Last year, “Phaedra Starling,” a guest-blogger on the now-inactive “Shapely Prose,” penned an open letter entitled Schrödinger’s Rapist. I found a few responses on the web, but nothing that said what I thought should be said, so I penned my own reply. This is a long post on a new blog, in response to something that was written over a year ago. But I hope whoever reads this finds it to be food for thought:
Dear Phaedra Starling,
I would like to reply to what you have said about me, whom you call “Schrödinger’s Rapist.” Your argument appears to be as follows:
You say that women face the possibility of sexual violence in a way that men do not, and so any strange man is “Schrödinger’s Rapist” in the eyes of a woman because she can’t be sure of his intentions. Therefore, to behave ethically, a man must always imagine himself as he would appear in the eyes of a woman who does not know him, does not trust him, and considers him to be a potential perpetrator of a vile crime. As you say, “If you expect me to trust you… you are being cavalier about my personal safety.”
Just to be clear, I understand that you are not saying I am a rapist. Nor are you saying that all men are rapists, or anything silly like that. Nonetheless, you have said that every man is “Schrödinger’s Rapist,” and you’ve set down a particular set of psychological rules-for-men that follows from this.
But before I continue, let me run through some points on which you and I probably agree: I believe we both agree that men should be mindful of women’s feelings of vulnerability in certain public areas (an empty subway car, etc.), that women aren’t under any obligation to smile and chat with strangers, and that a woman’s decision whether to wear a short skirt or not is her business and her business alone.
And yet your rules-for-men goes beyond the above areas of agreement in a subtle but important way. In order to be a good person – according to you – I must constantly and forever imagine how I might appear in the eyes of a women who imagines me to be a very bad person. I must accept suspicion directed toward me as justified. Indeed, not only must I accept this, but I must contemplate on the idea of myself as “Schrödinger’s Rapist” until such time as I empathize with this mistrust.
When you say to me, “You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist,” you aren’t just saying that I should be sensitive to women’s feelings; you are saying that each social interaction in which I engage should be proceeded by a kind of mental gymnastics in which I imagine myself seen by another as a rapist. And yet for many men, this kind of mental exercise would take no small toll on their sense of self. To empathize with distrust directed toward oneself, to achieve this empathy by imagining oneself seen as a violent criminal, and to maintain a sunny disposition toward one’s own sexuality – this is an extraordinary and entirely unsustainable feat of mental gymnastics for some, not all, men.
I say some men because, interestingly enough, it is men who have the most traditionally masculine self-identity who will be the least bothered by the psychological rules you have laid out in Schrödinger’s Rapist. This is because the degree of damage caused by the mental gymnastics in which Schrödinger’s Rapist must engage depends on the degree to which a man’s own mental associations with the image of the violent rapist conflicts with the psychological pillars on which he has built his own self-esteem. For the man who has built his sense of self on the pillars of physical courage, strength, power, and virility, the mental associationsrequired of Schrödinger’s Rapist can be pulled off with minimal discomfort. Indeed, these mental associations dovetail nicely with his self-image as a strong, powerful man who has tamed the beast within. But for the young man who has built his self-image on the pillars of gentleness and sensitivity, who has never felt his sexuality to be any kind of beast within, your psychological rules-for-men are poisonous.
They are poisonous for the more sensitive man because the neat dichotomy you’ve laid out – “You don’t need think of yourself as a bad person, BUT you must continuously contemplate how you would be viewed by a woman who thinks you may be a rapist.” – this neat dichotomy is easy for the logical brain, but more difficult for the emotional brain. The result is that the sensitive man who takes your advice to heart would have a tendency to feel badly about his sexuality. (The predator, of course, is interested in your advice only insofar as it helps him better calibrate his approach.)
So, it isn’t a contradiction to say that I should behave in a thoughtful manner when approaching a woman I don’t know, AND that I should never have to consider myself a threat, should never have to consider myself in a way that is denigrating to my own sexuality. Indeed, if I adopt a sexual ethic that requires men to furrow their brow and hang their heads in shame as they contemplate the beast within, I’m ultimately supporting a belief system that alienates men from women.