The Story Behind Sexual Assaults: Power Corrupts

The list of prominent men who stand credibly accused of sexually assaulting women and children just keeps growing. Just today, Kevin Spacey and Neil DeGrasse Tyson got added to it.

In my cynical moments, I agree with Malcolm Reynolds

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Well, then you clearly missed the Wall Street Journal’s review of the Gandhi biography Great Soul which described (among many unsavory aspects of his life, from hypocrisy to outright racism) how “when he was in his 70s and close to leading India to ­independence, he [Gandhi] encouraged his ­17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him.” If this is Gandhi, what did we expect from Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby? Perhaps our world is structured so that the people who get the statues built after them are the people willing to step on others to get there. After all, the blood on the hands of villains and the blood on the hands of saints is still the same color.

But there are two silver linings to the floodgates of accusations we’re now witnessing. The first is the most obvious: these men aren’t getting away with it anymore. For every famous icon who is shamed and punished, I hope there are dozens or hundreds of predators out there who begin to act with decency out of a sense of fear and self-preservation. I hope women are safer today than they were yesterday because of the courage of these women to come forward and name their attackers, and because a complicit and corrupt media has finally been shamed into covering the story.1

The second is not as frequently commented on. That is the fact that the perpetrators defy partisan explanation. We’ve got a Republican presidenta Holocaust survivor, a famous gay actor (that’d be Kevin Spacey), a scientist known for his views on global warming and atheism (DeGrasse Tyson), one of the mega-pundits of conservatism,2 and of course Harvey Weinstein was a major Democratic fundraiser. Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, black or white, the list of predators confounds just about every conceivable partisan breakdown. And if you think your particular partisan niche is safe, just wait. Because here are a couple of inviolable rules of human nature. The first is that men–yes, men in particular–are driven by sexual desire. The second is that power tends to corrupt. This means that when men have the power to coerce victims and get away with it, quite a lot of them will do so.

This has long been my problem with so-called “rape culture” criticism. The term “rape culture” implies that there is some kind of special, unusual set of assumptions required to create an environment in which sexual assault flourishes. It is a tragically naive view that the default, natural state of human beings is to be kind and nice to each other, and if only we could get rid of these ideological perversions–the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, whatever–and return society to its default, natural state then rape would go away.

But analyzing rape and sexual assault through a political lens has always been a lost cause, because the origins of sexual assault are not political or ideological. It does not require some kind of special philosophy, culture, or ideology to allow sexual assault to flourish. Rape culture is not some kind of aberration. It is the default. Civilization is the exception.

Some people have expressed surprise or even skepticism at the #MeToo campaign. I have not. For whatever reason, when I was growing up I was the kind of person people liked to confide in. So many of my female friends told me of the times they had been sexually assaulted (up to and including rape) that I have long supposed that a woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted is very, very rare.

The reality is that men as predators are not exceptions or aberrations. It doesn’t take a specific culture for rapists to flourish. That’s the default. It takes a specific culture to counteract the natural tendency towards exploitation and abuse. It takes unnatural institutions like criminal justice systems alongside unnatural concepts such as honor and duty and sacrifice to create an environment where rape is suppressed.

If there’s one thing that I hope we can learn from these horrific revelations: this is it. That the ideas that men and women are interchangeable or that moral violations are political are bad ideas. They are political dogmas that fly in the face of common sense, science, and–most importantly–that consistently sabotage our efforts to build an anti-rape culture. Because we should be less concerned with tearing down rape culture and more concerned with building up anti-rape culture. We should be less concerned with teaching about consent–which is a horrifically low bar–and more concerned with teaching ideals of respect, honor, virtue, and love. We should be less concerned with sexual liberation and more concerned with discipline and self-control. Yes, I realize that the idea of teaching adolescents concepts like chastity and self-control sounds laughable today.

That’s why we’re here.

There will never come a day when rape does not exist in our society for the same reason that there will never come a day when theft and murder do not exist. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to tolerate this degree of profligate harassment and exploitation, either. It doesn’t mean we have to do nothing or accept the status quo. We do not.

