Friday, December 8, 2017

No, Scott Alexander, the focus on powerful men’s sexual assaults is not “a hit job” on men

I want to rebut a recent piece in which Scott Alexander, a widely read blogger, criticizes the focus on sexual assaults committed by powerful men (as opposed to assaults committed by women). I think this post is worth responding to because Alexander's blog is incredibly widely read among computer scientists and my other analytical friends -- it may be the most widely-read blog in my social circle -- and I don't think it covers gender issues fairly, and this post is an example of that.

There are a couple important things Alexander gets right. He's right that society decides not to care about certain classes of sexual assaults; there's probably been more coverage this year of Taylor Swift getting groped than all prison rape combined. He's right that society is wrong to make fun of men who are assaulted by women, and I agree the media should seek out reports from men as well. Reading his post and some of his references increased my already-held belief that we should take men more seriously when they are harassed or assaulted by women, so credit to him for that. He makes a thought-provoking argument that men might care more about assault if they believed it could happen to them too and they'd be taken seriously if it did.

But then the post says a bunch of things that are less reasonable.

First, he repeatedly implies that the current conversation is only about men assaulting women. This is factually incorrect; plenty of men have also gotten in trouble over accusations of assaulting men -- Kevin Spacey, George Takei, James Levine, we could go on.

Then he says that the focus on male assaulters is "a hit job on the outgroup [men]. Do I think that sexual harassment is being used this way? I have no other explanation for the utter predominance of genderedness in the conversation."

Here's another explanation: it's extremely obvious that male-on-female assault, a very common and damaging kind, has some unique characteristics worth discussing -- like the fact that men are generally physically, professionally, and economically more powerful, which fundamentally changes the dynamic of the assault. This discussion is long overdue, and we're having it now. Another reason the assaults of powerful men are worth discussing specifically is that it's a very bad idea to give assaulters, who definitionally don’t have enough regard for others' suffering, access to, say, America's entire nuclear arsenal. So the fact that two of America's last four presidents have been accused of assault or harassment by multiple people is worth talking about. When there are credible allegations of assault against female presidents, senators, media moguls, etc, we should absolutely talk about those those too.

(Note, incidentally, that there are many other ways in which the current conversation is biased and incomplete: other groups being largely left out of the headlines are prisoners, people of color, transgender people, and people whose abusers aren't famous, but somehow his hypothesized "hit job" is against men only. This is odd.)

Alexander also says that focusing on male-on-female assault is like talking only about black-on-white crime or Muslim-on-Christian terrorism: it implies you have an insidious agenda, like Richard Spencer. (Comparing feminists to Nazis is a very tired rhetorical tactic -- feminazis, anyone? -- but let's move on.) These comparisons are wrong for three reasons. First, as explained above, the current conversation isn't just about female victims, though it does focus on male crimes. Second, it's entirely reasonable to have a conversation specifically about the crimes committed by one group. The media has been running non-stop articles about white supremacists, and that is not "a hit job on whites" but an analysis of an important social phenomenon. I don’t feel attacked when people complain about white supremacists; similarly, criticism of male assaulters isn't criticism of all men.

The third reason his examples are bad is that, in both his examples, the group being blamed is a non-dominant group that's been discriminated against for centuries. Contrast this with the group he's comparing to, men. A negative consequence of obsessing about black-on-white crime is a system of mass incarceration that wrecks millions of lives a year. A negative consequence of obsessing about Muslim-on-Christian terrorism was a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. In contrast, a negative consequence of obsessing about assaults committed by powerful men is...I'm not sure what it is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve hundreds of thousands of dead people. It would've been easy for him to flip his examples around, which would have made them more apt but less persuasive, so this choice seems like sophistry here.

