Under the pen name “Phaedra Starling”, a woman a couple years ago wrote a widely read and debated article about a concept she dubbed “Schrödinger’s Rapist”. In it she addressed well meaning men who take personal offense when their attempts to initiate conversation (or more) with strange women in public are met with cold caution or are blown off outright. Her whole article is must-read. Here is just a representative portion, to give a feel for her argument:
Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.
“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”
Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?
So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?
Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur. These rapes are not all committed by Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, or other members of the Brotherhood of Scary Hair and Homemade Religion. While you may assume that none of the men you know are rapists, I can assure you that at least one is. Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?
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.
Fortunately, you’re a good guy. We’ve already established that. Now that you’re aware that there’s a problem, you are going to go out of your way to fix it, and to make the women with whom you interact feel as safe as possible.
To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%. For some women, particularly women who have been victims of violent assaults, any level of risk is unacceptable. Those women do not want to be approached, no matter how nice you are or how much you’d like to date them. Okay? That’s their right. Don’t get pissy about it. Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.
She goes on to enumerate more ways that men need to be self aware about ways we risk making strange women uncomfortable and ways that we can increase strange women’s abilities to be comfortable. This essay has stuck with me ever since I first read it a couple of years ago. Before reading it, I had already grasped the basic concepts and learned to tell myself a simple message when women who did not know me rejected me or blew me off: They’re not rejecting me, they don’t know me, they’re rejecting guys way less cool than I am for whom they merely confuse me. How can I blame them for not grasping how awesome I am and assuming without adequate information and time to get to know me that I’m just like every other guy. Why in the world should I think that all that I have to offer is going to be communicable so easily! Of course this stranger can’t be blamed for underestimating me.
Okay so this was a more self-flattering way to view the situation than to think, Oh, to her I’m Schrödinger’s Rapist. But being cued in to the average woman’s constant struggles to fend off boundary violating sleazeballs, I had to take my initial realization that rejection by strange women was not personal to a whole new level. Not only did I need to appreciate that the rejection is not personal, I had to appreciate that if I do take it personally and express that, then I very easily risk becoming a boundary violator, and interpretable as a sleazeball—no matter how awesome I really am. And, now, having had my consciousness raised by this article, my heightened knowledge creates heightened responsibility. If I know that what I am doing can be interpreted as boundary violating sleazeballing, but I persist in it anyway, then I cannot only be interpreted as a boundary violating sleazeball, but eo ipso I can become one.
I remember once standing on a subway platform several years ago when Watchmen was being made into a movie and the graphic novel was especially popular again due to the buzz around the film. Due to all this I started reading it. So one day I’m on a fully busy subway platform in the middle of the afternoon and I see a pretty woman reading Watchmen. I was wearing my head phones and didn’t take them off or anything. All I did was point at the book from her peripheral vision and she startled and braced like a fist was coming at her. Getting a grip of herself, she looked at me, I pointed at the book and just gave a thumbs up to it and she smiled. And I left her alone, remembered “Schrödinger’s Rapist” and took away a reiteration of the lesson: regardless of why or whether they should in an ideal way feel this way, many women in public are on edge around strange men. And if we want to make this change, we need to be as scrupulous as possible in respecting strange women’s boundaries. Fighting them over what’s a reasonable boundary expectation or a reasonable cause for offense misses the whole point.
But one of the ways that the men who want to have public input on how women should view their own boundaries object to being seen by strange women as “Schrödinger’s Rapist” is by claiming that it’s akin to blacks being treated by white people as a sort of “Schrödinger’s Mugger”.
This afternoon Ian has a fantastic (as usual) post on how black people accommodate white people’s baseless irrational fears all the time. It is a terrible, alienating, unjust burden to bear, but it is the only option that has any hope of diffusing those false anxieties over time. As a conscientious person, he essentially has to treat every strange white person he bumps into as, to coin a phrase that he didn’t, “Schrödinger’s Racist”—someone who just reflexively may find his big black appearance intimidating for all the wrong reasons. And, accordingly, he finds himself having to go to the thankless trouble of deliberately putting them at ease. So, after recounting a couple of almost comically sad personal anecdotes that guided him to realize the need to do this, he explains his conclusions:
Now there are two ways I could react to these encounters. I could rail against people for being racist and sexist and size-ist (if that’s a thing) – I’m so gentle and warm and loving! How dare they act as though I’m not? That’s one way – and it’s the stupid way. The other way is to recognize that while I strongly dislike the fact that people see me as dangerous because of how I look, it is up to me to decide what to do with that information. If I don’t care about spooking my neighbours, I don’t have to shuffle my feet – let them deal with their fright. But if I do care, then I have to find some way of mitigating that fear so we can coexist harmoniously.
Bringing this example home, men in the freethought movement have a decision to make. They (we) can rail against the hypocrisy of claiming to be anti-sexist whilst engaging in sex-based prejudicial behaviour, or we can recognize that if we want to be accommodating to women we have to make some adjustments to how we behave. It comes back to the central question: do we want women to be more comfortable? If not – then we should say so. If we do, then we can’t simply maintain the status quo of behaviour and berate women for being afraid of rape. That doesn’t solve any problems.
The other point I want to make here, which goes back to my objection to anti-black sexism being used as a rhetorical device by those who will never face it, is that black people engage in tons of behaviours to make white people feel safer. We do this all the damn time. We make accommodations in speech, behaviour, dress, mannerism, conversation topic – a wide diversity of adjustments that we make in the presence of our white friends. We want them to feel comfortable around us, and we accept the inherent racism of the need for such changes. The fact that you rail against its manifest unfairness is indicative of the fact that you have no idea we’re doing it – which means, in turn, that we’re doing it well. Until I am convinced that you actually understand anti-black racism (which would take quite a bit of doing), I don’t appreciate being deputized into your anti-feminist screed in this way.
Being a conscientious, pro-social, morally exceptional person means going the extra mile for people even at your own expense sometimes. When the only other option is to perpetuate unjust fears rather than constructively alleviate them so that they diminish in the future, you have to suck it up and even if you think that someone’s fears are unfounded, work to make them more comfortable. Of course this does not mean that blacks should agree to any loss of rights or dignity out of deference to white racist feelings. And it does not mean that men need to consider themselves inherently bad or defer to women in any ways that actually stripped themselves of basic rights. What it does mean is meeting anxiety-riddled people where they are so as to dispel them by silently signaling you care about them and about harmony with them.
Why this is so hard to grasp and to accommodate for so many men who ostensibly love women and crave few things in life as much as being with a woman, is beyond me.
For such men, who still don’t get it, here’s Greg Laden.
Richard Carrier has also responded to Ian’s thoughts.