What does this look like in practice? I don’t think Weinstein was confused about consent. Teaching him the concept would have accomplished nothing. But teaching him about chastity would not have done an iota more good than teaching about consent. However, a society that still had some appreciation for ideals of chastity, fidelity, self-control, and what used to be called “decency” would be a much more hostile environment for predators. We live in a country where the President of the United States could coerce a young intern into a sexual relationship3 and instead of being viewed as a universal affront to civilization it became a partisan issue. The day we decided Bill Clinton’s abuse and exploitation of women was somehow his personal business and decided to rehabilitate a serial sexual abusesr and accused rapist into some kind of grandfatherly political icon was the day that we told every Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the world: go ahead. It’s open season. As long as you’re powerful enough, we’ll look the other way.

If we returned to old-fashioned concepts of honor, propriety, and decency maybe some boys would grow up to be better men and never assault women. I believe that would happen. But–worst case scenario–at least we could take away the horrific sense of entitlement that men of power are currently operating under. Because, as great as it is for the current crop of serial abusers to get taken out, as long as the underlying assumptions of our society remain unchallenged, the only thing that will change is that the next generation of predators will be smarter than the last.

5 thoughts on “The Story Behind Sexual Assaults: Power Corrupts”

  1. My problem with that prescription is that it has historically been associated with deeply authoritarian culture, which only enhances the sense of entitlement felt by men of power.

  2. That’s fair, Kelsey. But this is not a post asking for us to turn the clock back to the (mythical) 1950s. This is a post asking for us to selectively conserve some traditional values that are worth conserving, especially the idea of chastity.

    I explained it this way on Facebook: In the 1950s, women were expected to be chaste and men were expected to preserve the chastity of women (except when they weren’t). That wasn’t fair. So in the 2010s, no one is expected to be chaste. What I’m asking for is a world where we encourage everyone (men and women equally) to understand and live in accord with ideals of chastity, virtue, etc.

    That’s radically different from the 1950s stereotype and it’s radically different from what we have today.

  3. “My problem with that prescription is that it has historically been associated with deeply authoritarian culture.”

    I’m not sure that’s accurate. All successful cultures have strict rules; you have to have rules for a society to function. The question is “How will those rules be enforced?” Will specific people enforce them, or will people self-govern? A culture that promotes honor, propriety, and decency is a prerequisite to a self-governing society. Without these ideals you end up with a society collapsing into anarchy or reverting to true authoritarianism.

  4. The fact that men have an evolutionary capacity for rape doesn’t make it our “default” state any more than it is our “default” state to hunt animals, raid neighboring communities for resources, or become morbidly obese.

    I don’t believe boys need to be “talked out” of raping women as a part of their upbringing. They know harm is wrong. Most men (usually pegged at 85-95%) never commit rape and in every society throughout history rape has been considered a serious offense, so far as I’m aware. I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that inflicting violence on other people for personal gain is men’s default state outside of self-defense or social conditioning or compulsion. In fact, I’d wager that the vast majority of rapes occur as a result of a community, ideology or social circle which actively condones or enables it.

  5. Nathaniel, that helps somewhat. But how do you do that without making it a plea for submission to some authority? My impression is that the people who find a call to virtuous life appealing without an authoritarian element aren’t the problem, and, once you empower some people with substantial unquestioned authority, you’re right back in the situation where society tends to fail to hold the powerful accountable.

    Curtis, this sounds to me like a request for anarchy, not an alternative to it: “The question is ‘How will those rules be enforced?’ Will specific people enforce them, or will people self-govern? A culture that promotes honor, propriety, and decency is a prerequisite to a self-governing society. Without these ideals you end up with a society collapsing into anarchy or reverting to true authoritarianism.”

    I’ve encountered advocates for an enlightened anarchy of self-governing individuals. For myself, I’m skeptical that there is a distinction between self-governance and governance by others. Instead, I expect both are necessary for the sort of society I would prefer; governments will generally become more powerful when the problems facing the populace are more serious, which will tend to be when they govern themselves poorly.

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