The world seems full of sexual predators these days. But I don’t think good men wake up one morning and suddenly start thrusting their tongue down the throats of women they barely know. You’ve got to walk through a certain number of doors before you’re capable of that kind of behavior.
Most men are raised with a certain way of thinking about sex. It’s the way contained, implicitly, in every children’s love story, in most every classic novel and in the lived experience of most married parents. It is: Sex is something you do with the person you love.
We'll call this the room of love. In this room, you get to know someone and a spark is struck. This could be the person you want to spend your life with. So you begin getting to know him or her better, first over a meal, then through activities.
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All the while you’re trying to judge if the other person is worthy of your love; returns your love. Jane Austen and George Eliot novels are long exercises of character analysis, as potential lovers weigh each other’s merits and flaws.
In this regime, sex is special. It’s the most intimate form of communication on this road of mutual discovery and union. It’s done in a giving frame of mind. It signals that the other person has won the trust of your heart and you are offering up the most vulnerable part of yourself.
I still think most men, when they are children, grow up in that room. But when they hit adolescence a strange thing happens. That room basically drops from common culture. So a lot of men cross the threshold and enter another room, the room of the prospector.
In this room sex is a gold nugget, a pleasure, like any other pleasure, except maybe it’s better and the desire for it is stronger. If you’re straight, women are the people who can give you this pleasure. When you go to a college party or a club, you’re on the prowl for women who want to share this pleasure with you. Most pop songs are about this kind of conquest. Girl I want your body.
In this room, sex is almost like a market transaction. You can measure yourself by how successful you are, which depends on how hot you are or how smooth you are. You can rack up victories.
But a small percentage of men are not satisfied with this room and they cross over to the next room, the predator’s room. In this room, the pleasures of sex get mixed up with the pleasures of power.
Harassment is not just sex and it’s not just power; it’s a wicked mixture of the two. Harassers possess what psychologists call hostile masculinity; they apparently get pleasure from punishing the women who arouse them.
There hasn’t been enough research into what goes on in the minds of harassers, but the studies we do have suggest a few things.
There are no standard personality types. But predators do seem to start young, often beginning their predatory behavior in college. They are not looking for a relationship. Narcissistically, they are unwilling to acknowledge what their victim is feeling. They have morally obliterated that person. But they are far from irrational. They perpetrate their acts in male-dominated environments where they think they can get away with harassing women.
There are three points to be made about this situation.
First, one key element in any relationship is how well you see the other person. In the first room, people see each other deeply. In the second regime, they see each other in a degraded way. In the third regime, the harasser doesn’t see his victim at all. The men who have recently been exposed say they had no idea how much pain they were causing.
Second, the line between the prospector room and the predator room is getting blurrier. On campuses, the few predators use the general prospector atmosphere as a perfect playground for their exploitation. More important, in the public mind the line between unwanted sexual attention and force is growing indistinct.
In the political world, for example, partisans of left and right rationalize their support for Bill Clinton or Donald Trump because they could tell themselves in effect, “Oh, he’s just a horny prospector.” By treating such behavior as “locker-room talk” or laddish behavior, they helped smooth the ground for all the predators to come.
Finally, one core problem is the collapse of the first room, the room of love.
It is necessary but not enough to have a negative vision of what men should not do. It would also be nice if there were some positive vision of how sexuality fits into a rich life, how it flourishes in the private sphere as a (very fun) form of deep knowing. If we had a clearer concept of a beautiful relationship, we’d also have a clearer concept of what predatory behavior looks like and what it takes to eradicate it. In a degraded environment, the predators, who are few and vicious, are more likely to be tolerated by the many, who are numb.