immediately pulling back.

In response to your last post (some time back, now), I think your thoughts on maternal mortality and the male response to it are an important contribution to feminist thinking. It seems to me that as we shift into a more modern world — where we control reproduction and the risk of childbirth is much lessened (supreme court rulings notwithstanding) — we need to address this issue directly. These things are new to us as a species, and our instincts are not as reliable as they might be in dealing with them.

But I suspect our increased understanding of why men might be overprotective or why women might fear all men, coupled with awareness that some things have changed, has the potential to lead us to a future where the relationship between men and women is healthier and more balanced. If both men and women can learn the difference between what they think they ought to fear and what they actually need to fear, we’ll all be better off.



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