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My husband and I met a potential new landlord yesterday, and without either of us realizing it, each of us walked away with very different impressions of what had happened during the meeting. The meeting was an ambiguous image, like the rabbit-duck or old-woman-young-woman illusion. Many human meetings are like that, particularly between the sexes.
Those of us who occasionally follow what feminists are saying, if only as reconnaissance, may have heard of the “missing stair problem” (warning: link not entirely SFW). Imagine a house with a poorly-lit stairway containing a missing stair. Everyone who lives there knows to step over the missing stair. Everyone who visits regularly knows about the stair, too. But a new visitor would not know, and if not told in time, might stumble and fall. Some people, the analogy goes, are like that missing stair – others must carefully work around them to avoid getting hurt, and the hazard they pose is simply taken for granted by those in the know. Sexual predators, in particular, are likened to the missing stair, especially sexual predators who aren’t “lone wolves” but who have ingratiated themselves into a community, where they become a fixture, and others take on the duty of attempting to protect innocent members from the predator (while also protecting the predator from social ostracism or having to change his ways) rather than “fixing the stair” by refusing to tolerate his predatory behavior.
Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that’s the fault of whoever didn’t apply the workarounds correctly.
I have seen this happen. Most memorably at a church.
Myriad caddish, wolfish, or creepy behaviors fall short of being criminal, while some go beyond merely overstepping moral bounds and actually violate the law. Some guys are merely awkward and sometimes accidentally overstep bounds without meaning to. Others use ambiguity and the pretext of accident as cover for deliberately overstepping boundaries. The truly predatory are masters of the art of exploiting social ambiguity to take advantage, but many young men in love or at least in lust are a mix of trying to take advantage while also being rather overwhelmed themselves. How young women ought to act when surprised by – let’s just call it caddishness – is obviously an endlessly absorbing topic of conversation.
Evidently, young women should be schooled in defensive womaning, just as we school youths in defensive driving. It seems that girls used to get defensive womaning lessons, but we’ve dropped the ball with the past few generations:
I was a teenager in the late 1970s, long past the great awakening (sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was plenty of time for me), but as far away from Girl Power as World War I was from the Tet Offensive. The great girl-shaping institutions, significantly the magazines and advice books and novels that I devoured, were decades away from being handed over to actual girls and young women to write and edit, and they were still filled with the cautionary advice and moralistic codes of the ’50s…
…They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him. You were always to have “mad money” with you: cab fare in case he got “fresh” and then refused to drive you home. They told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight. In so many ways, compared with today’s young women, we were weak; we were being prepared for being wives and mothers, not occupants of the C-Suite. But as far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong.
Neither liberals nor conservatives have given girls great lessons in defensive womaning lately. Anyone on the Right can recite the litany of what makes the Left’s lessons to young women bad – generally some variation on “this lesson encourages young women to avoid taking responsibility for themselves”. The Right’s lessons to young women don’t share a unifying flaw. Some lessons are too moralistic (“don’t do bad things and you won’t have to worry”). Some suffer from not being moral enough (“boys will be boys” or “experience is the best teacher!”). Advice on when and how young women should resort to violence in defense of their innocence tends to be conflicting: As conservatives, we don’t want to say violence is never the answer, but preparing young women to use violence to effectively deter unwanted sexual advances is, in fact, tricky, and it’s not really surprising when the underprepared freeze, especially when a strong desire to do violence to the one wronging them (a desire conservatives encourage) clashes with inexperience in handling sexually-charged scenarios (inexperience conservatives also encourage, since we value sexual innocence).
While plenty of people seem worried about stranger rape, the caddish behavior women find themselves (successfully or unsuccessfully) fending off typically comes from acquaintances. Even sources highly skeptical about what counts as rape or assault acknowledge that most sexual assaults occur between acquaintances. Furthermore, a great many invasions of personal space that shouldn’t be prosecuted as assault (after all, the law cannot demand that men be able to read minds, or decipher every subtle cue) are nonetheless morally violating, and understandably leave young women feeling wronged when they occur.
We’re conservatives: we more than any other group ought to recognize that the law does not exist to right all wrongs. And this means we ought to be able to understand that young women can be sexually traduced even when no crime has occurred; that their sense of having been wronged isn’t necessarily in error, even when the vocabulary they use to describe the wrong (such as “assault” when it’s not assault) is grievously in error.
Conservatives generally suspect more damage is done by labeling a sexual encounter as assault when it isn’t than is done by failing to label it assault when it is. We can believe this while still acknowledging that not every mislabeling of an incident as assault is terribly inaccurate, nor are the men involved in such incidents innocent of wrong just because they’re innocent of a crime.
Which brings me back to missing stairs. A dude doesn’t have to be a criminal to be sexually predatory. Because we’ll never create a world free of sexual predation, of course we want to equip youth – and young women in particular – with skills to fend it off: hence defensive womaning. But neither should we tolerate a world where it’s everyone else’s job but the sexual predator’s to prevent sexual predation from happening. So, while we can teach young women truisms like guys are on average more socially clueless than girls, and can’t be trusted to respect every soft refusal, we rightfully won’t be believed if we push such lessons too far.
If we treat the disparity between men and women’s social skills as so great that we sound as if we’re claiming women are the ones responsible each time “clueless” men wishfully misinterpret women’s cues as sexual when they aren’t (rather than men being primarily responsible for themselves), we rightfully won’t be believed. The truth is, plenty of men are capable of understanding subtler social cues, at least when it’s convenient for them to do so, and while there are plenty of awkward young men out there, it’s also common for predators – or to use more neutral terminology, the sexually over-eager – to use “I didn’t geddit” as cover as long as they think they can get away with it.
If we treat young women’s freezing or hesitation in the face of shocking scenarios as something that only happens to babies with “no moral agency” – as if it’s impossible to be an adult who froze – we rightfully won’t be believed. If we keep on yammering on about women’s duty to carefully step over each missing stair, but we’re mysteriously silent on ever fixing a missing stair, we rightfully won’t be believed.
Even today, there are times when the plea, “Could we stop treating it as women’s duty to learn the art of carefully stepping around every missing stair and sometimes just fix the goddamn staircase instead?!” is a sensible one. This may come as a shock, but just because it’s a plea feminists make doesn’t automatically make it wrong.Published in