The presumption of passivity

In the discussion thread at a recent post regarding the “Don’t Rape Her” meme, something came up which may explain a lot of disjointed conversations I’ve had online over the years.

Men really hate it when they’re discussed or addressed as people who can and desire to commit grievances against other human beings. In a lot of conversations about rape and abuse by men of women, men will get defensive, and we will tell them they’re privileged, and the conversation stalls out. Of course it sucks to be accused of something you haven’t done, but we’re not doing that. Why do they assume we are?

Oh, I’m not apologizing for men who just don’t really want to get it, or think their sensibilities should be protected even in a space set aside for women, and they do show up in droves and make these conversations nearly impossible. But sometimes I find myself talking to a man who does have some concept of his own privileges, who’s making every effort to get what’s being said, who does largely get it … and yet there’s some tiny something where neither of us is fully understanding the other.

Because they’re coming at this from a perspective we can never experience, and we’re coming at it from one they can’t experience. It boils down to a pair of opposite, mutually exclusive experiences that men and women cannot share: the presumption that you have agency, or that you don’t.

Men are presumed to have agency. Therefore the most important thing to decent men is the perception that they do good things, as opposed to doing evil. I, however, am presumed to lack agency. Therefore the most important thing to me is the perception that I can act. In any way. At all.

The perception that I lack agency doesn’t just make it difficult for me to be taken seriously if I work toward building a company, it also paints me as a target for criminals. The perception that men must do something, anything, is part of why they so often get away with crime – boys will be boys, which is to say, boys must do something so let’s cut them slack when they pick the wrong thing to do.

But I mentioned above that part of what men hate is when they’re presumed to have the desire or intent to harm others. That’s an unfair assumption to be made of anyone – from a big, dark-skinned man in an alley to a beautiful women presumed to use men for money and toss them aside. But as in all these cases, the best way to change the perception is to… well, change our perceptions. Both history and the media diminish the actions of women and exaggerate the actions of men. The presumption that Women Don’t really adds an extra layer of difficulty to the task when a woman sets out to Do.

The “Don’t Get Yourself Raped” lists we’re all familiar with continue this theme of female passivity. It’s all about avoiding rape situations. There’s nothing in there about how to go out drinking with the boys you need to finance your start-up company without becoming a rape target, because it’s presumed a Nice Girl wouldn’t start a Fortune 500 company anymore than she’d party with scuzzballs unless she was secretly looking for sex and just wanted it to look like rape so she could still keep her Nice Girl reputation.

The “Don’t Rape Her” meme attempts to put the responsibility for rape on the gender that is presumed to have agency. Which makes perfect sense – insofar as that goes. The problem is, it continues the presumption that men do and women are done to. While it’s true that only rapists can 100% stop rape, and this needs desperately to be recognized, we also need recognition of the fact that by doing anything, women become gender transgressors who deserve any punishment they get, and by doing nothing we reinforce the perception that we’re powerless targets for abuse.

I believe I’d rather have what men have – the presumption that I have agency to do both good and evil. The only assumption I’ve had to deal with is that I can be pushed around. And in those situations, it wasn’t martial arts or not drinking or not going to hotel bars that saved me: it was my absolute sense of entitlement and willingness to kill in self-defense if I have to. Bullies of all types have, so far, backed down when they see that in my eyes – the complete lack of presumed feminine passivity and uncertainty. But that sense of entitlement is not easily learned. I wouldn’t have a clue how to teach it to a woman who didn’t share my life experience. Hell, a lot of men don’t have it either, but they don’t really need it because the presumption they have it – and agency – creates an extra layer of protection for them.

For women, the opposite presumption creates an extra layer of vulnerability to people who would try to victimize us. So when men complain it’s unfair they’re presumed to be thugs at times (and it is), my first instinct is to roll my eyes because I’d so much rather be presumed evil and scary than thought of as inert and helpless.


  1. says

    The fallout from being linked all over the damn SF/F community the other day for my post on George R.R. Martin has made me realize this is something I’m going to want to examine more closely in the future. I think it’s a presumption that’s looming large in the back of the whole discussion. I feel like most of the people getting involved in the discussion want to discuss the “in your face” issues, like the forum moderation, etc. It’s almost like they’re focusing on it because it’s the “easy” stuff. “Let’s talk about free speech and people being oversensitive.” Because it’s a lot easier to do that than to examine why people are made uncomfortable by the non-passivity of certain female characters in the books. Or for that matter, why people get defensive of their space and take issue with the non-passivity of female fans daring to get offended, turning the issue around on them. And the more I think about it, the more I believe presumed female passivity is the monster lurking in the corner that everyone wants to ignore.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I have to admit that I was the one who instantly started thinking about forum moderation. Sorry about that.

    I stand by the original point – that if forum owners don’t discourage something, it continues. And if they don’t get why something should be discouraged, they’re not going to discourage it.

    But you’re right – lurking behind all of that is an agreed-upon contract which says women are not entitled to classify themselves as a targeted minority and fight the system accordingly, because then by taking action, we cease to be women.

    It’s pretty insane when you break it down like that, but yeah, I think that’s a big chunk of what’s going on there.


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