I'm basically going to assume that you've already read Part 1 before coming here, so if you haven't, go read it first. I argued there that patriarchy is not a war of men against women; it is a war of men against men, in which women's bodies are the spoils. Again, if you disagree, please comment with your arguments on that Note, rather than this one. I'll be drawing a lot of material from Steven Pinker again -- The Better Angels of our Nature, like last time, but also How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.
What I left un-dealt-with was the question of why this has happened across various cultures for such long periods of history. Actually, there are several separate questions involved here. Why do men compete with each other, in any sense, for women's bodies? Why does the competition take the form of aggression, dominance, and one-up-manship? If women's bodies are the prize, why aren't women the referees? We must answer all these questions in order to have a shot at fixing the problems that patriarchy creates.
Let me say up front that I do think there's reason to hope that patriarchy can be brought down. I'm going to be delving into biology to answer some of these questions, and I'm afraid many people (especially on the Left, alas) are firmly of the opinion that once you bring in biology in human behaviour you exclude any possibility of change. I'll have to argue against that, but I can't give it the attention it deserves or it'll take up the whole Note and the patriarchy bits will end up falling out the bottom. Actually, I'll put the main point in bold for the benefit of skim-readers: "Biological" does not equal "deterministic". (And "deterministic" does not equal "fatalistic", but that's an argument for another time.)
As briefly as I can get away with -- why not? Basically, for the same reason that the whimsical Dr Seuss book On Beyond Zebra would be a terrible argument if anyone were to take it seriously:
My alphabet starts with this letter called YUZZ.The idea is that there are a whole range of new, imaginative words that can't be spelt if we restrict ourselves to the conventional 26 letters. Dr Seuss contradicts himself the moment he introduces it, of course, because "Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz" is perfectly spellable with boring old A, M, T, U, Y, and Z. The size of our alphabet imposes no restriction whatsoever on what we can express with it. If anything, it's the reverse; I could hardly write this, and I certainly couldn't get it to you to read, if we hadn't figured out a way to squeeze all of our communication into a string of 1s and 0s.
It's the letter I use to spell YUZZ-a-ma-TUZZ.
You'll be sort of surprised what there is to be found
Once you go beyond Z and start poking around!
Each of us has a large toolkit of possible behaviours stored in our brain. As humans we also have a large, swollen cortex, which assesses the strategic value of these behaviours and activates the one that's most appropriate, so that we can, for instance, drive a car without turning to stare at flashing lights in our peripheral vision. Some items in our toolkit we build for ourselves, some we get from our cultural background, and many come built-in -- including, ultimately, the components from which the custom-made and cultural ones are constructed. It is not the case that we are forced to use all the ones that come built-in. They are tools in the tool-kit, letters in the alphabet, tunes in the repertoire. That's all.
So let's have a look at some of the biological facts we have to deal with. First, and this is unlikely to change any time soon: women get pregnant, men don't. Heterosexual encounters therefore carry risks for women that they do not carry for men -- multiple risks, in fact. Beyond the heavy toll that pregnancy and birth take on the body, there's also the fact that the woman is stuck with the baby afterwards, whereas (as I pointed out in part 1) the man can simply deny all involvement if childcare is inconvenient to his current life plans. If he does decide to chip in, he has to live with the possibility that the child is another man's. However noble we as moral beings find the idea of caring for a child out of the goodness of one's heart, that would represent time and energy that he's not spending raising a child that is his, or courting other women to impregnate; and, sadly, that means that any gene that makes men uncomfortable about raising a stranger's child is likely to have been favoured in our evolution. All too often -- especially in societies with male-line inheritance -- this discomfort is enshrined in cultural norms placing moral sanctions on women's sexuality, which adds still more to the risk that sex involves for women.
It follows that, if women and men feel an equally strong desire for sex, the women will be more careful and less eager about acting on it, because they're taking risks that the men aren't. This means that (heterosexual) sex is "scarce" for men, in the sense that they have to be content with getting less of it than they might ideally want. In a sense, therefore, men will always be in competition with each other for sex with women. I can already hear my fellow left-wing humanities graduates' response to that idea! "This is biological determinism. It was basically devised by men to justify sexually harassing young women and cheating on their wives. Next you'll be saying a man's sexual desire just builds up beyond his control and eventually forces him to rape someone. Oh, and didn't you define patriarchy as male competition for sex? So you're telling us now that patriarchy is inevitable."
