A recent assessment from French women’s groups demonstrates that reports of sexual harassment have increased by 600% since Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged assault of a hotel maid and subsequent arrest. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon.com’s recent piece (republished below) on the correlation between assault and machismo raises some interesting questions about cultural attitudes towards rape and biological tendencies towards sexual aggression – there are certainly no easy, or standard answers that can be pinned down. Gray areas are difficult, and I’m inclined to suggest that Catharine MacKinnon’s definition of rape – that is, any time a woman feels she’s been violated, although not legally tenable, is a good way to open up the floor to the idea that assault is incredibly subjective. More than that, because experiences are based heavily in the cultures in which we exist, culture is a large influence on how someone can feel about their individual incidents.
Practically, however, Nancy’s recent post on a culture of impunity and the NYPD sees that although this is a longer conversation that can be had in time, accountability is still important for a society to enforce and that survivors who come forward must be taken seriously and empathised with, rather than shunned, or blamed. Similarly, persons who have been accused should not be excused as promptly or as easily as certainly as they have been, as the acquittal of officers Morena and Mata has shown – something that a culture of machismo might not be the certain cause of, but definitely encourages. There might not be one cause, or reason for violence against women, or sexual assault, but with that in mind, there is plenty to do to rectify the situation, and that is, to educate, to emphasise how important empathy, and thinking from different points of views are. Let’s start thinking, too, about masculinity and its enforcement through a culture that encourages machismo – cultural expectations are harmful to all, and perhaps we can try to rectify this through open dialogue. That’s the only way to fight a culture of impunity and its relationship to machismo – and recent events show how imperative this is, right now.
Does Machismo Cause Rape?
The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the conspiracy theorizing and sympathy he garnered in response, has reportedly inspired some cultural soul-searching in France. We’re told that French women will no longer put up with the sort of machismo that celebrated a man nicknamed the Great Seducer — not to mention Georges Tron, the junior minister who was accused of sexual assault by two women promptly after DSK’s arrest. At the same time, feminists have been quick to point out that there is a world of difference between womanizing and rape. Seduction is not sexual assault, not even in Puritan America.
All of this raises the question of whether there is an actual connection between an environment of machismo and rape. And that question taps into an even bigger query about how cultural mores influence sexual assault.
I went to Owen D. Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, for some insight. “Biology and culture are inextricably intertwined,” he told me by email. “While sexual aggression therefore cannot be disentangled from biology, cultures that disinhibit sexual aggression against women will have more of it.” To put it more simply: Cultures that accept sexual aggression against women will have more sexual aggression against women.
That seems incredibly straightforward, doesn’t it? Things get much more complicated, though, when trying to clearly define something like sexual aggression, which encompasses a vast spectrum of behavior. French philosopher Genevieve Fraisse, author of “On Consent,” told the New York Times, “Womanizing and rape are of course two different things,” but, as the Times paraphrases, “on a sliding scale from aggressive courtship to harassment to sexual assault to rape, the borders between each of the categories are much harder to pin down.”
I asked Jones, who has written extensively about how biology and culture influence sexual aggression, whether we might expect rape to be more common in a culture that embraces machismo. “Yes, if all else were equal,” he said. “But … all else is not always equal. For example, just to illustrate, you could have a culture of heavy machismo but also heavier than average penalties.” As it happens, there are more reported rapes per capita in the United States than in France. Of course, cultural mores also influence the reporting rate — which not only skews the data but also can affect the perceived risk to perpetrators, which in turn affects the likelihood of assault.
Jones explains that perps are influenced by the extent to which they think “they’ll actually be reported” and, if so, “investigated and charged.” There’s also their perception of the likelihood “that jurors might convict, as well as an estimate of for how long, if at all, a perpetrator might be sentenced. ” He says, “Although no one is suggesting that sexual transgressors think it through like a calculating machine, it is likely the case that the holistic assessment of how risky it is to assault someone is — for better or worse — affected by a wide variety of cultural factors.”
On the one hand, it seems only natural to assume that culture would have a significant impact on sexual violence. On the other, it can seem a disturbing excuse for inexcusable behavior; just consider the recent report blaming child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in part on the sexual revolution of the ’60s, or the claim by Roman Polanski’s wife that his “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” was simply a product of the “sexual liberty and permissiveness” of the time. Then again, what purported explanation for sexual violence isn’t in some way unsettling? Perhaps the most disturbing answer of all is that there isn’t any one cause.
This article initially appeared on Salon.com and s republished with permission. Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter. More: Tracy Clark-Flory