The protection myth: sufficient surrender

One of the fundamental promises of patriarchy is that if women will just surrender themselves to men, men will protect them. There are two problems with this promise. The first is that it rarely gets kept because what men are protecting women from is generally other men, and there’s no screening process to “other” men who harm women (we instead “other” men who don’t look like us, talk like us, or come from where we do, on the willfully ignorant assumption Men Like Us don’t hurt women). The second is that protection is not particularly a male instinct (as the patriarchy acknowledges in a mind-boggling display of doublethink every time it waxes on about the mother who protects her child at all costs, up to and including her own life), so if you want to have a society in which some people protect others, you need to find a way to screen protective individuals from those who aren’t particularly protective (or are even predators) that’s more sophisticated and effective than “has a penis + uses it on women = good guy.”

The incredibly stupid presumptions here are all born of animal laziness: critical thought takes time and effort. Looking at someone’s skin color or gender and making a snap judgment is easy. Societies expend a lot more effort trying to convince themselves that screening criteria like race and gender work than they would expend at learning what constitutes a decent human being and what doesn’t, but the ability to think in the long term and work out real versus apparent benefits is another form of critical thinking.

Some of the hard work societies do to keep alive the myth that men almost always protect women, except for rare anomalies which aren’t society’s fault, include:

Casting any woman harmed by a man as “not sufficiently surrendered” to male protection. Think about the script we go through when a woman claims she was raped by a man, or a woman asks how to prevent herself being raped by a man. We say stay home, don’t go out, don’t drink, don’t dress sexy, be careful who you flirt with, learn karate – we ask the alleged victim if she did these things, and withhold our sympathy until we learn that she was at home, in a locked house, tending her wedlock-born children, when some horrid non-white, non-English speaking man flew through a plateglass window and brutally raped her.

And yet, as Rana on Shakesville [link no longer works]points out:

What always gets me about the rape prevention attitude is that, well, if you follow the statistics on rape, the best situation for a woman to be in, in terms of the likelihood of a rape occurring, is to be in a public place by herself. The most dangerous place is to be at home with a man that she knows, and, often, trusts.

That’s the problem with the “rape prevention” argument: it purports to offer a solution to the problem of rape by telling women to do things that do not reduce their statistical risk, to do things that are statistically risky, and then goes on to act as if prevention is entirely in the hands of the victim.

Here’s the grim truth, for all you prevention advocates out there: the only way for a woman to protect herself from rape is to become a paranoid obsessive with lethal skills in hand-to-hand combat, who fears and is suspicious of all men, including those she ought to be able to love and trust, and who never, ever lets down her guard.

Is this really what we want for our daughters, mothers, sisters, et al.? Wouldn’t it be easier to teach our sons, fathers, brothers, et al. to be decent human beings?”

Mm, yes, but not so patriarchal. For the patriarchy to make sense, we must enlist everyone in maintaining the delusion that men protect women – or rather, that Men Like Us protect women who are sufficiently surrendered. When Men Like Us hurt women, we must prove the women weren’t surrendered enough. This is what we’re really accusing mistreated women of when we blame them for their own mistreatment. Their crime is pointing out that patriarchy doesn’t work as advertised. And that’s scary, because admitting it doesn’t work would mean change, and if there’s anything that scares us more than critical thought, it’s change.

Another way society works hard to keep up the myth is its attempt to convince us that men who hurt sufficiently surrendered women are Not Like Us. It’s easy in criminal cases, like rape: you just over-report cases where the suspects are men of color, foreign origin, etc., and under-report the ones where it’s a nice white man who worked at the local bank. Actually, it’s just as easy in non-criminal cases, like accusations of domestic abuse that don’t make it to criminal court: over-report the stats on, say, African-American men mistreating and abandoning their wives and children, and under-report it when local white boys do precisely the same thing. And as always, make a false distinction based on the tools various groups use: Men Like Us, who enjoy the privileged of being considered above suspicion, can harm women (or one woman) on the sly while being Nice Guys to everyone else. Men who are automatically suspect because of race, class, etc., are less able to sneakily harm women. By forcing accusations by women to meet a standard of “can’t possibly be explained as anything but a man purposely hurting a woman”, you eliminate a lot of valid complaints against Men Like Us. Which was, of course, your goal.

Men Like Us who hurt sufficiently surrendered women are extremely rare anomalies. When there’s no question that a Man Like Us has harmed a surrendered woman – say, a nice white Christian man is caught beating his stay-at-home-mom wife who was a virgin until they married and never drinks – immediately “other” the hell out of him. Take this opportunity to show your solidarity with surrendered women by turning on this single oppressor. Also, this is a great chance to point out how “stunned” and “horrified” you are to think that this could possibly happen to imply how incredibly rare it is – like getting three Royal Flushes in a row, or being in two plane crashes in the same year.

