“She Wanted It”

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Epistemic Sta­tus: Things I Will Re­gret Writing

One of the most per­sis­tent ar­gu­ments, of­ten left im­plicit, that an­tifem­i­nists have on their side is “Women want to be raped and abused.”

On one hand, this is an ob­vi­ous log­i­cal con­tra­dic­tion if taken liter­ally. Rape is un­wanted sex — how can you want some­thing un­wanted?

On the other hand, I can see why peo­ple might think this.

Don Gio­vanni, one of the clas­sic archetypes of a man who’s at­trac­tive to women, is also a rapist. It’s not am­bigu­ous — in the opera, he breaks into a woman’s house to rape her while she fights him off. No dis­tinc­tion is made by the libret­tist be­tween his “se­duc­tive” charms and his vi­o­lent at­tack; he goes to Hell for be­ing a “liber­tine”, a sin that in­cludes both. We have a lot of art, of­ten but not always cre­ated by men, that por­trays male cru­elty and male at­trac­tive­ness as one and the same.

Men are more vi­o­lent than women. This is a hu­man uni­ver­sal, and true in many of our mam­malian rel­a­tives as well. And suc­cess in vi­o­lent con­flict is, of course, an ad­van­tage for in­clu­sive fit­ness, so there’s an evolu­tion­ary ra­tio­nale for an at­trac­tion to men who are strong and good at win­ning fights.

From there, anti-fem­i­nists of­ten jump to be­liev­ing that women are more at­tracted to men who are vi­o­lent to them. This doesn’t di­rectly fol­low, of course, but then you point to cer­tain cul­tural trends — the high in­ci­dence of rape fan­tasies, the fact that many vi­o­lent crim­i­nals have no difficulty find­ing fe­male part­ners, the phe­nomenon of women who have been se­ri­ally abused by mul­ti­ple part­ners, the pop­u­lar­ity of Fifty Shades of Gray — and you might start to won­der whether at least some women might have a thing for men who use force on them.

I think you have to talk about this thing frankly be­fore you can put it to rest.

So let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s a pop­u­lar book, sel­l­ing over 125 mil­lion copies wor­ld­wide. It was also writ­ten by a self-pub­lished au­thor and gained pop­u­lar­ity through word of mouth; al­most all crit­ics re­viewed it poorly; so its pop­u­lar­ity is an un­usu­ally strong sig­nal that peo­ple gen­uinely like it. No­body is buy­ing this book to im­press peo­ple.

And it’s a de­scrip­tion of a woman in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship with a rapist. I recom­mend Per­voc­racy’s very funny live­blog of the book for refer­ence.

The ques­tion Per­voc­racy asks is — why are peo­ple into this? Sure, there’s sex and BDSM with a hand­some billion­aire, and sure, some peo­ple find rape scenes or dan­ger ex­cit­ing, but Chris­tian Grey is also just kind of pet­tily mean. He’s con­trol­ling and pee­vish and con­sis­tently makes Ana mis­er­able. He keeps her iso­lated from her friends and fam­ily. This book is in­tended to be erot­ica. What’s erotic about a guy treat­ing you re­ally badly?

Per­voc­racy doesn’t get it (or says he doesn’t for rhetor­i­cal effect) but I think I do. The abuse isn’t be­ing read as wish-fulfill­ment, but as verisimil­i­tude. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if the au­thor and many of the fans have been in abu­sive re­la­tion­ships or grew up in abu­sive house­holds. It feels re­al­is­tic and re­lat­able that the main char­ac­ter has the ex­pe­riences and feel­ings that they did. The emo­tional punch of her suffer­ing is cathar­tic. She’s sob­bing her­self to sleep? Yeah, I know that feel.

It’s a hu­man de­sire to have your ex­pe­riences val­i­dated — in the sense of get­ting con­fir­ma­tion that you re­ally did ex­pe­rience what you did. Some­times you get val­i­da­tion by see­ing peo­ple like your­self rep­re­sented in fic­tion. Some­times you get it by ex­press­ing your thoughts and feel­ings and ex­pe­riences to other peo­ple, and see­ing that they un­der­stand, and maybe had the same thoughts, feel­ings, and ex­pe­riences.

This is one ex­pla­na­tion for why peo­ple like to read about tragic or hor­rify­ing events. Real life con­tains tragedy and hor­ror. We seek out rep­re­sen­ta­tions (or sym­bols) of these things in or­der to pro­cess them and make sense of our own sto­ries. It was like this. I didn’t just imag­ine it. I am real; peo­ple like me ex­ist. Or, I mi­s­un­der­stood; I thought it was like this, but there was this whole other side of it that I didn’t see at the time.