Well, part of that I hope I have already answered pre-emptively: "biological" does not equal "deterministic", remember? Now, it's true that some evolutionary psychologists are known to go overboard, crying "genetic adaptation" at the smallest sign of a behaviour affecting (for instance) sexual attraction. Setting the "adaptation" part aside, genes can do some amazingly specific things; Steven Pinker in several books cites the identical twins, separated at birth, who both liked to surprise people by pretending to sneeze in crowded lifts. Hence there must be a gene "for" pretending to sneeze in crowded lifts, in the weak sense that it does, in fact, produce that effect. Presumably there is no gene "for" pretending to sneeze in crowded lifts in the stronger sense that the gene succeeded, became widespread in the population and was inherited by the twins, because it produced that effect. That stronger claim can be made for the gender differences in sexual behaviour. But -- please note this carefully -- that does not mean that men are "compelled" to harass women and cheat on their partners, any more than we can conclude that either of the twins, walking into a crowded lift, was "compelled" to pretend to sneeze by some primal impulse he could not quell. Just because one behaviour was favoured by evolution and the other was not, is no reason to infer that either is less amenable to control from the cortex.
There also appear to be differences in the way women and men experience sexual desire. Of course, not many people have personally been both sexes, and it's a fair bet that their desires differ significantly from those of the average person of their birth sex, so no-one can really claim insider knowledge of both. However, robust differences show up not only in our cultural stereotypes but also in anonymous surveys, pornography-use studies, and psychological experiments. In particular, men do not seem to feel the need to get to know someone before deciding to have sex with them, as highlighted in a study by psychologist David Buss, which Pinker describes in How the Mind Works:
Women said "probably yes" for a man they had known for a year or more, "neutral" for one they had known for six months, and "definitely not" for someone they had known a week or less. Men said "probably yes" as long as they had known the woman for a week. How short a time would a man have to know a woman before he would definitely not have sex with her? Buss never found out; his scale did not go down past "one hour."Men also wanted more sexual partners over the coming year and over their lifetimes, and other studies reliably bear out the finding that men positively desire to increase their number of sexual partners to a degree that women do not. Again, these findings are readily explained by evolutionary biology. If a man has sex with five women in a week, up to five pregnancies may result. If a woman has sex with five men in a week, up to one pregnancy may result. Accordingly, a disproportionate number of people will be descended from men who had sex with multiple women in a short space of time, whereas with the genders swapped over no such prediction follows. This is not to say that sex with multiple men is never adaptive for women. In some circumstances, it may well pay to give a child more than one father, and women in some forager groups (particularly in the Amazon) do exactly that, according to the feminist sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. And given that the function of sexual reproduction is to maintain genetic variety -- probably so as avoid being out-evolved by parasites, with their shorter generation times -- it might be beneficial for a woman's genes if she has several partners over the course of her life rather than putting all her eggs in one basket. But the simple, absolute short-term reproductive advantage that men gain by sowing their oats wider doesn't apply to women.
"If women didn't exist," said Aristotle Onassis, "all the money in the world would have no meaning." Of course, if women didn't exist then men wouldn't either, and there would be no such thing as money; but, though that really should be the obvious meaning of Onassis' epigram, what he actually meant is that sex is the ultimate goal of all (male) striving. This Perry Bible Fellowship comic captures the male experience of involuntary celibacy with cruel accuracy:
Fig 1: "TAOTMWNP", Perry Bible Fellowship
I argued in Part 1 that patriarchy, the male war over women's bodies, explains why rich men are never satisfied with what they've got. Does it go deeper than that? Are men slime, as a female student famously responded in one of Buss's lectures? Is everything men do a long-drawn-out scheme to get laid?
