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The Perfect Safety of Young White Men: Part II

In the heat of the federal election, I dashed off a blog post about what I termed “the perfect safety of young men,” when Liberal strategists took to the airwaves to let us know that nobody should saying anything bad about their leader’s dad because doing so might hurt his feelings. It has been my intention to link this piece back to my series on how sexual and gender-based violence is debated in the public square.

So, I am going to wade back in by writing about another political event, on a much smaller scale, many years ago.

In March 2000, I attended a meeting that still stands out as one of the worst political meetings ever to take place in British Columbia: the BC Green Party provincial convention at which Adriane Carr seized control of the party through antics that still shock. The signature moment of this horror show was when candidates for the party’s provincial council were making election speeches and, in the middle of one candidate’s remarks, a party member rose on a point of order and accused him of rape. Once he had lost the internal election, she rose later in the meeting and retracted her allegations of sexual assault because they had done their job; his days as a Green Party organizer and strategist were over.

Generally, when people tell stories like this, they are offered in support of some kind of nonsense about how we should avoid talking about our belief or suspicion that a man has committed a sexual assault unless he has, himself, confessed to it, about how, given the existence of false and malicious allegations like the one I just described, it is irresponsible to speak about one’s suspicion that someone may be a rapist. That is not why I am telling this story. I am telling this story in order to get our discussion of sexual violence in the public square past an unhealthy impasse that favours sexual and social predators. I am trying to grab the opposite kind of cred: to throw down the gauntlet and say “so what?”

When we debate sexual violence in the public square, we are quickly stampeded into taking one of two unhelpful positions: (1) that the damage done by allegations of sexual violence is so damaging and women and children who claim to have suffered this violence are such unreliable witnesses that we must contain and silence their claims so they do not damage the reputation of potentially innocent men; or, (2) that no one, or, statistically, almost no one ever falsely claims to be a victim of sexual violence and that, therefore, the probability of a false allegation is so vanishingly small that silencing and containing these claims is unnecessary because they are only made about the guilty.

What underpins, what frames both of these positions is the sinister assumption that protecting the reputation of men is more important than protecting the physical safety of women and children. If we silence a rumour, a suspicion, an accusation and someone else is raped or beaten or abused because of our silence, because someone who could have been warned was not, this is a less grievous offense than if a man loses a job, a relationship or a political position because we did nothing to silence the rumours and accusations.

I can say from experience that it is obscene to draw an equivalence between the crippling, lifelong effects of abuse and the transitory damage of a personal or political smear. But what is clear from public discourse around sexual assault, a discourse that feminists, survivors and their allies must shoehorn themselves into, is that, according to our society’s values, a man’s reputation is worth more than physical body of a woman or child.

These values are, of course, constitutive of any patriarchal society, values that link genteel Canada to the violence of Russian homophobia, to the honour killings of Pakistan, the conversion rapes and child rapes of South Africa. That is not to say that there is no difference between our society and those that are more violently misogynistic. Rather it is to remind us that there exist in the world a spectrum of patriarchies, each of which offers different kinds of relative privilege to different men and different kinds and degrees of safety and liberty to non-men.

While it is true that all patriarchies prize male honour above female bodies, where ours is exceptional is in prizing the physical safety of men, especially young men, as well. And not just a physically achievable safety but an idealized, unattainable safety.

When it comes to understanding patriarchal societies, it is useful to remember that the main power dynamic that shapes such a society is the contest for power between old, rich men and young, violent men. A patriarchy is a society in which young, violent men are subordinated to old, rich men. While women, children and non-humans may bear the brunt of the violence and oppression generated by a male-dominated society, they are typically conceptualized as minor constituencies in this contest of power, resources to be exploited, prizes to be gained, minor players in a social contest among men.

For this reason, most patriarchal societies have, as I discussed in the previous article, sought to reduce the social power of young men while grooming a portion of them for eventual leadership through processes of winnowing, encouraging high-risk, high-mortality activities both recreationally and professionally, and deploying young men against one another in wars. The nineteenth century conscripted young men into wars on an unprecedented scale; it sent young men into mining, logging and whaling in new versions of these professions that maximized risk and encouraged a recreational culture of high-risk stunts, drinking, drug use and bar fights.

