Important Stuff Nobody Thought to Tell You (probably)

In some ways, this page is similar to my "#WowGood2Know" collection: a list of important ideas and warnings that almost nobody bothers to formally teach or talk about but that everybody urgently ought to know. There are two main differences. First, a lot of my summaries or discussions are longer than the usual #WowGood2Know tidbits. And second, the topic is more focused. I'm little more than a novice on these issues myself; this page is less an attempt to teach these topics and more an attempt to help other people realize that there's something significant here to learn. As with my #WowGood2Know facts, I've been sharing these with my students, and by and large the reaction has been positive. If you have additional suggestion for links or topics, let me know!

There are all sorts of wonderful, awesome things about our culture. But some aspects of it can be seriously messed up, too, and a lot of those are woven so deeply into our heritage that we're completely blind to them (which can make us feel really upset when anyone points them out). I read a great blog post about one aspect of that not long ago, entitled "just shut up".

I hope you'll read the whole thing: this stuff is important. It's also well written and entertaining, and unlike a lot of writing on these topics it makes an effort to be sympathetic to folks who haven't heard its message before. But if you don't have the time or patience to look up the original post, here's one less-entertaining but more-substantive paragraph that gets at some of its main points:

"I don't know about you, but when I was a child, nobody sat down with me after I watched Beauty and the Beast and said, 'Okay, this is a movie, and it's okay to enjoy this movie! It's okay to think this movie is great! But just so you know, if someone in real life did to you the things the Beast does to Belle, that wouldn't be okay. That wouldn't be right.' When my mind was young and malleable, there was no trusted adult pointing out, 'This is a movie, and it's okay to like this movie, but the relationship it shows is unhealthy.' And that's not because I didn't have those trusted adults in my life! I was lucky enough to grow up with two intelligent, liberal, kind, forward-thinking, active parents; they didn't tell me because they didn't know to tell me. They didn't tell me because nobody told them."

When I read that, I figured I ought to tell you: your parents might not have heard, either.

Due to some recent depressing news stories, the topic on my mind for this next item is sexual assault. That's a highly personal and sensitive topic for many people, so I'll warn you that this one could trigger some nasty associations. So I'll make an effort to be sensitive, but I won't blame anyone if they want to stop reading here.

Edmonton, Alberta recently ran a very successful rape prevention campaign: even though it was limited in scope, it reduced the number of reported sexual assaults by 10%! Their secret? Instead of repeating the same old advice that puts the burden on women to stay out of trouble, this ad campaign targeted the people whose behavior really needs to change: potential rapists. Here's their main slogan, along with several specific messages:

Don't be THAT guy.

Just because she isn't saying no... doesn't mean she's saying yes.

Just because you help her home... doesn't mean you get to help yourself.

Just because she's drunk, doesn't mean she wants to f**k.

sex without consent = sexual assault

You can see the full posters for each of these (and for their equally good followup campaign) on their website:

There seem to be two reasons that this is effective. First, unbelievably, a few guys honestly don't get it that "yes means yes" is essentially the ONLY way to know that sex (any kind of sex) is okay. And second, these posters put the real predators on notice: we know your scumbag tricks, and we won't let you pretend you have an excuse. (Research has shown that many rapists know exactly how to frame their actions so that other folks will make their excuses for them.) One good discussion of some background is this blog post.

Added later: Here's another writeup on some related studies, which along the way discusses an expansion of this ad campaign to Vancouver: Teaching men rape prevention actually works.

And another related item: The US Navy boot camp has found surprisingly large improvement in rates of sexual assault after a collection of training updates, which included major components like simple instruction in what sexual assault is and advice on low-key bystander intervention tactics when someone is being unreasonably aggressive. Here is a story about the program from the New York Times.

Creeper, no creeping!

Dear Captain Awkward,

We have a creeper in our social group. [...]he's not a bad guy. He's fun to hang out with, he's a devoted dad, he's a loyal friend... and he's driving away all of his female friends with his behavior.


Something needs to happen here, obviously, but I have no idea what.

This is part of a letter to a random advice column online. In fact, the columnist answers two related letters there that both fit the same general pattern:

  1. A creepy dude acts creepy.
  2. The women speak up about it to their partners.
  3. It gets written off as "not a big deal" or "he probably didn't mean it" or "he's not a bad guy, really."
  4. Everyone is worried about hurting creepy dude's feelings.
  5. Creepy dude creeps on with his creepy self.

This sort of social situation is notoriously awkward to deal with (and depressingly common), and it's all too tempting for everyone to just try to smooth things over without seriously calling out the creepy dude for his behavior.

I really like the advice that this columnist gives for dealing with these situations. (I don't know how well it would play out, of course, but it seems more likely to have more positive impact than anything else I can think of.) It is absolutely worth reading, even though it's pretty long. And I'm willing to say that it's even more important for men to read it than women: guys, you need to be alert to this stuff, and you need to have your female friends' backs when they need you. In retrospect, I have sometimes been too willing to make excuses for friends' mild-to-moderate creepiness; I hope I'd do better now. Here's a closing quote from that page:

I don't know how we fix it, but one step has to be to stop tolerating it when it happens to us and when it happens to people we love. Making our social circles and spaces safe means making them AWKWARD AS HELL and UNSAFE for creeps and predators.