These counter-arguments are obvious, and Scott Alexander is smart and thorough, so the fact that he doesn't rebut or even mention them is worrisome to me. I think when it comes to gender issues and feminism, he has biases, perhaps driven in part by what happened to Scott Aaronson, and I've had this feeling reading his blog before. And of course we all have biases, certainly I do, but I'm not the main source on gender issues for eight gajillion rationalists. (His post has been shared on several men's rights subreddits, so he's a source for other demographics as well.) So my request is -- please don't take Slate Star Codex as a definitive source on gender issues. He's smart and provocative and I read him, but please read people who disagree with him too.


  1. > In contrast, a negative consequence of obsessing about assaults committed by powerful men is...I'm not sure what it is, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve hundreds of thousands of dead people.

    except clogging up the political sphere with irrelevant hysteric nonsense takes away focus from real issues of our society, like that fact that our global socio-economic-political system is currently wholly incapable of recognizing and responding to climate change, which if left unchecked, will lead to *billions* of deaths ... see, we're still too busy making blog posts about who should be blaming who over sexual assaults.

    ... oh and the fact that non-violent sexual assault doesn't have any moral weight. like if someone randomly grabbed my dick in public ... i literally have no rational reason to care, any more than being grabbed in general, which if nothing violent happens to me, i also have no rational reason to care about. personal space isn't actually a 'rational' idea, in general, so long as there isn't meaningful physical impediment.

    so part of me is definitely worried humanity is going to continue to be too distracted by overly-hysteric political memes to *ever* deal with any of the far more existential, and therefore troubling, problems facing us today.

    personal crimes and petty politics like assault are far easier for the mind to process and get behind than something as vastly complex and insidiously integrated within our society, as climate change ...

  2. Also the frequency of sexual harassment experienced by women is definitely much higher. Only looking @ the overall % of people who are ever harassed seriously misrepresents the difference in prevalence of harassment between genders.

  3. Thank you for this, Emma. I just started subscribing to your blog and have been reading SSC for some time. I agree with your criticisms here, and I hope they spread as far as the original SSC post does (though I admit this is not likely).

  4. Men have been discriminated against for centuries too. Do you really think that it wasn't gender discrimination when men were sent to fight (risking injury and death) in WW I and II, that men had legal recourse if they were raped, that men had a choice to be a househusband, etc, etc?

    The narrative that men were not oppressed, while women were, is based on the assumption that the minority of men that was in power only cared about male welfare, which is obviously false, since women would never have gotten the vote by peaceful means if this were the case. Yet they did. Male legislatures would not have voted for anti-rape laws that only protected women of this were the case. Yet they did. I could go on and on.

    Ultimately, the issue is that some people try to establish a system of affirmative consent, but ignore that many men AND women prefer 'guess culture'. Women probably prefer guess culture more often than men, in fact (I've seen many a man complain about it, while I tend to see women complain about men who do guess culture badly, without condemning guess culture in itself).

    Because the common claim is that only male behavior is the problem, women who prefer guess culture keep that norm and in some subcultures, get to destroy a man who does guess culture, but makes a mistake (see the many horrible Title IX injustices, for example, which coincidentally seem to very disproportionately happen to non-whites and foreigners). So the end result is that men have a choice: opt out of guess culture, which means a greatly reduced chance of relationships and/or sex or take the risk.

    How is it not sexism when only men are punished for behavior that is perpetuated by both men and women? How is it not abusive when men are forced to choose between an important need for many people or risk being punished merely for the fact that they are not perfect?

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  6. I agree that Scott could have made a stronger argument (not mentioning that there has been plenty of coverage on men assaulting men), but his larger point still stands and obvious counter arguments have an obvious refutation.

    Its that the common factor here is power, not men. Physicality isn't relevant in this discussion as the circumstances being discussed are about the legal, social, and economic power the men in question hold over their victims.

    Yes its unique to male on female assault that the men are more likely to hold such power, but it is not unique to male on female assault that the victims are less powerful than their abusers. That abusers hold power over their victims is not something unique to male on female assault.

    You see the same when women hold power. For example of the staff who rape juvenile boys in prison, 90% of them are women.

