Zombies of the patriarchy

Here are some ridiculous things that conservative anti-feminists recently had to say about feminism:
Conservative Women Celebrate Women’s History by Criticizing Feminism.

I can’t believe how much staying power these narratives have. The anti-feminist right has been making the same claims since I was a kid.

I’ve never understood why they do it, especially the women. I sorta get why some dudes would be — patriarchalists, I guess? — since a patriarchy puts them in charge of everything, and people like power. And I get why people who were raised that way and don’t know anything else would just accept it and try to get on with their lives. But I don’t get why women who could choose to be something else, choose to be patriarchalists. What do they have to gain?

I also wonder why patriarchies and patriarchal thinking are so common. Why doesn’t it ever seem to go the other way? Matriarchies are rare, and I literally cannot think of a single toxic, oppressive example on par with the toxic patriarchies that are still depressingly plentiful.

(Some wags out there will no doubt suggest that the women’s studies department of many colleges could be regarded as a toxic matriarchy, but I think that kinda proves my point. How much power does any women’s studies department actually have?)

I see various theories floated for why patriarchy seems to be a kind of default — oh, it’s because men are stronger, or because women use too many of their resources taking care of babies. But those theories never seem to adequately explain the phenomenon. After all, it’s not like tiny, weak, single-parent men or tall, childless, ass-kicking women are automatically excluded from participation in the patriarchy.

So this is my theory: the patriarchal instinct is driven by an urge to seize control of the reproductive capacity — which necessitates diminishing the autonomy of the women who are “keepers” of that capacity. It’s a deep-down, gut-level, sub-rational primate kind of thing, which gets turned into elaborate abstract social narratives and structures. You know, because humans do that.

(It gets long and I talk about sexual assault. But there’s a gif at the end!)

I don’t believe that every single individual has a patriarchal instinct. I just think it’s common enough — and in some people powerful enough — that unless other cultural forces are actively pushing back, human societies will tend in a patriarchal direction.

(Which is why we still need feminism, incidentally. And perhaps why we always will.)

One of the keys of patriarchal culture is something I call the patriarchal bargain: surrender yourself completely to patriarchal control, and the patriarchy will take care of you and keep you safe. Right wing anti-feminists frequently try to invoke this bargain. One of Phyllis Schlafly’s key arguments against the ERA was that legally guaranteed equality would — somehow — cost women some nebulous “special” protected status. It was worse to be equal. It was dangerous to be equal.

I’m sure if you asked the oppressive Saudi Arabian patriarchs why they maintain a gendered apartheid that severely restricts women’s liberty, they would tell you it’s to protect the women. But think about it — are women better off in Saudi Arabia, or in Sweden?

The patriarchal bargain doesn’t work. The patriarchy itself is far more destructive and dangerous to women than anything it could possibly be protecting us from.

In the United States, we are neither Saudi Arabia nor Sweden. We’re somewhere in the middle — not as patriarchal as we have been, but still far from egalitarian. The current patriarchy might be a shambling zombie remnant of its former self — but that just means what remains is the part that’s REALLY HARD TO KILL.

We keep having the same stupid old arguments — about sex, about marriage, about reproduction, about sexual assault, about the role of women in society. Patriarchal thinking informs many absurd right wing narratives. Why would Rush Limbaugh (thrice-divorced paragon of family values that he is) decide to slut-shame every woman in North America who has ever used hormonal birth control? Why do we have very public anti-feminists obsessed with trying to get women to focus on marriage and children instead of career? Why do people who say they want to prevent abortions work so hard to also restrict access to birth control? Why does the role of men seem to disappear from these conversations entirely, as if they have literally nothing to do with the whole business?

None of that makes any sense, until you realize the point under discussion is always whether women are “allowed” to make their own decisions regarding the reproductive capacity. Are women “allowed” to decide whether or not they get married? No, women are supposed to pursue marriage vigorously, leaving it up to men to make the actual decision about whether marriage happens or not. Are women “allowed” to decide for themselves whether and when they will have children? No, traditional patriarchal institutions are supposed to make that decision for them.

The right wing is full-on no-apologies patriarchal, but people in the the left and middle frequently display unfortunately patriarchal attitudes. This brings me back to Emily Yoffe’s “don’t drink and get raped” essay — her repeated insistence that her advice was “feminist,” because she was urging women to “take care of themselves.”

Now, it’s certainly true that patriarchies rob women of the means to take care of themselves, but it does not follow that telling women they must take care of themselves is feminist. Patriarchies have absolutely no problem telling women, “sorry, you’re on your own” when the patriarchal bargain fails. In fact, expecting women to — somehow — be able to look after themselves, even though they have no power to do so, is entirely patriarchal. If women go through their lives terrified of falling through the cracks of their society, that is part of what motivates them to participate in the patriarchy themselves. Scared people prioritize simple survival, and often don’t have any leftover emotional energy to fight for justice as well.

In her essay, Yoffe invokes a version of the patriarchal bargain — follow “the rules” and you will be safe. How can we tell this is the patriarchal bargain? Throughout her essay she uses three key tells: the rules are for women, not for men; if they fail to keep you safe, too bad, follow them anyway; men disappear from the narrative as rational actors with agency.