The satis­fac­tion that can come from tragic fic­tion doesn’t feel like “this makes me happy” but rather “this is true.” We want the world to make sense.

A clas­sic and maybe even defin­ing fea­ture of abuse is that the abused per­son is made to feel that it is nor­mal or even right for them to be harmed. They’re told “You de­serve it.” Or “this is just what re­la­tion­ships or fam­i­lies are like.” Or “you aren’t be­ing harmed, you’re fine.” Over time, abused peo­ple may come to be­lieve this.

And peo­ple who deeply be­lieve that it is nor­mal or right for them to be harmed may ex­pose them­selves to harm again, in or­der to con­firm or val­i­date their model of the world. This is what “self-harm” or “self-de­struc­tive be­hav­ior” is. It’s not that the harm makes them happy. It’s that it makes them right.

If you take the pre­dic­tive pro­cess­ing model se­ri­ously, the pri­mary thing the brain does is try to be proven right — to ad­just men­tal mod­els and be­hav­ior un­til the brain can con­firm “yep, I think it’s this way, and it is.” In other words, val­i­da­tion is the thing we seek to max­i­mize. This is both the source of our abil­ity to ac­cu­rately model the world (we’re in­cen­tivized to cre­ate cor­rect mod­els) and to de­ceive our­selves (we’re in­cen­tivized to dis­tort our per­cep­tions to con­form to our ex­ist­ing mod­els.)

On this model, peo­ple may en­gage in self-de­struc­tion even if it doesn’t make them happy be­cause it makes them right about how the world works, and that’s more im­por­tant to a mind that runs on pre­dic­tive pro­cess­ing.

(In­ci­den­tally, it’s illu­mi­nat­ing that there’s an am­bi­guity in lan­guage be­tween “valid” mean­ing “gen­uinely ex­ists, is in fact a real thing” and “valid” mean­ing “good or worth seek­ing out.” For in­stance, that am­bi­guity shows up in Song of My­self where the nar­ra­tor seems to equiv­o­cate be­tween say­ing “ev­ery­thing in re­al­ity, even the hor­rible parts, re­ally ex­ists” and “ev­ery­thing in re­al­ity is good and I bless it all.” It’s pos­si­ble that the mind im­ple­ments aver­sion us­ing the same pre­dic­tive-pro­cess­ing mechanism it uses for truth, such that what we’re ac­tu­ally do­ing when we hate or op­pose some­thing is, on some level, at­tempt­ing to ex­e­cute the “this does not ex­ist” op­er­a­tion. We keep try­ing to delete it from the top-down pre­dic­tive model, but it per­sists, and the re­sult­ing mis­match at­tracts at­ten­tion and is per­ceived as aver­sion.)

So, go­ing back to abuse.

Maybe abused peo­ple re­ally do have a higher risk of seek­ing out a rep­e­ti­tion of the harm they ex­pe­rienced and were taught to be­lieve was nor­mal. This self-de­struc­tive be­hav­ior would show up in their choices of part­ners, their me­dia con­sump­tion, their imag­i­na­tions, etc. It would com­port with the com­mon-sense ob­ser­va­tion that abused peo­ple some­times end up fucked up. It would fit with the com­mon ther­apy goal of teach­ing these peo­ple to tell a new story about their ex­pe­riences — that they don’t de­serve to be treated with cru­elty, that the rea­son they suffered was that they en­coun­tered a cruel per­son (or sev­eral), that even though life can be harsh, they can still make the best of it.

So I think the an­tifem­i­nist ac­count is con­fus­ing cause and effect. It’s not that women want men to hurt them. It’s that men hurt women a lot.

***

“How could I have wronged her? She had five boyfriends be­fore me who did the same thing I did!”

Well, no. You’re im­plic­itly work­ing on re­vealed prefer­ence the­ory here, when it isn’t war­ranted. “She must have wanted it, be­cause it hap­pened to her re­peat­edly” is just un­true. It could be bad luck, with no agency on her part at all. And this isn’t prob­a­bil­is­ti­cally im­plau­si­ble, be­cause bad luck tends to com­pound — when one per­son harms you, you can eas­ily be put at prac­ti­cal dis­ad­van­tages (like poverty) that put you in a vuln­er­a­ble po­si­tion that makes it eas­ier for other peo­ple to fur­ther harm you.

But even if there were agency on her part in seek­ing out abusers, peo­ple do not only op­ti­mize for their own well-be­ing. Peo­ple also, and in fact pri­mar­ily, op­ti­mize for val­i­da­tion.