Consider your relationships with your friends. For pretty much all of them, I'm betting that there are things you do together that you find pleasant, whether it's watching movies or playing games or drinking beer or lazing on the beach or visiting museums or whatever else it might be. I'm sure you'd say the friendship goes deeper than that -- it's not as if you would suddenly stop being friends if they (say) sprained their wrist and couldn't play pool for a while. And that's true. But now imagine you meet a person who doesn't like any of the things you like. Are you going to become friends? It's not likely, is it? Those pleasurable activities aren't the goal of the friendship, but they are the currency of it. You value the pool games for the friendship, rather than the other way around, but the pool games are the fuel on which the friendship runs.
That's more or less how it is with sex, for men. We do love, and we do seek to be loved, but sincere love is expressed through gifts of pleasure; if there's no sex, the love (we feel) can't be all that deep. The gist of Onassis' saying, that the male drive to achieve is validated by sex, is similar. Achievements may be worthwhile in their own right for no reward -- but if so then other people will recognise their worth and reward them. Sincere admiration from people we respect is confirmation that we haven't been wasting our time on a folly; and sex is the most unfakeable token of admiration, or so men are prone to think.
I'm talking about decent men here, of course. Some men will bypass the achievement and grab straight for the reward.
Earlier this year, Republican Congressman Todd Akin was rightly pilloried in the media for arguing that abortions need not be made available to rape victims because
...from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.If Akin was wrong, it follows that rape is biologically adaptive for men, in that, at least in some conditions, it increases the number of offspring they will have across their lifetime. I'm afraid that has to mean that any genetic component of rape, in those conditions, will be perpetuated in the next generation. We saw some of the risk factors in Part 1 -- these are violent, callous men, men who believe women owe them sex, men who aren't strong on personal connections. Men who rape strangers seek out women who are vulnerable, sometimes because they're alone in insecure places but more often, it seems, because they're drunk or high on drugs. In lawless conditions, such as war zones, many men who would otherwise exercise control rape and kill with gusto.
I fully understand why this idea is unwelcome. It is profoundly disquieting to read women's accounts of sexual harassment and violation and enforced prostitution, and realize that the perpetrators' motivation is a feeling I experience every day, one that is the basis of much of my enjoyment of life. How much more comforting it would be, to me as a man, if I could believe that they were driven by hate or envy or the lust for power instead! But they aren't; hate doesn't cause erections.
"Biological" does not equal "deterministic". Human emotions, sexual desire included, are not blind hydraulic pressures that need to be vented periodically lest they explode, but finely-tuned strategic responses to changing circumstances. This fact alone sharply undermines the rapists' excuse that they were driven to their evil deeds by their victims' choice of clothing, and with it the "common sense" notion, repeated (I regret to say) by Steven Pinker among others, that dressing conservatively is a helpful precaution against rape. (And really, if rapists do feel the same kind of sex desire as the rest of us -- what man hasn't found that someone who's "hot" is "hot" no matter what they're wearing?)
In Good Natured, the sociobiologist Frans de Waal describes a behavioural experiment in which he and a student brought together juveniles of two related species: the small and aggressive rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) and the larger, more placid stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides). In the early stages of the experiment, the rhesus monkeys frequently threatened the stump-tails, as rhesus will; to their apparent puzzlement, the stump-tails neither cringed down nor threatened back, but simply ignored them. Over time the rhesus' behaviour patterns changed. They did not pick up any of the stump-tails' species-specific expressions and gestures, but their rates of aggression fell, and their peaceful interactions rose, to match those of the stump-tails.
This fits what we know about humans. It appears that people in every culture have the same rich repertoire of emotions -- but how we frame them and choose to act on them is a product of our cultural environment. Sexual feelings are no exception. People all over the world and throughout history have fallen in love, but only since the Middle Ages has it been idealized as a noble and worthy state of mind. Men everywhere have always liked the sight of women's breasts, but our understanding that this feeling is lewd and contemptible is very recent -- 18th-century European writers praised women's breasts when they were trying to appear high-minded (grubby folk-songs of the period fixate below the waist), and the breast is revered as divine in the Dogon culture of North Africa. Nudists say that, when you get used to being around naked people, you stop feeling that naked bodies are icky. As a nudist myself, I can confirm this, and it's not a gradual thing; it happens the moment you truly accept, in your head, that the nudity is not a prelude to sex.
