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Unpacking “Schroedinger’s Rapist” or A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Being Maced

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April 26, 2013

This post is part of a series celebrating Choice USA’s Bro-Choice Week of Action. For more information, please visit our website and take the Bro-Choice pledge

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept (like I was just last month), Schroedinger’s Rapist is a blog post by Phaedra Starling. The article itself discusses the appropriate way for a man to approach a woman in a public place; men are advised to proceed with caution and consideration of the fact that there is no reasonable way for a woman to know whether or not she is at risk of being assaulted. Starling writes that there is no way for a woman to know that the risk of a strange man approaching her is zero.

Here’s the overarching idea:

• Our culture downplays the frequency and seriousness of rape.
• Our culture engages in a constant and subtle level of misogyny.
• Our culture blames victims and diverts attention to the victim’s sexual history, choice of clothing, level of alcohol intake, ect., which makes it unlikely to see rapists convicted.

(So what we have here is a lose-lose.)

This article is doing some really great things:

Firstly, this piece brings attention to the idea of individualizing social problems. The messages being sent to women in our culture are that rape isn’t actually that big of a deal; that if you’re wary of strange men, you’re a bitch or paranoid; and that if you do experience a sexual assault, you were probably asking for it. This article is attempting to, in a relatively light-hearted and non-accusatory way, help (straight) men consider how an encounter with a woman might look from the woman’s point of view.

Secondly, it brings attention to male privilege. Shroedinger’s Rapist points to our culture – coined by many as a “rape culture” – as one that allows lack of awareness among men of the risks that women face, lack of willingness to alter behavior, attitudes of anger when rejected by a woman, etc.

In poking around the blogosphere, I found that much of the feedback for this piece was extremely critical. The most common of these critiques are the following:

1. The article is calling all men rapists.

Not quite. The article means to communicate that it is common and understandable for any woman to be wary of a man-stranger because 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted at least once. Also, keep in mind that this article is an indictment of the society we live in.

2. How can men ever meet women if they all assume that men are rapists?

This guide isn’t telling you to refrain from looking at or approaching women forever. It’s telling you to put yourself in the shoes of women who have every reason to be wary of a stranger man. Chances are, you’re even more likely to meet your wife if you empathize with her.

3. Women are being unnecessarily paranoid. (The typical, women are emotional and irrational and incapable of making sensible decisions.)

4. This piece is not scientifically grounded. How do you know if 1 in 6 men will rape someone? I find this hard to believe.

I’m going to combine 3 and 4. Yes, one in ten men is only an educated guess, but here are some stats from RAAIN:

  •  Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
  • There is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year.
  • 54% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
  •  97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

5. Any man could be a serial killer, too.

This is a misguided sentiment, as the statistics are drastically different. According to the FBI, “serial murder is a relatively rare event, estimated to comprise less than one percent of all murders in any given year.” Whereas, again, every 2 minutes some in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. And 9 out of every 10 rape victim-survivors are female (RAINN).

6. If most sexual assaults aren’t perpetrated by strangers, what’s the point of this?

Once you’ve exchanged names and talked with someone for a while, might you call them an acquaintance? I agree that it is important to bring attention to the myth of the external threat being the only threat. Internal threats are something the United States is keen on ignoring. Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known by the victim-survivor.

7. (This one didn’t appear as often, but I want to give it some attention:) What about men who have an autism spectrum disorder like Asperger Syndrome and have trouble with social cues?

I have two responses to this: 1. That most women approached by a man who has trouble with social cues aren’t going to know that and therefore aren’t going to treat him as such. 2. This post is a response to a social problem, not problems with each man. Think larger scale.

Most of these critiques tell me that the reader has missed the point of the piece. Although I am by no means an apologist for perpetrators of sexual assault, but sexual violence is (I would say) most often a result of a patriarchal system. In that way, our society produces perpetrators of sexual violence. Boys are conditioned by our society to be active rather than passive, aggressors. Boys are conditioned to think that in sexual encounters, they must be the actors. Boys are conditioned to think that sex is something they do to someone (a woman, usually). I’m not saying that all men believe this or that all men (or even most) are rapists, but I would argue that the dominant discourse* – interactions with family, friends, community spaces, strangers, the media – around masculine gender performance asserts that men are the actors, pursuers and aggressors in sexual interactions with women. Shroedinger’s Rapist attempts to bring this to the attention of people in hopes that we will see more clearly the power imbalances in our society and maybe even be accountable for it (and maybe even try to change it).

Despite many feeling personally attacked, I’m quite fond of this piece. The point of it is to address a major flaw of our society, not to single out every man and call him awful. If this article is your introduction to Schrodinger’s Rapist, I hope that it helps you move past feeling attacked and to a place where you can think about privilege and empathy, the ways in which our society fails women, and how to make these considerations become positive changes.

* Dominant discourse refers to the ways of speaking and behaving about a given topic that appear most prevalently within a given society. They also reflect the ideologies (beliefs and values) of those who have the most power in the society.



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