In other words, “Con­grat­u­la­tions, ass­hole! Even if you’re right, you found some­one who was hurt­ing her­self and de­cided you’d help her along.”

Re­vealed prefer­ence the­ory is an at­tempt to avoid pa­ter­nal­ism by as­sum­ing that peo­ple know what’s good for them­selves bet­ter than they know what’s good for oth­ers. Peo­ple are differ­ent from each other, what’s good for some peo­ple is not good for oth­ers, and so it can be a prac­ti­cal sim­plify­ing as­sump­tion to be­have as though what peo­ple choose is what’s best for them.

But it’s ob­vi­ously true that what a per­son chooses, and what’s best for them, are not iden­ti­cal.

What’s ac­tu­ally good for a per­son is a com­plex, hard-to-spec­ify thing which we can hand­wave with a word like “flour­ish­ing” or “eu­daimo­nia.” It’s hard to spec­ify, but we don’t know zero things about it. In mod­ern, col­lo­quial lan­guage, I think the best word we have for the thing is healthy, as in, “make healthy choices,” and in close anal­ogy with the con­cept of phys­i­cal health. Some­one who is in pain, or phys­i­cally dam­aged, is less healthy. So is some­one who’s chron­i­cally mis­er­able, or hel­pless, or keeps get­ting them­selves into situ­a­tions that cause them or oth­ers dis­tress, or is stuck pur­su­ing a very ob­ses­sive and limited and sim­plis­tic sort of satis­fac­tion that’s more like “pain re­lief” than “joy”.

You shouldn’t be (in­ten­tion­ally, avoid­ably) mak­ing peo­ple less healthy. You shouldn’t fuck peo­ple up. You can’t always know what will fuck peo­ple up, so it’s a good idea to listen to what they say and honor their au­ton­omy. But if they say “this is fine” and then it harms them, that’s a bad out­come. And the more you could have pre­dicted the harm, the more li­able you are.

Le­gal frame­works, in­clud­ing con­cepts of rights, are con­struc­tions that in­di­cate which moral bound­aries will be en­forced within a so­ciety; they’re not the whole of moral­ity it­self. There are im­moral ac­tions that it would be highly im­prac­ti­cal and un­de­sir­able to make ille­gal.

So I be­lieve that you shouldn’t have sex or get in a re­la­tion­ship with some­one if you have strong, jus­tified rea­son to be­lieve it will be bad for them. You should also, of course, re­spect con­sent. That’s the part that can (im­perfectly) be en­forced by law. But you also have to use a rea­son­able amount of your own judg­ment. And, yes, this means that learn­ing ac­cu­rate mod­els of what is good and bad for peo­ple’s wellbe­ing is a part of be­hav­ing eth­i­cally.

“But what looks like an un­healthy cop­ing mechanism may ac­tu­ally be the best thing for a per­son!” Yeah, well, I didn’t say “make snap judg­ments about what things look like,” but “try your best to un­der­stand how things are.”

***

I used to think that peo­ple had some­thing like a Thanatos drive, a death wish or will-to-harm self and oth­ers. I now think this is more par­si­mo­niously ex­plained as a spe­cial case of the uni­ver­sal drive for val­i­da­tion. If you were at­tacked and gaslit into be­liev­ing it was okay, you may be driven to at­tack oth­ers or to sub­ject your­self to at­tack again, just to make your world make sense again and re­solve the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.

When that’s what’s go­ing on, it’s like a snarl in the fabric of in­cen­tives. Things nat­u­rally go down and farther down, to more death and de­struc­tion. I sup­pose you could say that the peo­ple in­volved “want” that, in the very nar­row sense that their brains are driv­ing them to do it, but it clearly isn’t good for them.

You can’t always fix one of those tan­gles from the out­side, but it’s a good idea to stop it from spread­ing, in­ter­rupt it, get peo­ple out of it when they have a de­cent chance of re­cov­ery, and so on.

From in­side one of those tan­gles, it may be self-con­sis­tent, but it’s ter­rible, like Thamiel’s po­si­tion in Un­song.

If you’re not Thamiel or one of his minions, you have no rea­son to co­op­er­ate with him, and ev­ery rea­son to op­pose him. You can’t talk him out of his in­ter­nally-con­sis­tent op­po­site-day moral­ity — but you sure as hell (pun in­tended) shouldn’t try to talk your­self into it.

And, like­wise, if you see some­one who ap­pears to be op­ti­miz­ing for the op­po­site of health and hap­piness, you shouldn’t help them with that goal on the grounds of “re­vealed prefer­ence.” It’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to make you healthy and happy ei­ther.