Our expectations play as important a role in the emotions we experience as our neurophysiology, and our expectations in turn are formed by our social and cultural experiences. I don't recall that it's ever so much as crossed my mind to sit down on the floor of the supermarket and scarf chocolate-coated ginger out of the bulk bins, physiological promptings notwithstanding; nor do I feel the least disappointment about it. To me, but evidently not to all men, rape is similarly unthinkable. The deeply regrettable fact that rape is one option in our behavioural repertoire in no way contradicts the feminist thesis that it is enabled by certain of our cultural expectations.
Which brings us to the concept of rape culture. I began Part 1 by criticizing Susan Brownmiller's idea that men as a class consciously use the tacit threat of rape to keep women under control. If that's what "rape culture" means, then I can't in all honesty believe in it. But I've yet to find any feminist writings past around 1990 that say such a thing (though there are plenty of anti-feminist writings that assume that's what they mean).
The most insightful analysis of rape culture I've ever seen remains this 2004 blog post by Barry Deutsch. Unfortunately, as it's a blog post rather than an article, Deutsch doesn't back up his interpretations with references, so I have to take his statement "...readers who know me know that I'm a font of statistical evidence about rape; there was a year or so in which I didn't read about much other than quantitative research about rape" somewhat on trust. My trust is bolstered by the fact that Deutsch echoes (pre-echoes?) the ideas of Steven Pinker, despite coming from a fairly divergent political perspective:
Why do men rape women? It's not because they hate women, by and large. Do hunters hunt because they hate animals? No, they hunt because hunting is fun, because they like the meat, and maybe because hunting is a way of male-bonding. They don't hate the animal; they just consider empathy for the animal's feelings irrelevant, less important than their desire for meat or fun. (I'm ignoring the ecological arguments for hunting for the sake of the analogy).Deutsch identifies three toxic strands of thought in our culture, all of them active in the mindset that enables men to rape. First, the idea that masculinity is fragile (again anticipating some of Pinker's thinking, around violence in the name of "honour"), and that it is measured in large part by how often you get laid. Second, the observable fact that women hold lower status in our society than men, which far too many of us still accept as just the way things are; some, Deutsch says, take it to an extreme. Third, the idea that sex is something which women possess and men must acquire. Put all three together, and you get a tacit belief that goes something like this: I need sex now or I won't be a real man; I need a woman to take sex from; she's only a woman, so it doesn't matter if I hurt her.
Men who rape women don't do it because they hate women, but because they don't give a fuck about women (at least, not the women they rape). They want something, they take it, and they're by-and-large indifferent to how the person they "take" it from feels.
This is why the "rape isn't about sex, rape is about violence" analysis falls short. It's not true -- not from the point of view of many rapists -- and it denies the true horror of the situation. Many rapists don't rape because they hate and want to hurt women; it's not that personal. Rapists rape because they want sex; they don't consider the woman's feelings at all, because a woman's feelings aren't worth considering.
Possible partial confirmation of Deutsch's hypothesis may be found in the fact, noted by Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature, that the per capita incidence of rape in the US has fallen some 80% since the 1970s, coinciding -- except it's probably not a coincidence -- with the emergence of women in the professions. Now that competent women are becoming prominent in public life, fewer men make the faulty perception that underpins Deutsch's second strand. Pinker's data, as it happens, comes from a study using a slightly narrower definition of rape than some would accept: it included sex coerced by force or verbal threat, but not rape facilitated by intoxicants. There's an argument to be had here; my own view is that you have to distinguish carefully between "I got drunk and made a decision I regret" and "I got so drunk I was unable to make decisions at all". Since the researchers took pains to keep their definition consistent across the period studied, it's likely the decline is real nevertheless.
What about the other two strands? Deutsch calls the third one, that women possess sex and men acquire it, "our society's warped view", but you'll have noticed the similarity to the biological realities we've been discussing. Men seeking women really are likely to find the available real options falling (quantitatively) short of their fantasies. Deutsch is quite right that our culture reinforces and exaggerates this factor with imagery:
...porn-like images of women are so common they're impossible to avoid... to show a picture of sex, show a porn-like image of a woman."Porn-like" is not quite fair... to porn. While there is undeniably a bias towards a particular female body shape in pornography, it is nowhere near as pronounced as the bias in glamour and fashion photography. Our culture's use of the concave-bellied, wax-skinned, botulin-lipped, silicone-breasted teenage girl as a symbol of sex far overshoots actual heterosexual male desire. Male bodies are also far more common in pornography, especially amateur internet pornography, if only because there's an inexhaustible supply.
