Legitimate anxiety

I’m not even going to pretend that you care about my opinion on the Rebecca Watson/Elevator Guy/Stef McGraw debacle. If you feel that Rebecca did not have a right to feel uncomfortable or speak out about it, then you should go read Greg Laden and John Rennie, while I weep for your soul.

I have been particularly troubled by the suggestion that female anxiety over being in an elevator alone with a strange man late at night is of a piece with the anxiety of a white person who finds themselves at an urban bus stop surrounded by black people and then approached by one. The suggestion is that the anxiety felt is the product of negative stereotypes. J. Earl Davis makes some good points in his article on this issue, but this comparison is not one of them. All analogies eventually break down. This one does not even get out of the starting gate.

In both cases, we have a pretty simple set-up. We have a person from one category* (female in one, white in the other) being approached by a person from another category (male, black). The category of the approaching person is the basis of anxiety. Here is the important difference. What happens to the risk if you switch the category of the approaching person? Making this change might alleviate the feeling of anxiety. In the bus stop situation, it is really unlikely to change the actual risk of being mugged. In the elevator situation, the actual risk of sexual assault drops significantly.

Males commit the vast, vast majority of sexual assaults. And, there are quite a few sexual assaults. Unless you are proposing that most of these assaults are the product of a relatively small number of prolific, serial perverts, then this means that quite a few members of the External Genitalia Club have or will have committed a sexual assault. Where would you draw the line at which it gets ok to be nervous? One in twenty guys? One in ten? One in four? Of course, not every guy who is willing to commit a sexual assault does at every opportunity, but the knowledge that a substantial fraction of males are willing to cross that line represents a significant risk.

It gets worse. Given the common understanding that sexual assaults are under-reported, it is both a rational response and a risk averse human response to assume that the risk is far greater than the statistics would suggest. Our culture of victim blaming, shaming, and silencing is what gets well-meaning nice guys treated like threats, not hypersensitivity.

I don’t know if there is some philosophical, formal difference in kind between the bus stop racism and the perception of men as potential threats, but the difference in degree is so vast that I’m perfectly willing to operate as if there is. Not that anything I have said here is of any real value. Are we seriously debating whether or not a human being’s feeling of discomfort is rational enough to be legitimate? Discomfort is a feeling. You feel it. You don’t decide to feel it. You don’t do a cost-benefit analysis. While not “all” women agree with Rebecca, many do. Maybe we should consider that certain behaviors make a considerable fraction of other people uncomfortable, try to avoid those behaviors, and leave it at that.

*It should also be noted that while the biological categories of sex actually exist, there is no good evidence that race does.

Author: Josh Witten


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