It doesn’t have much to do with knowledge or lack thereof.
As discussed by the New York Times recently, the problem of consent is not due to men not knowing what it is. To say that educating men about the details of consent will stop rape is like saying training in marksmanship will stop gunmen from going on killing sprees; we know the real problem isn’t a matter of making mistakes, but of intentionally doing harm. No amount of education can correct that. The problem is one of morality, not knowledge.
However, the segment of Americans advocating for consent — liberals, generally speaking, bend over backwards to avoid any talk of morality. We try to frame everything in amoral terms, as if by avoiding any discussion of morality we could avoid the problem altogether. However, when it comes to consent no amount of information can touch what is fundamentally an issue of bad intentions.
We can’t avoid it any longer. We’ve got to look at the moral foundations of rape culture.
The problem is that men don’t care about women. This is a subset of a much larger problem of masculinity — that set of attitudes and performances presented as not only good and right, but as essential for men. According to scholar of feminism (and former member of US Army Special Forces) Stan Goff, masculinity is a kind of script which men perform as though they were “method acting”. This script is what drives so many men to act as they do, since they “…make masculinity their vocation. It determines how they relate to every other aspect of their lives.” This includes how they relate to women.
By this invention called masculinity we condition men to be categorically uncaring towards themselves and others. Masculine men aren’t supposed to care about anyone, period. Defend people as they would defend property? Yes, that’s OK, but to care about them is outside the limits of masculine performance. It’s also acceptable to value others as one would value a pile of money, but caring is not like that; to care is to recognize someone’s inherent humanity and worth, to take them into our consideration, to make our own internal state — our happiness, our sadness — dependent(!) on them, which necessarily involves being vulnerable. There is a loss of control involved. Caring means risking something of ourselves, which is anathema to masculinity, as that is built around avoiding vulnerability by securing one’s self against the world. Rugged independence is incompatible with caring, and caring is the motivating force behind proper consent. Insofar as masculine men care for the women in their lives it’s because they have taken possession of them, and so secure them as they would any other part of their dominion. This isn’t something ancient, either, as evidenced by how many contemporary romantic comedy films involve men fighting over women, without any concern for what the woman herself wants. She exists as an object to be possessed.
Put more simply, caring is soft, which is the opposite of virtuous for a man invested in masculine performance. Being hard, however, is materially and socially rewarded: the more a man uses and abuses other people for his benefit, the more money he gets. That behavior is called things like ‘leadership potential’ and leads to promotions and awards and success. It also leads to men trampling all over women as just another realm to conquer.
Addressing the problem of predatory men means addressing the problem of masculinity. Without laying bare the built-in immorality of masculinity we can’t hope to dismantle the social processes that condition men to be uncaring. Masculinity undermines consent. We can’t have a society that rejoices in the brutality of men and then pretend to be confused when men are brutal towards women. Changing how men approach consent means changing how men approach all boundaries, which means cutting to the core of masculinity.
So long as we keep presenting the ideal heroic man as violent and independent we’ll produce men who aspire to violent independence, and who therefore resist in all ways their impulse to care for others, including and especially women. We can educate all day and night about what consent is, but if men are still rewarded for trampling all over the boundaries of others as per masculinity they won’t use that information for anything but improving their ability to manipulate and coerce and conquer women.
If we want men to care, we must uphold caring as a valuable trait. We must take a moral position that caring is what is best. We must uphold those who master the practice of being in healthy, nurturing relationships, while at the same time refusing to reward those who are just out for themselves and their independence. This can’t happen without taking a moral position against masculinity and all the uncaring every-man-for-himself ‘toughness’ that goes along with it.
Men who confuse masculinity with who they are as people feel personally attacked by the notion that masculinity isn’t a good thing. It is no such thing, however; men are OK, it’s masculinity that’s flawed, and those are two different things. Seeing that masculinity is a script, something external to one’s self and therefore optional, is the first step a man takes towards taking full possession of himself. It is the first step towards real freedom, including the freedom to love and accept love. It also opens a path to sincerely caring for women, which makes consent a no-brainer.
There’s an ongoing and mostly-well-intentioned effort to spare masculinity by attempting to draw a boundary between the good parts of it and the bad parts, the latter of which is called ‘toxic’. There’s no sense in doing this, though, because the core of masculinity is toxic. The concept itself is bad. Having any kind of normative gender performance is unnecessary and can only confine a person; what is best is to dispense entirely with gender as a morally-desirable social performance. Instead, we should focus on being good people without the mediating song-and-dance of gender.
To do that, though, we need to come to an agreement about what makes a good person. This is a basic prerequisite for a common agreement about what consent. This means we can’t keep pretending like morality is a matter of just doing whatever works for the individual. If we hold amorality as the highest ideal, then we implicitly condone the very every-man-for-himself approach that supports and encourages rape.
Of what nature is this common morality? If we start at agreeing that consent is something we should all consider to be morally good, then we can get some limited picture of a common morality by expanding from there. To value consent means to value mutual respect instead of ruthless independence. It means valuing as intrinsically good the practice of caring both for one’s self and the other, a state of mutual recognition, instead of manipulating others for our own benefit.
There are major consequences to taking a real moral position such as this. A common morality doesn’t exist if we don’t practice that morality, as a community, in a way that makes it well and truly common. For example, a moral society formed according to moral values that give rise to consent would uphold, e.g., daycare providers as being more virtuous than CEOs. This means basically every ‘successful’ person currently in society is doing it wrong and shouldn’t get any accolades. Magazine covers would feature foster parents instead of business moguls and award-winning actors and athletes. News outlets would breathlessly cover major aid efforts and beneficial civic projects while treating business deals and wars with contempt. Few would have anything good to say about Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or any other sociopathic man hell-bent on power and wealth at the expense of others.
In other words, everything would turn upside-down. That’s why we don’t want to look at the underlying moral issues that corrupt men and lead to lack of consent. The problem is everywhere, on a scale that goes from the entire globe down to our very souls. There is no nice-and-tidy solution that leaves the rest of the rotten system intact.
So much easier to just collectively ignore all of that and keep trying to educate and raise awareness, as if everyone were pure of heart. Then we would never have to confront ourselves and the mess we’re in. That won’t work, though.
The whole story of who we are and what we’re all doing on this planet needs to change from one of domination to one of harmony, from wanton harvest to subsistence, from adversarial to cooperative. So long as we keep living in a story of man-vs-nature we’ll push men to keep fighting and dominating and raping. That is what masculine men do: they use themselves, they use others, they win, they fight, they project their will into the world around them. So they invade women, too. All according to the masculine script.
Turning the world around would involve many steps, but something as simple as a father taking his son to an art museum would help shift the narrative from man-vs-nature, man as user, to one of man as appreciator. For boys to see men in their lives showing awe, wonder, and deep respect for beauty and life just as it is, without any intention of using it, would give them room to do the same with the women in their lives. It would also be transgressive, as that kind of naked appreciation for beauty goes against the foundation of masculinity itself.
When we throw parades for exceptionally caring fathers and husbands instead of, say, particularly violent soldiers, then we’ll have made a dent in the social processes that guide men towards masculinity and away from respecting consent. Then, maybe, men will pay close attention to how be more caring, how to better relate to women, and how to respect the boundaries of women. That would be a real victory for consent. That would turn the tide against rape culture.