If biological differences in sex desire are the grain of truth in Deutsch's third strand, the contaminating falsehood is the idea that sex is a one-way transaction. Women do experience sexual desire, often powerfully -- witness global sales of 50 Shades of Grey. (Nor does the nature of the sex in 50 Shades demonstrate that women need to be overpowered and forced; consensual BDSM is to rape as bungy-jumping is to suicide.) And if Deutsch is right that this belief is a major cause of rape, then the purity taboos so long ingrained in our culture have done at least as much harm as good. Granted, they might thin out the imagery of women as sexual prizes to some degree. But in teaching women to keep their sexual desires under tight wraps, they have reinforced the false notion that sex is (always and only) something men do to, or rather take from, women.
If you put Deutsch's first strand (masculinity must be protected through aggression) and third strand (men take sex from women) together, you have something awfully like my definition of patriarchy (the war of men against men over women's bodies). I said earlier that men will always in a sense be competing for sex with women, simply because women are more discriminating in their sexual choices. Are patriarchy and rape biologically inevitable, then? I don't believe so. Male competition can take many forms, not all of them aggressive. I can think of at least four different channels male competition follows in the animal world, and three of them appear to be live options for human beings.
As Frans de Waal describes them in Good Natured, male muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides, also known as the woolly spider monkey) do not try to stop each other from mating with females, but wait patiently in line for their turn. This is not because evolutionary logic does not apply to them. Male muriquis have the largest testicles by body size of any primate. At any time, a female will have sperm from multiple different males in her uterus; the one that actually fertilizes her egg is most likely to come from the male who put the most sperm in. Therefore, the males with the highest sperm production, and hence biggest testicles, tend to father the next generation. The bonobo (Pan paniscus), our closest-equal relative with the chimpanzee, manages things similarly. However, our own testicles are middling-to-small, compared to body size, by primate standards, which can only mean that our female ancestors did not very often have sperm from multiple males in their uteri at any one time. It can't, of course, tell us how many different sex partners an ancestral female typically had over the course of her life.
The male elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) is four or five times as heavy as the female. Males establish harems each year among the breeding females by sheer muscle-power, body-slamming and biting each other until one retires exhausted. They threaten each other, and straying females, with roars and menacing postures. The females seem to accept the advances of the winners quite passively -- presumably refusing them wouldn't accomplish much. Males tend to be larger and stronger, and have bigger natural weapons, than females in these species. This is clearly the case in humans, though far less so than in many other primates, including our close relatives the orangutan and gorilla. Perhaps our evolution represents a gradual drift away from elephant-seal style male competition.
The Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) is familiar to all of us from aviaries and parks. Here the females are in control; the males must display their gorgeous tails as best they can and hope to be chosen. Very prevalent among birds, mammals often mix peacock- and elephant-seal style competition, as when a stag waggles his antlers at a doe. Peacock competition is characterized by highly visible (or audible or smellable) displays, which distinguish males sharply not only from the females but also from males of other species. Generally, these emphasize some feature to the point that it is costly to maintain -- wild peacocks must be in constant danger from predators in the breeding season. Human males grow large and distinctive beards, not seen in the other apes, although mature male orangutans have small goatees. Whether human females find them attractive is another question; in cultures where shaving is the norm, usually not. But women do report attraction to another feature unique to human males: the baritone voice. Even the loudest chimpanzee and the largest gorilla vocalize in the falsetto range.
Most weaverbirds (family Ploceidae), small sparrow-like birds from Africa and tropical Asia, build elaborate nests, often with complex bell-shaped entrance funnels. Like peacocks and their tails, males build these structures to show off to females. Unlike a peacock's tail, a weaverbird nest is of great practical value; they present major difficulties to any passing predator seeking eggs or chicks. Perhaps this helps to account for the great success of the weaverbirds -- there are about 120 species, some so numerous as to pose a serious threat to local human agriculture. Where peacock competition mostly produces things valued because they handicap the male and so demonstrate his quality, weaverbird competition produces things valued because they benefit the female. It is possible, speculatively speaking, that human intelligence arose as an instance of weaverbird-style competition (perhaps for status rather than sex directly, since both sexes have it), but that's an argument for another time.
