In the mainstream and on social media, we’ve been told that all women live under constant threat and that all men are part of the problem.
One columnist admonished “nice guys” were most likely responsible for the bulk of the problem and bore the responsibility for fixing it. The journalist Benjamin Law started the hashtag #How I Will Change for men to publicly confess and “take responsibility for their role in rape culture, complicit or otherwise,” portraying any man who has ever questioned the accuracy of a claim of harassment as a “bad guy.”
It is important to consider the accuracy and impact of stereotypes of men in general as violent. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of violent crimes are committed by men, it is a tiny minority of men who are responsible for the majority of violence. In a Swedish sample, the most violent 1% of the population committed 63% of all violent crimes, nearly twice as many as the other 99% combined.
It has also been shown that the subset of the population with the greatest propensity to criminality, those known as “life-course persistent offenders,” are much more likely than the general population to commit rape or engage in sexual coercion. The researchers who have investigated this go on to suggest the tendency of this small minority of men to commit such acts may be caused by the genetics of those specific men, not by a “rape culture” that teaches men in general that violence against women is acceptable.
In the realm of sexual harassment as well, repeat offenders are likely to be giving the male population a bad name. It is quite likely that a very small percentage of men harass large numbers of women, causing a disproportionate amount of distress. And this type of offender (a life-course persistent offender) is often resistant to rehabilitation and treatment. Indeed, some investigations have found that attempts to rehabilitate psychopaths (as diagnosed by the Hare psychopathy checklist) have actually increased their likelihood of committing violent crimes such as sexual assault.
The actress Alyssa Milano began a social media campaign to raise awareness of these forms of abuse in the world at large, tweeting to ask anyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply, “Me too.”
While Milano may have had the admirable goal of drawing attention to a serious issue, the subsequent narrative that has been presented has not been entirely accurate, and a non-trivial amount of ugliness has also been unleashed.
Are violent experiences universal
The scale of the response to Alyssa Milano’s tweet does not necessarily mean that her experience is shared by all women. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that only 5% of the population had suffered these types of abuse. Since Milano has 3.25 million followers on Twitter, if 5% responded to her tweet, then that would lead to 162,500 posts. If each of those followers, in turn, had 100 friends, of which 5% responded that they too had been victims, that would lead to 812,500 posts. Continue this for a few more levels, and we can see how the scale of the Internet can cause an awareness campaign to go viral with millions of posts even if it is raising awareness of something that affects only a small percentage of the population.
Of course, this analysis does not prove that abuse is rare; it only shows that the success of #MeToo does not prove the contrary. In order to answer the question of how widespread abuse actually is, it is crucial that we define clearly what exactly constitutes abuse. To have been “sexually harassed or assaulted” can encompass anything from hearing a sexually explicit joke once to being brutally raped repeatedly over an extended period of time. The former is a relatively small affront that most adults of either gender have likely experienced at some point in their lives, while the latter is one of the most horrific ordeals that a person can be put through, and there are certainly many shades of gray in between.
If we treat every inappropriate joke as if it were a violent felony, then we do a disservice to all involved: True victims have their experiences diluted by comparatively trivial grievances, innocent men stand to be swept away along with the guilty in the resulting moral panic, and the factual integrity of our understanding of these important issues is severely compromised.
It also behooves us to be aware that violent crime, including sexual assault, has been in decline for decades. As illustrated by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, this trend is represented across many nations and cuts across many demographic categories. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN,) our country’s largest non-profit devoted to rape prevention, sexual assault has dropped by half in the U.S. since 1993.
While even one rape is one too many, we should also be concerned about creating a moral panic when the evidence suggests that the situation is actually improving. Doing so may interfere with our ability to learn from experience and understand how have we achieved this decline, making it more difficult for us to most effectively ensure that we continue to build on the progress that we have made toward preventing this horrific crime.
Sexual violence statistics
To understand the actual scope of the problem, we can look to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control to measure the prevalence of different forms of abuse. By examining these data, we can evaluate the claim that sexual violence is a universal experience among women and that men are unaffected.
To begin, let us consider the most severe form of sexual violence, rape. According to the survey, 18.3% of women and 1.4% of men have been raped at some point in their lifetimes. However, the NISVS uses a definition of rape that excludes most male victims, including only those who were either raped by another man or anally violated using the rapist’s fingers or an object.
Most men who were raped by a woman—whether through physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation from date rape drugs or alcohol—are instead listed as being “made to penetrate,” which is classified as a form of “other sexual violence” despite meeting the common definition of rape as forced sexual intercourse.
The lifetime prevalence of this form of rape is 4.8% for men and too small a number to accurately estimate the survey results for women. Combining these two pairs of numbers, we find that rape is approximately 3-4 times more prevalent among women than among men, depending on how many men who were “made to penetrate” were also victims of rape under the NISVS definition.
However, the gender gap vanishes altogether when we look at the prevalence over a 12-month period instead of lifetime prevalence: 1.1% of women were victims of rape, while 1.1% of men were “made to penetrate.” We do not know the reason for this discrepancy. It is possible that there was a greater gender gap in the past than there is today, or that male victims who were violated more recently are more likely to report their victimization on the survey. Whatever the true gender ratio, we know that rape is far from being a universal experience of either gender but nonetheless a problem for both. It is simply the decent thing to do to treat all victims with sympathy and respect and not write anyone off just because of their gender.