Will you spot The Question?

One of the comments on the blog post I shared immediately above is worth reading in its own right. It's a (somewhat long) story about a group of people attending a weeklong workshop, including an awkward guy who wouldn't quit trying to flirt with one of the young women there. The author's husband tried to deflect the unwanted attention as best he could, but he didn't want to overreact, get the other guy in trouble, and spoil the whole workshop for him "just because he wasn't very good at talking to girls."

One of the main messages of the story is that while that sounds like a nice, balanced approach, it really isn't: the awkward guy was already spoiling the workshop for the girl:

She couldn't just relax and enjoy spending time with you/her other new friends/nature --- she practically had to have a bathroom buddy! He didn't even let her focus on the work she was PAYING MONEY to do!

But there's an even bigger message here, and I won't give it away. After the author's husband got home from the workshop and told her the story, she asked him The Question. "And after I asked The Question, his face changed. He looked sick."

When I tell this story to women, they spot The Question right away. The men don't; they think that Dr Glass behaved like a gentleman, neither doing too much nor too little.

Will you spot it? (I didn't... but things might be better if everyone could.)

How the media covers a trial involving rape:

You may have heard about the recent trial and conviction of two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio who were charged with raping a 16-year-old girl. It's an appalling story, but I don't want to dwell on the details; you can get a lot of them from this well-written analysis by Dan Wetzel for Yahoo! Sports. Instead, I want to comment on two issues raised by the incident and the attention it has received.

First, it is clear that a whole lot of people don't understand what rape is (and have zero respect for other human beings). To pull a paragraph from Wetzel's article:

"It wasn't violent," explained teammate Evan Westlake when asked why he didn't stop the two defendants as they abused a non-moving girl that Westlake knew to be highly intoxicated. "I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone."

I want every single student (and reader) of mine to be clear on this: if your partner is not actively and explicitly expressing a desire to have sex with you at that moment, you should not have sex with them. Sexual activity is only okay if all parties give "enthusiastic consent".[1] If you see a friend making sexual advances toward someone who is clearly not enthusiastic about it, tell your friend to back off. This is just as big a deal as stopping a friend from driving drunk.

And second, media coverage of this sort of event can say a lot about our society's attitudes toward rape. When the verdict was announced, CNN broke into their usual programming with this six minute segment. Essentially the entire segment focused on how the conviction would damage the (formerly) "promising future" of the rapists. They showed footage of the two young men crying and apologizing in court, they talked about the relationship between one of the rapists and his father, and they talked about how being on the sex offender registry "will haunt them for the rest of their lives."

Those are absolutely valid points, and they clearly carry a lot of emotional impact on camera; it makes good TV, I suppose. But it is striking that throughout the entire segment, nobody ever expressed sympathy for the victim, or talked about how a crime like this will inevitably affect her life.[2] Nobody ever said that they were glad that justice had been served. All of the emotion and sympathy was reserved for the rapists. (One of many longer discussions of all this can be found in this Gawker article.) What does it say about us as a society that this seemed like a natural way to cover this story? How can we fix that?

It's also striking that even the judge, when commenting on the case, advised other young people to think carefully about "how you record things on the social media so prevalent today." That's good advice (it's even similar to one of my #WowGood2Know notes), but it's an odd thing to emphasize in this context. It almost feels like the judge was telling these kids, "If only you hadn't bragged about what you did on Twitter, you could have avoided all this trouble." I can't imagine that was his intent, but a kid could easily take it that way.

[1] Once you're well into a marriage or long-term relationship, you may occasionally substitute "fondly willing" for "enthusiastic". But never compromise on that point with a new (or new-ish) partner.

[2] The closest they came was one commentator saying as an aside that "lives have already been destroyed by the crime", before continuing to talk at length about how the conviction would affect the defendants.

A short followup: I want to share an insightful article on this same topic, entitled "Steubenville: this is rape culture's Abu Ghraib moment". It makes a very simple point: the most striking thing about the Steubenville case is not that the sexual assault happened, but that the perpetrators and their friends felt so comfortable with their actions that they happily took pictures recording them for posterity. Just as the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq highlighted how military culture had come to tolerate prisoner abuse, Steubenville provides an explicit demonstration of our culture's routine acceptance of sexual violence.

Schrödinger's Rapist: or, a guy's guide to approaching strange women without being maced.

The title above comes from a popular essay that you really ought to read, especially if you're a guy. It uses a (rough) quantum mechanics analogy (the famous "Schrödinger's cat" example) to illustrate some important points, and it's generally a good read. Here's one salient excerpt:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger's Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won't know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can't see inside your head, and I don't know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

The point of this is not "every man might suddenly start raping" but rather "women have no way of knowing if any particular stranger is a good person or not". Men don't know that either, but it's evidently less of a concern for us (or else we'd be subjected to all of the standard self-defense advice that women get, too). In the end, the essay does a pretty decent job of illustrating a common female perspective and explaining to men some things they can do to reduce the problem.

A couple more relevant links that I haven't written context for yet:

Up to My teaching page.
Up to my professional page.
My personal site is also available.

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Copyright © 2013 by Steuard Jensen.