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.