But, in the second half of the twentieth century, things changed for young, white men of a certain class. As the Vietnam deferments piled up, the new plan for young white men became to infantilize and warehouse them until such time as there is a space for them in patriarchal authority. Gone is the collective social hazing and its staggering body count. In its place is a seemingly interminable, infantilized, pathologized, basement-dwelling unpaid internship accompanied by a series of useless degrees and certificates. And with this new reality of an endless minority, one that even the Affordable Care Act has now legally extended to age twenty-six, is an unprecedented expectation of young male safety.

But there is a problem, a deeply gendered problem that now besets the society of these infantilized men: a safe man is an unattractive man.

Today, many misguided individuals, of whom I was one until an embarrassingly short time ago, bemoan the ways in which young men on university campuses seem to be set up for violating university rules around sexual consent. Posters at nearly every university at which I have taught warn young men that if they have sex with a young woman who has been drinking or is otherwise impaired by substances, they have committed a sexual assault and could, at any time, face discipline by the university or even by law enforcement and the justice system. Similarly, they are warned that ambiguity in communication, enough unclear responses from their sexual partner, too many “no’s” mixed in with “yes’s” and this may, at any time after the event, trigger accusations, discipline and expulsion. And given the popularity of agency effacement as a sexual fetish, this appears to transfer the risks associated with one party’s sexual satisfaction onto the other.

To which I say, “so fucking what?”

What kind of insane society do we live in where a young man trying to sleep with a young woman should not expect himself to be risking genuine harm in order to do so? Every time women contemplate a sexual activity with a man, we expect them to take on a burden of physical risk, to know that this activity might result in them being beaten, raped or killed. And, in most patriarchal societies, men are expected to know and voluntarily assume real physical and reputational risk in order to meet their sexual and romantic needs. It is only in this society where risk to women is normative and risk to men, unacceptable.

In most traditional patriarchies, the current or former sexual partner of the woman in question is the main purveyor of risk, well, he and his friends are. And it is expected that, even if the woman has rejected and dissociated herself from this former partner that he still enjoys the right to assault and defame her next sexual partner, a right important enough for law enforcement and other authorities to look the other way. And then, of course, there are the male blood relatives of the woman who present a physical risk; premarital sex is packaged, in your average patriarchy, with the real chance of being assaulted or murdered by your future in-laws, again important enough, that law enforcement might actually give those in-laws a hand.

And then, in the absence of ex-lovers and honour-driven family members, there is the law itself. In most patriarchies, law enforcement officials can usually do something about young people having, in their minds, too much fun. Not to mention a suitor’s competitors who might be trying to best him at the assumption of risk or the enactment of violence, often through direct violent confrontation, through that society’s version of a duel.

In every other patriarchal society, young men have been expected to take physical risks in order to court women. While this society offers a form of patriarchy that is more benign to non-men than most others’, it underwrites this with a steeper inequality in the valuation and expectation of safety depending on one’s gender. And this is, I think, where our hand-wringing over men’s reputations and silly, puritanical university policies come into play: we must talk up minor and improbable risks as though they are as life-threatening as dodging musket-fire while fleeing your sweetheart’s parents’ house. Irrespective of their creators’ intent, the real function of the posters is not to warn young men of real consequences but rather to create the false impression that young men are experiencing danger they are actually not.

Suddenly, we act as though sexual assault allegations that never appear on a police docket, much less a court registry cripple a man beyond all repair and make him lose all his friends and maybe even his job. Hell, overwhelming evidence, even a criminal conviction on the basis of such allegations doesn’t even rid a celebrity of most of his fans, never mind friends. “I know that guy. He didn’t do it,” remains the default position of any social group sufficiently proximate to an alleged abuser or rapist.

But we talk those risks up in order to make it look like men are still braving real danger in order to gain sexual access to women. So we wring our hands and tut about how hard it is to be a young man these days, what with all these rules. As though being safe and obeying the rules is what being a young man has ever been about.

The world is a dangerous place and having sex and creating romantic relationships is one of the many dangerous and worthwhile things in it. And it is time that men stopped shirking our share of that danger and grousing about minor hypothetical dangers as though they are real threats; because continuing to do so is not only unjust. It is unmanly.

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