My recent Facebook debate is one of many I’ve been having with people about rape culture. One of the issues I struggle with is that some people’s reaction is that men should “just stop doing that.” I’m not talking about big, overt actions like physical force or clear verbal and emotional abuse. I’m not suggesting that those don’t still occur on a daily basis, because they do. I’m talking about the less obvious places where our culture has created confusing or counterproductive rules and expectations.
For example, when does convincing becomes coercion? When does seduction becomes manipulation? I’m talking about places where society has largely said certains behaviors are okay but a closer look shows that other factors come into play that make the situation different than it appears on the surface. In fact, in some areas our society has said these behaviors are not only okay, they are good.
I know many men that took “sensitivity training classes”, particularly in the ’80s. They sometimes taught men to be good, nice men in ways that don’t turn out to be so good or nice. These men truly believe that they are behaving in a good and positive way. After all of the work they did to make these changes in their lives it can be difficult to get them to understand that their behaviors aren’t impacting women in the way they believe. In previous posts I’ve written about the “Nice Guy.” You can read my post “When Being Nice Really Isn’t” or another good summary of the idea in the article “The Real Reason Nice Guys Finish Last.”
There are plenty more of these situations. Many that we know of and probably more that we will come to understand as we grow and shift. They are real and we should be working to change them. One of the challenges is how to make those changes. It isn’t unusual to want insight to cause automatic and immediate change. For some things it does. When we find out that hitting our thumb with a hammer hurts, we make immediate changes to try to avoid it. In those situations the learning is all happening at a logical level. In other situations that isn’t the case.
Things we learn when we are young or when messages are presented to us over and over at many levels, they embed in our brains at a much deeper, emotional level. They aren’t just individual facts that we can alter with new understanding. They become part of an abstract concept that operates less from fact and more from “feel.” They are intertwined with other concepts in a way that they can’t easily be shifted. Accurate or not, we learn that these issues and actions are part of something complicated and they have larger implications than just this specific situation. Here’s a Two Therapists Talking video that talks about logic vs emotion.
While it would be great if the solution was to simply say, “don’t do that”, it isn’t effective. It doesn’t work for the same reason that simply telling someone with low self esteem that they are smart, attractive, likable, and a hundred other positive adjectives. They may even believe it logically. Yet that doesn’t create real change. Neither does shaming them. “Just knock off the self pity. You are smart and competent. Why in the world would you think you aren’t worthy?” never changed anyone. Sure, they may shut down and put on a false front, but that tactic doesn’t truly shift understanding.
What does shift understanding is compassion, education, recognition of even small movements in the right direction. We’d all love change to happen now. But again, it doesn’t work that way. This kind of changes means creating a new understanding of a large, abstract concept. We don’t change those easily. There is lots of fear associated with making those changes. If we aren’t supportive and compassionate, showing it is okay to face the fear, then it is safer to for people to not change. We need to invite change. And when it isn’t done perfectly, because we seldom change perfectly the first time, we need to applaud the effort even as we help the person to do it differently next time.
We aren’t going to make major shifts in our society or in our rape culture with simply saying, “this is wrong. Stop doing it.” We want real shifts in both understanding AND in what our culture teaches. That is much more complex than a simple message of “don’t rape.” And while there may be plenty of shame to be felt, weilding shame like a weapon isn’t the answer either.