And finally, silence or cast doubt upon studies and personal stories that suggest Men Like Us harm women routinely and not infrequently. There are a ton of estimates as to how many women have been raped, abused, battered and sexually harassed, but precious few estimates of how many men do these things to women. Because as long as we’re talking about the shocking numbers of victims, we can maintain the delusion that it’s just a few very busy men committing all these crimes. But as the above-linked classic post from Alas, A Blog puts it into perspective:

Mary Koss’ much-discussed 1987 study of rape prevalence is famous mostly for its fidning that 1 in 8 college women have been victims of rape at some point in their lives. What’s not as well known is that the same study also surveyed thousands of college men, asking them about if they had ever forced a woman to have sex against her will. About 4.5% reported that they had.

4.5% of the men in the United States is an incredibly high number – that translates into over six million men.

If you take every doctor and nurse in the United States; and you added them to every librarian, every cashier, every cop, every postal clerk, and every bank teller in the whole country; you still wouldn’t have as many people as the number of rapists in the United States.

(Think of that a second – think of how often, in your daily life, you’ve seen cops and cashiers and all those other folks. Odds are, you’ve run into rapists more often than that).

And that 4.5% is only including the guys who admitted they’d forced sex on a woman, or who were aware they forced it.

The reality is: patriarchy might theoretically prevent some abuses against women, but it certainly promotes a lot of others. First of all, there are lots of ways for a woman to get disqualified from patriarchal protection (not all of them through her own actions), and the patriarchy has the privilege of re-drawing the lines between Good Girls and Bad Girls on a case by case basis. Secondly, power corrupts: you can see this in an example as common as when one sibling is put in charge of the others for too long. If you put someone in power over someone else, then unless you make that power contingent upon certain responsibilities and back it up by removing the power every time it’s abused – if you even know of every time, you run a significant risk of creating a situation of abuse. And thirdly, “surrender” requires women to participate in furthering the protection myth, which makes it impossible for anyone to prove to the patriarchy’s satisfaction that men do not protect women.


  1. harlemjd says

    The best metaphor I’ve ever heard to explain to men about rape was a friend who told her boyfriend to imagine that half of all the people he met all day had a machete on them. Most of those people only used their machetes usefully – clearing bush, cutting food, etc. – but some of them would kill you if you were alone with them. And there’s NO WAY to tell the two groups apart.

  2. harlemjd says

    Also, the other scary thing about the 4.5% statistic is that it only includes those men who have already raped before they’re old enough to graduate from college. The statistic can’t go down from there (the rapists can’t unrape their victims), but more men can join that group later on. Considering that the men in her sample are still at the beginning of their sexual years, the percentage even of just admitted rapists is almost certainly higher among the general male population.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Harlemjd, that machete metaphor is AWESOME. Seriously, that one needs to become a classic.

    That IS a scary point about the 4.5% statistic. That’s a lot of men. That means male rapists outnumber the population of Illinois, the fifth most populated state in the US.

    That many rapists are blending in, most unsuspected by neighbors, friends and co-workers, yet women are expected to be able to tell? I don’t think so.

  4. SunlessNick says

    Men Like Us who hurt sufficiently surrendered women are extremely rare anomalies.

    And something must have happened to turn them into men who hurt women; invoking some sort of outside intervention. Hence the woman who somehow dresses sexily enough, or is drunk enough, or far enough away from anyone else, to rewire a man who wouldn’t rape her into a man who would.

    Inspired a bit by the machete example:
    Have you ever chopped off someone’s legs?
    If not, are you the sort of person who would?
    If not, what would someone have to be wearing on their legs in order to edit you into being the sort of person who would?

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nick – it’s ironic, because I agree that something must’ve happened to turn those men into rapists. Funny how my first guess has something to do with upbringing but some people’s has to do with a woman the guy met long after his sense of right and wrong were established.

    Oh my, harlemjd, that was a drink-spitter! ROFL! And ewwww!

  6. SunlessNick says

    Ah, well you see, we men don’t have a sense of right and wrong – we have a quantum toggle switch – that is, the owner of the switch has no control over it. Mostly it’s set to “good” (aka Man’s Inner Rightness), but it can be flipped to “evil” (aka Wicked Slut Influence).

    Or something.

  7. says

    You know, it’s slightly ironic that I read this and acknowledged it but didn’t really register it, the day before shit happened to me. At our core we want to be able to trust men. Or at least, I know I do. It’s funny, I’ve always been paranoid around men, always on guard. I find one I think I can trust and….

  8. quintessence says

    It’s true that society can’t (won’t) handle the changes necessary if it was admitted that women are abused and raped by normal everyday men with no provocation. Our society is supposed to be so safe, just, evolved. The ‘War on Terror’ makes me laugh. It’s not a war on my terror.
    Also, major kudos for the machete analogy.