The chief distinction between these styles is the role of female choice. And in humans, it's female choice that makes the difference between patriarchal and non-patriarchal conditions. Here as elsewhere, humans put an extra twist on what, in other species, is quite simple. As we saw in Part 1, men compete by accumulating money, which looks like weaverbird or peacock competition depending on how much the man conspicuously consumes in order to advertise his riches; but such men often seem to feel that they have a right to expect women to choose them over poorer men, which makes the money effectively a form of ritualized elephant-seal combat. You'd think that being a kind and attentive partner would be a weaverbird strategy par excellence -- until you Google the phrase "friend zone", and find that some men believe that being kind and attentive obliges women to have sex with them. Their complaint that women mysteriously prefer "assholes" is of course contentless. For many men, any man who makes it with the woman you were after is ipso facto an "asshole".
There's unlikely to be a simple magic bullet to end patriarchy and rape once and for all, but with Deutsch's analysis in mind we can set out a general strategy for eroding them. For a start, we can continue to push towards real economic and social equality of the sexes. Overt chauvinism has mostly been banished from public discourse now, and further attacks on sexist language are likely to draw diminishing returns in terms of genuine mutual respect. Democratizing the workplace is the most realistic way I can see to breaking the male dominance at the executive level that we saw in Part 1; that would require a resurgent union movement, but also a focus on workers as individuals which has been weak in the Left to date. Since most full-time homemakers are still women, a wage for homemakers would go a long way towards lifting the average woman's economic status (as well as being just). This is unlikely to happen in a strictly capitalist system, because homemaking doesn't generate profits.
The fragile-masculinity myth will take some work to explode, since the aggression it generates tends to create situations that confirm it. One tactic that has been spectacular in popping bubbles of "honour" is shaming. Kwame Anthony Appiah's 2010 book The Honour Code demonstrates how very rapidly duelling in Europe and foot-binding in China, among other customs formerly considered honourable, were abandoned when they became targets of mockery. If men trying to look macho by displays of aggression and power instead became figures of fun, we might see similarly rapid changes in our own society. There are a couple of caveats, however. First, the target of mockery must be the real he-man, not the wannabe, or we are simply reinforcing the pick-on-the-loser aspect of patriarchy. Second, this must not be a matter of replacing one fragile masculinity with another; honour must go not to men who (say) flaunt their sophistication, but to men who are reasonable and empathic and secure in themselves. And we don't want to reinforce the "friend zone" mindset either; we have had quite enough already of the idea of women as prizes for good behaviour.
Finally, we need positive portrayals of female sexuality to combat the idea that sex is something men take from women. By which I specifically do not mean "flash your boobs at the guy on the bus staring at you", as in that ridiculous ad for toothpaste or whatever it was. Obviously, being male, I'm not in a position to say what female sexuality feels like from the inside. But our world is full -- perhaps even "saturated", as the cliché has it -- of media depictions of sexuality in the woman-as-object-of-desire mould. Merely avoiding such images and texts ourselves, or even criticizing them, is not going to turn the tide. We need to present positive alternatives.
Most important, though, is perspective-taking, exercises in looking at things from others' point of view. Most of us are blessed with the capacity for empathy, for putting ourselves in another's shoes. Some of us, like me, find that cognitively demanding in practice, and none of us instinctively extend it to those beyond our circle of family and friends (except to vulnerable and cute individuals, such as infant mammals). There are two mental disciplines that I have found to be helpful. One is mindfulness, taking in all the details you can while reminding yourself of your own limited perspective; the other is reason, asking yourself at every turn what an impartial or neutral observer without your presuppositions would think.
What really matters is that there be room for people to love and trust each other. That can't happen when you see half the human race as rivals and the other as prizes. That's why I write stuff like this. If it advances the conversation towards the point where we can fix the problems, that's about as much as I can hope for.