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The Myth of Gendered Destiny

sel209's picture

I work at the Women’s Center on Haverford’s campus, and we deal with a host of issues relating to sexuality. While I was at work this week, a male friend of mine came into the center, and somehow our conversation turned to the subject of how the issue of sexual assault is presented to freshmen during Customs week. While I admitted that I didn’t really remember the specifics of the talk that was given during my own freshman orientation, he told me he had been shocked by the emphasis he felt the campus put on the idea that when the issue of consent is in question, men are always to blame, and that and it is entirely the male partner’s responsibility to halt the encounter, particularly if alcohol is involved. He stressed to me how scared and helpless he felt at the implication that simply by being male and pursuing a sexual encounter he could unintentionally assault someone.

Interestingly, this is a comment I’ve heard before from other men on this campus, and it resonates with me in the context of all the literature we’ve been reading on the effects of certain hormones and the notion of gendered destiny. Sullivan tells us that we can attribute high levels of testosterone to the fact that men are into war, gambling, and hazardous exploration, among other things, and Sapienza et al. tell us that testosterone increases risk-taking behavior. It’s not that much of a stretch to make the claim that men are more likely assailants than women, then. After all, they’re naturally more aggressive, this camp tells us, and their sex drive is far more powerful, not to mention the fact that they’re stronger and more athletic. But then we have Jordan-Young, who writes in Brain Storm that we must question the notion that brain organization and biology are inevitable determinants of character, and I think her ideas are especially salient in this case. Yes, men perpetrate the majority of reported assaults. It’s a very real statistic. But that doesn’t mean that our community should send the message that one can be criminalized simply because of his level of testosterone. Chemistry isn’t destiny, and while it may influence our decision processes to some degree, it doesn't impede smart choices from being made. Just like gambling, hazardous risk taking, or anything else, assaulting someone is a conscious decision that we cannot blame on hormones. We shouldn’t be sending the message to the community that misunderstandings are always a man’s fault; we should be sending the message that EVERYONE needs to obtain consent with a partner regardless of their gender and that ANYONE who doesn’t could be committing assault. The more I read for this class, the more I reject the notion that our preferences and our actions can be explained away by biology. 


Amophrast's picture

Altering Education/Awareness of Sexual Assault

I think this is a good point to bring up. Sometime over the summer one of my (male) friends sent me a link to a very long thread on a forum where guys shared their experiences with sexual assault. The stories ranged in content/severity, but one of the commonalities was that the stories were usually about a woman assaulting a man against his will, and often used their gender as a way of playing victim. I had to stop reading because it was getting depressing, but I think assault is assault regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation. It is unfortunate that people often people that men can only be sexually assaulted by other men.

The one thing that I really don't like is that when either taking RAD or educating myself, one of the statistics that is stressed is the high percentage/probability of the victim knowing their offender. What they don't clarify about this statistic is that "someone you know" could mean that guy you met at the party ten minutes ago or a girl that was in your class last semester. This is the difference between "someone you know" and the person that jumps out of the bushes and attacks you. Because of this lack of clarification and a need to express urgency, I have had various people in my life basically tell me that my friends/boyfriends/my boyfriend's friends are going to rape me. I think that even this would bother me much less if these same people had taught me the concept of consent and what it means to consent.

Yes, it is true that (legally speaking at least) one cannot consent under the influence of alcohol, but that doesn't mean that responsibility should fall on one particular gender-expressing individual to police the encounter. Regardless, everyone does need to educated and while that might not have been the best way to start, if nothing it provides a conversation to be had. I think students should work with administration to provide comprehensive sex ed information.