The NISVS also measured other forms of unwanted sexual contact that do not rise to the level of rape. These types of abuse are somewhat more common but still far from universal, affecting 27.2% of women and 11.7% of men. Once again, when we look at the 12-month prevalence statistics, the gender gap narrows to the point of vanishing, with 2.2% of women and 2.3% of men reporting victimization over the course of a single year.
Domestic violence statistics
Having discussed sexual abuse at length, let us now turn our attention to domestic violence. It is true that women are more likely to experience the most serious forms of domestic violence, which can culminate in stalking and murder. However, 30% of the victims of intimate partner homicides are men. Even for this rarest and most severe form of violence, male victims are far from negligible. Less severe forms of intimate partner violence are both more common and more evenly distributed.
Domestic violence is indeed a scourge that affects people of both genders. According to the NISVS, 32.9% of women and 28.2% of men report having been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives. The gender ratio flips when one looks at the 12-month prevalence, which is 4.0% for women and 4.7% for men.
If we restrict ourselves to looking solely at severe domestic violence, we find that it is less common with a somewhat larger gender skew, with 24.3% of women and 13.8% of men reporting victimization at some point in their lives, although once again the gap is somewhat smaller (2.7% vs. 2.0%) over a 12-month period. Whether one defines it more broadly or more narrowly, domestic violence is an affliction affecting significant numbers of people of both sexes—although it is far from universal for either.
LGBT couples are at especially high risk of being victims of domestic violence. According to the NISVS data, lesbians were significantly more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to experience domestic violence, as were bisexual people of either gender, with a whopping 61.1% of bisexual women reporting that they had been victims. The domestic violence infrastructure, including shelters and other services, was built on the assumption that abuse is male-on-female, and LGBT victims often report experiencing discrimination when seeking help.
Male victims also face gender-related barriers to being taken seriously. ABC News conducted a social experiment in which a woman acted out beating a man in public in front of a hidden camera. The experiment carried on for hours while no less than 163 bystanders of both genders walked by before someone finally called 911. One woman even rooted for the female abuser, saying “You go, girl!” When some of the bystanders were interviewed by ABC, they said that they assumed that the man must have done something to deserve it, rather than thinking that he deserved help.
We also see these attitudes play out in popular culture. Consider, for example, the music video released in 2014 by the country singer Taylor Swift for her song “Blank Space.” In it, Swift is shown pushing her boyfriend and throwing a heavy object at his face. Toward the end of the video, he is shown lying on the ground unconscious with her on top of him, violently shaking his head back and forth and kissing him erotically. While what happens next is left to the viewer’s imagination, it is safe to say that that it is not consensual.
Male victims of domestic violence often face the surprising obstacle of being falsely accused of the very crime of which they have been the victim. One of the most emotionally wrenching scenes of the 2016 documentary film “The Red Pill” shows a male victim recounting how he was admonished by a police officer that had better get out immediately if his wife got violent again, as he would be hauled off to jail if she so much as broke a fingernail while beating him.
A 2011 study confirms that these are not just isolated incidents but a pervasive problem—in fact, men who call 911 for help with domestic violence are more likely to be arrested themselves than to see their abusers arrested. The same study found that men who call domestic violence hotlines or other service providers were often turned away on the grounds that they only help women, and 95% felt that the service providers were biased against them because of their gender.
Other forms of violence
The forms of violence examined by the NISVS are those that are most likely to affect women, yet they are far from the only forms of violence. For the rates of other crimes, we can look to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an annual survey taken by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that measures the victimization rates for all crimes.
The data show that the majority of the victims of violent crime overall are men. The one crime not measured by the NCVS is murder, as a victim who has been killed cannot respond to a crime victimization survey. For data on murder, we look to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports to find that no less than 78% of the victims are men.
The criminal justice system
In addition to discussing the perspectives of victims, it is also important to consider the injustice arising from stereotypes of men in general as violent. To see this, we need only look to the ways that men and women are treated differently by the criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, over 90% of those found to have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit are men.
When a man is convicted of a crime, whether rightly or wrongly, he can expect to receive a sentence that is on average 63% longer than a woman convicted of the same offense. The death penalty is applied almost exclusively to men. While women make up 10% of those convicted of murder in the first degree, they are only 2% of those sentenced to death and less than 1% of those actually executed.
While there is no denying that violence tends to affect men and women differently, the notion that women are always the victims and men are always the aggressors is demonstrably false. All victims deserve our sympathy, whether they are male or female and whether the crime they have endured is typical of their gender. No one deserves to be viewed as violent or threatening just because of the anatomy with which they were born.
Rates of violence against both men and women are much lower today than they have historically been. We should work to devise effective solutions to continue that progress, rather than resorting to using all men as scapegoats for the violence that remains. Competing over which gender has it worse is counterproductive and only serves to needlessly divide us. We must be willing to listen to men’s pain along with that of women, including the perspectives of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and seek solutions that build a better world for all of us. Until the day arrives when that begins to happen, men everywhere should raise their hands and respectfully say #MeToo
Reprinted with permission from Quillette
Gideon Scopes is a pseudonym used by a software engineer.