  9. quintessence says

    Another thought . . .
    Women are punished for being hurt, and trying to protect themselves from being hurt. If you karate-chop some guy trying to rape you, you’ll probably end up charged with assault. Or pushed out if you call harassment on your boss. Soon you just try to find a way to make the pain bearable.

  10. Kar says

    I can’t agree more with the statement that it would be better to educate sons than to force daughters to be paranoid.

    Father’s and mother’s say “Watch out. You know boys your age only want one thing! Don’t go out dressing like that, etc.” Thus, women are taught to fear and be submissive. I say submission because, in a sense, they are submitting their freedom in order to “not attract those men.” God forbid a woman wears a tight fitting top; how dare she entice the men.

    If boys are taught to respect women, treat them as equals, not as objects, then perhaps this rapist issue could be helped a little. The current process seems the equivalent of letting a robber go free while bombarding the victim with “Don’t be driving around in a BMW! That’s just asking to me robbed. You know all robbers just want your money, etc.”

  11. Neil says

    One important detail regarding the 4.5% statistic: Not only was this a survey that relied on self-reporting, but the survey was also only of people in college. Incidence of nearly all crimes decline as education rises, although I admit I have no idea if this holds true for rape as well. If it does, the number may be even higher still.

    On the other hand, college could provide a nearly perfect environment that fosters rape, particularly non-violent rape, with the ready availability of large numbers of inebriated women and the fraternity mentality, that is social acceptance of and pressure toward sex with women in this state. This could mean that this segment of the population has higher incidence than the average.

    In any event, projecting a statistic taken from a survey of such a narrow segment of the population onto the entire country is bound to be flawed.

  12. says

    Neil, that’s all true, but I think what’s striking about the survey is how many young men self-reported raping women. Certainly the exact numbers are hard to put stock in, but I feel the fact that these guys were telling a stranger they’re guilty of a felony with a prison sentence backs up the assertion many of us have been making for years: that there’s more than a handful of nasty, moustache-twirling villains committing rape.

    It’s also extremely disturbing that this is the only work anyone’s ever done in an attempt to determine how many men are rapists. That right there – the fact that the DoJ has stats out the ear about how many people have been raped and what age and gender they are and race and so on, but they don’t have any clue what percentage of men are rapists? I find that bizarre. (Of course, I’d also like to know what percentage of people are murderers, and so on. There’s something wrong with criminology in general, there.)

  13. Neil says

    The 4.5% figure still seems high — not for the number of men who have committed rape, but for the number that would admit it. I was not able to locate the exact wording of the survey, but I am fairly certain the question asked was not: “Have you ever raped a woman?” The very definition of rape, which has been evolving in recent years, has a very wide range of interpretations. I’d be very interested to know what the exact wording was on the survey, if anyone knows for certain I would be very interested to read it, as her analysis used her particular definition of rape, and I’d be willing to bet that most of the participants who engaged in any questionable behavior would define rape as something just beyond what they themselves had done. Depending on which shade of gray one uses to define rape, 1% or, using some of the most extreme definitions I have read that include classifying even sexual thoughts as rape, 100% of men are rapists.

    The truth is obviously somewhere in between. Perhaps I am just myopically naive because I can’t even visualize myself doing something like this and cannot understand how men would derive pleasure from it; however, I can’t imagine torturing a helpless animal but I acknowledge that some people do it. To a certain extent, although I would find the actual numbers defined by varying definitions interesting, their importance, I believe, would be rather meaningless compared to the aforementioned importance of teaching men to act like human beings.

  14. says

    Neil, if memory serves, I did once come across the information and: she started by asking if they’d ever raped anyone, and nearly everyone denied they had. Then she started describing scenarios of going ahead with sex when the partner is saying no, or is unconscious, etc., and that’s when 4.5% said yes.

    I could be mixing things up, so don’t take it to the bank, but I distinctly remember forming the impression it was an entitlement issue, which makes sense if they think there are situations where having sex with an unwilling partner isn’t rape – it would be because they feel somehow she owes it to them.

    I also recall a really disturbing story told by a male baby boomer, in which he recounted being a teen in the 60s, and all his friends told him no didn’t mean no unless she, like, hit you or something. Naturally, girls are strongly conditioned not to hit people, and most wouldn’t have felt entitled to reinforce a “no” this way, so what this man was explaining is how there was probably a ton of date rape in his day that possibly neither party recognized as what it was.

    It’s not so much that the definition of rape has changed as that our definition of women as humans with inalienable rights rather than the property of fathers and husbands has changed. (Rape definitions have changed, I’m just saying I think the central issue is whether society views women as property, humans, or humans who are obliged to sexually service other humans and therefore only have so many rights when it comes to sex.)


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