A Stoic perspective on the sexual assault crisis

Only we are responsible for our actions. That’s where sexual assault prevention starts. 

Sedona, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

What started with the downfall of one Hollywood mogul has become an avalanche of revelations of what we’ve known all along but have avoided acknowledging—sexual assault is rampant, especially by powerful men. Sexual harassment is even more widespread.

Epictetus opens his handbook (Enchiridion) by stating that nothing external is under our control. Only our chosen values and deliberate thoughts and actions are up to us. This can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of passivity, but that’s not what he meant. Epictetus was a former slave who gained his freedom.

He gives an Olympian as an example. It is within the athlete’s control to train as hard as possible, make every sacrifice, and to seek every advantage. But there’s no guarantee the athlete will bring home the gold—circumstances could intervene, or the competitors could be more talented.

This does not mean the athlete shouldn’t try. In fact, the athlete should try as hard as possible. But the athlete must curb any sense of entitlement that the gold is theirs.

One interpretation of this is that pursuing something or someone is fine so long as we respect the boundaries. Another interpretation is that we can and should do everything in our power to change the current culture. And that’s up to every individual.

What we control

A Stoic perspective starts with the perpetrator. This is because sexual assault is within the perpetrator’s control, not the victim’s control. Related to this is the distinction between what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. We must protect what is ours while keeping our hands off of things that are not ours.

Stoicism is first and foremost about cultivating wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Domesticating (not suppressing) our emotions is a means to this end. And it is obvious to any rational person that sexual assault is ignorant, unjust, cowardly, and shameless.

Refusing to assent

An important Stoic focus is nipping our baser desires in the bud. Learning to recognize when a desire first arises and refusing to assent to it is a skill gained only from practice.

Sexual assault is usually motivated by a desire for power, and lust. Were it only about men gaining power over women then Kevin Spacey would have targeted women rather than men. Were lust not a factor then younger women and men would not be targeted more frequently.

Further, while all the news stories are about powerful men, we mustn’t forget the unpublicized stories of ordinary men and women who also commit sexual assault. People don’t need to have power in order to desire power.

Power is indifferent

Psychology Today profiled a study about sexual aggression when there’s a significant power difference between perpetrator and victim. The study found that those who are insecure in their power (regardless of how much power they actually have) are more likely to harass or assault people with less power.

The study also found “that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.” Indeed, the Justice Department found that 95% of staff who sexually abuse boys in juvenile detention are women. The Centers for Disease Control found that 1.27 million women and 1.267 million men were raped or “made to penetrate” by their intimate partners in the past year with the perpetrators most often being of the opposite sex (tables 2.1, 2.2 and page 24).

The issue always circles back to the problem of power. Stoicism recognizes that power over people and externals things is a delusion. And power, sex, money, and so on are indifferent not because people don’t desire these things but because these things add nothing to positive values. Instead, it’s about how we conduct ourselves with regard to these things.

But perhaps the most important Stoic observation is that who we are is defined by our actions, not our beliefs or our stated values. This includes our actions even when no one is looking. A key question I, like you, must ask myself is what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be?

 

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What’s up with male feminists?

Authenticity is a challenge.

Carefree, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

There’s no shortage of news items about male feminists who have fallen from grace. It’s infuriating and puzzling for people on the left. It’s schadenfreude for the right. Some commentators have noted how similar this is — with left and right reversed — when an evangelical preacher falls from grace.

But other people aren’t surprised. Even ordinary male feminists can come across as pandering and sycophantic. Feminists often distrust male feminists’ motives. Some feminists seem to think men should be seen but not heard (unless they’re checking their privilege or confronting other men about their behavior). And male feminists must accept that women in the movement may mock them.

What’s happening here? The observations that follow are not excuses for bad male behavior. We should all know what appropriate behavior is and is not. No excuses.

Nor are these observations comprehensive. The reality of sexism and misogyny are well articulated elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on other factors.

Seeking women’s approval

We all crave attention, and negative attention is better than invisibility. I doubt I’m the only man who has felt a deep desire for female approval. For most of us this starts in childhood with the need for our mother’s approval, which some mothers manipulate. Though men often talk about father wound, mother wound is discussed far less often. Emotionally it’s a much more difficult discussion to have.

Further, women have immense sexual power over men. And this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

It can also lead to a sense of entitlement. A man who fancies himself as one of the good guys may start to think he deserves women’s approval . If that’s not forthcoming then he may feel entitled to punish women.

Pandering

The desire for women’s approval may lead some men to call themselves male feminists or allies (though that’s far from the only reason for choosing these labels).

But feminism is a movement of women for women. It presents a one-sided rather than a comprehensive view of gender. So a man who calls himself a feminist or an ally must take his talking points from women, restricting his ability to speak authentically about gender issues.

Particularly, he must overemphasize the negative aspects of masculinity and focus on women as victims of masculinity while ignoring female privilege and entitlement, including situations where women take advantage of men. This can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment, which often manifest passive-aggressively.

Getting past pandering

I support gender equality, but I’m not a feminist. This phrase is really annoying to many people. But I think it’s important to make it clear that my labels are my choice. I don’t believe feminism is the only perspective on gender equality. I also distance myself from reactive identitarian groups like the men’s rights movement.

I try to understand what feminism gets right and what it gets wrong . My goal is to develop a proactive perspective on gender equality that’s more comprehensive and non-identitarian.

Today’s gender myth implies that the dark side of human nature is masculine, which oppresses the feminine. It claims that gender is purely a social construct.

But I acknowledge that biology also plays a partial role. And I think it’s more accurate to say that masculinity can be both benevolent and tyrannical while femininity can be both nurturing and smothering.

Self-reflection

Then there’s introspection. It’s important for men to examine the mother wound, acknowledge feelings about women’s power over us, and how this may contribute to a dysfunctional seeking of female approval.

But putting women on a pedestal is a particular problem. Of course, today’s version of the pedestal differs from yesterday’s. It’s understood that it’s sexist to say women shouldn’t be firefighters because they’re so delicate.

But women who wish to remain on a pedestal must maintain their innocence, which means having someone to blame. Men can become scapegoats.

I try not to enable this. This means accepting responsibility for my failings but refusing to accept responsibility for other people’s failings. And failing to realize that we’re not entitled to anything is one of the biggest failings at all.