    What makes this a "hit job on men" is the focus on "men" as the relevant factor, when the relevant factor is instead "power".

    It is wrong to focus on "men" because while most powerful people are men, most men are not powerful.

    And no, men too have long belonged to the non-dominant class and been discriminated against. Because for through out history "men" as a class have not been in power. Instead the powerful class has just been comprised of mostly men, but don't mistake that for all men being powerful, or for the men in power having the interests of men as a class (they didn't).

    And yes, its entirely reasonable to have a conversation about the crimes committed by one group. But men are not the group committing these crimes. The powerful are.

    And yes, comparisons to muslim/christianity or black/white are not of the scale, but they are of the same kind.

    Finally if you can't identify any bad consequences of focusing on men as the issue at hand, your not thinking hard enough as to me its pretty obvious. You ignore the victims of women who are largely men and if helps convince you at all, largely men of color as they are dis-proportionally represented amongst weak men.

    Getting a bit more marxist for a moment, if you focus on "men" the larger and more important consequence is that you play into the hands of the powerful. You allow them to deflect their crimes and divide the groups whose unity threatens them. If you want to help women the best way to go about is not to complain that we need more queens and less kings, its to tear down the throne.

    1. While I 100% agree with the claim that the relevant focus is not 'men' but 'power', I actually think that focusing on men is strategically correct. I would need more context to evaluate (or have any confidence in) the claim about juvenile prisons, but even if it's true, it's an extremely atypical case. In practice, 'the powerful' are extremely difficult to target and impossible to target all at once as a class. However, the VAST majority of 'the powerful' are not merely men, but are precisely the sort of men who are carrying out these crimes in huge numbers. Target them for being powerful and you can't get momentum. Target them for crimes they are committing and the people who haven't been caught yet will turn on those who have been caught.

    2. Michael,

      I don't agree that by building a coalition against all men, it will necessarily become easier to go after the powerful men. What I consider far more likely is that by broadening the group, it's the least powerful men that will end up taking the hit, while the powerful generally manage to either avoid being prosecuted or manage to get off very easy.

      I think that the people that get mobilized will generally go after the easier targets, because...that is much easier.

      Aside from a theoretical argument, I also believe that there is strong evidence that in some ways men are already targeted and that we see that the least powerful men get hit hardest. An example is that poor and black men are disproportionately often in prison (for proof of how black men are disadvantaged see chapter 3.6 in this paper).

      I am personally against racism, sexism and such, so I have problems with a policy that would most likely increase the impact of racism, sexism and such substantially.

  7. Could we have said 3 of our 5 most recent presidents? What about Bush Senior?

  8. " A negative consequence of obsessing about black-on-white crime is a system of mass incarceration that wrecks millions of lives a year. [...] In contrast, a negative consequence of obsessing about assaults committed by powerful men is...I'm not sure what it is,[...]"

    I assume you brought up mass incarceration because of racial disparities, but did you think to ask what gender they were? Men already face exactly the systemic discrimination you would expect of a group that we expect to be criminals. Every statistic I know of showing how the justice system treats blacks differently shows qualitatively similar results for how the justice system treats men. You might be interested in the data on who police shoot while unarmed, for example:

    But if systemic discrimination against men doesn't concern you because the discrimination women face is worse or because the patriarchy is their system in the first place or whatever, maybe you would be concerned that our assumption that men are sexual predators is already unsurprisingly harming black men:

  9. I would like to believe I possess enough self-awareness to overcome biases, and for what it's worth I would not fit comfortably into Alexander's 'in-group', but I genuinely find your arguments here toothless. I still appreciate the article, so thank you for writing it, but it seems that you have misunderstood Alexander's main point: gender is more accidental to sexual harassment than we might think, and advancing a narrative that targets the male might win points for certain groups, but it doesn't actually care about the victims, both female and male. Surely this is not completely off the mark, as the #MeToo campaign so clearly illustrates? I don't think your article gave enough credit to that.

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