That last point is weird, because it seems counter-intuitive — how could it be patriarchal to deny men their agency? Yet almost any patriarchal discussion about sexual assault will tend to do this. Men who rape are treated like a depersonalized force of nature, brought about entirely by the victim’s actions — almost as if she summoned a demon that got out of its pentagram. They are not treated as people who chose to commit a crime. Yoffe’s essay equates them to natural predators — a common metaphor. But an actual natural predator is simply following its own instincts, about which it has little control, and certainly no conscious control the way humans think of it.

For a while, I toyed with the idea that this is simply patriarchal culture’s way to resolve a bit of cognitive dissonance: it’s improper to restrict men’s sexual liberty, but sexual assault is wrong. So people resolve the conflict by removing the man, the actual human being, from the picture. The rapist becomes a shadowy monster figure, not a person we could know.

That conflict might be part of it. But now I think the core problem is this: since rape is a crime against sexual autonomy, diminishing the autonomy of women — as a patriarchy does — also diminishes the criminality of rape against them. Rape apologetics is built right into the heart of patriarchal culture. At the same time, everybody “knows” that rape is a terrible crime. This is the more fundamental cognitive dissonance at work. Nobody is likely to say, in so many words, “yes, I think rape is perfectly fine under certain circumstances.” Instead, they engage in advanced double-think. Sure, rape is a terrible crime, but was that actually rape?

People use revealing phrases like “rape rape” or “legitimate rape.” We are meant to understand that what they mean is “rape plus violent physical assault,” because of course, everyone agrees that violent physical assault is a crime.

Or, they might construe rape as a crime against purity or order — signaled by language like “virgin” and “good girl,” or by an emphasis on the propriety (or lack thereof) of the victim’s behavior. (See, “sodomized virgin exception” for an example.) It’s still not a crime against the victims as individuals — it’s a crime against their symbolic worth to society, or perhaps against their family or community.

In Yoffe’s case, her excuse is that she’s giving young women really good advice and how could anybody possibly object to that? Just ignore the patriarchal context that implicitly excuses the sexual assault, and focus in on how amazingly useful this advice is. Follow these rules and you are guaranteed to be safe! Well, maybe not guaranteed. But follow them anyway. You have to take care of yourselves, girls.

This is why the victim blaming associated with rape is fundamentally different from the victim blaming associated with property crime. Let’s say you leave your bag unattended in the middle of a busy shopping mall, and it’s stolen. People will think you were being stupid, sure, but nobody will try to insinuate that you weren’t actually deprived of your property. That’s because our culture holds the right to property as sacred and absolute. You don’t have to “earn” it.

A lot of patriarchal narratives about rape don’t hold up, either in the face of real-world facts, or even by their own internal logic. But for the individuals involved in perpetuating them, they don’t have to. All they’re trying to do is resolve the internal friction between “rape is a terrible crime” and “rape is okay because women don’t have sexual autonomy anyway.”

Take this statement about rape from professional Awful Person who doesn’t believe in date rape and calls herself “Princeton Mom”: “It’s all on them [young women] to not put themselves in a position where they are vulnerable to being abused or mistreated by a man [..] It’s dangerous to say to women that you can count on men to act responsibility.”

She will tell you that she’s just being “realistic” and expecting women to “take care of themselves.” (At least she doesn’t have the audacity to also claim she’s being feminist.) But how realistic is it to assume that (barring superpowers) a woman will never be in a position where she’s vulnerable to being mistreated by a man? What exactly is a woman supposed to do to prevent rape in this scenario? Never be around any man ever?

If you accused her of being pro-rape, Princeton Mom would probably deny it. (Although maybe not. She’s pretty awful.) She might even deny that she believes men have the right to attempt rape whenever they feel like it. But that is the obvious implication of her beliefs — that men have an assumed right to attempt rape and it is always the woman’s job to prevent it… somehow.

(You know, how women are the weaker sex and all, except for the MAD NINJA SKILLS they suddenly manifest when the big, strong man who was supposed to protect them according to the patriarchal bargain tries to rape them instead? Look, it’s your own fault for dating a man. Except if you aren’t dating a man, and you live alone, and a stranger attacks you, that’s your fault too. Always have a friend around. Unless the friend rapes you. Well, you should have known better than to be friends with a rapist. How are you supposed to know he’s a rapist until he actually tries it? Don’t ask me! That’s all on you! It’s dangerous to assume that men will act in a non-criminal fashion! You just have to assume that all men are potential rapists and protect yourself accordingly! But not by becoming one of those hairy-legged feminists who hates men. Because feminism is bad.)

Imagine if we applied the same standard to property crime: that everybody has an assumed right to attempt theft whenever, and it’s always the victim’s job to thwart the attempt. It would quickly get ridiculous. We’d be living in that city of thieves from Adventure Time.

It’s significant that Awful Mom expressed her rape apologetics opinion when her larger purpose was hawking a book about how important it is to get your MRS degree — the two concepts seem unrelated, until you recognize the patriarchal thread that connects them. And I think it’s also why the anti-abortion right simply cannot mention sexual assault without sounding like creepy rape apologists. It’s because they are creepy rape apologists.

I don’t know how to kill these zombies of the patriarchy, these stupid, destructive ideas that never seem to go away. Maybe a flamethrower.