There’s been a lot in the news about sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein taking advantage of many, many girls. You may also have heard that a fairly small percentage of college men are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of campus sexual assaults.
It’s relatively few people (almost all of them male) make a habit, even a sport, of sexual behavior that’s not consensual. It’s long overdue that we’re starting to hold these guys accountable for the trauma and pain their behavior causes, and lots more needs to be done.
Not “Monsters” Versus “Good Guys”
At the same time, there’s one risk to all the attention being given to repeat sexual predators. It can make people think that all sexual assaults are committed by creeps and monsters; therefore decent guys, who “would never do something like that,” don’t have to pay much attention to getting consent. That’s a dangerous way to think.
In fact, many sexual assaults are committed by basically good guys. They may not go into an evening or a sexual encounter with the goal of taking advantage of someone, but things get out of hand. They’re really horny, or they want to prove something to their buddies, or they’re so drunk they miss or ignore their partner’s lack of enthusiasm or outright No. That’s when things can really go bad.
Listening to Our Better Angels
We humans are all capable of bad behavior; we’re all capable of mistreating people; we’re all capable of violence. Every single one of us, no exceptions. The key, obviously, is to learn to contain our negative impulses in order to function as decent people in society. Which most of us do, at least most of the time.
To avoid doing things we’ll regret, things that don’t align with the person we want to be, it helps to consider the possibility that any of us could cross a line under the right circumstances. Then, we can take a look at what those circumstances might be, how we can avoid them, or how we can choose to act even when circumstances are difficult. Preparing to deal with challenging situations is more effective than being blindsided and falling into impulsive actions with negative consequences.
The Booze Factor
In the case of sexual assault, the biggest problematic circumstance is alcohol. Sexual violence is much more likely to occur when both parties have been drinking. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and ability to read social cues (like a partner looking scared or trying to push you away). It makes us more likely to go with our animal instincts, like horniness, than with our higher values, like treating other people well, and even our own self-interest, like not breaking the law.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that people need to become teetotalers. Alcohol isn’t always bad; it’s a matter of degree. A beer or two isn’t likely to turn a good guy into an abuser—but getting blotto is. That’s one reason I’m a fan of what I like to call the “happy buzz”: Drinking only enough to feel relaxed, but not so much that things get out of hand.
To the Good Guys
So, to all the good guys out there: Thank you. Thank you for seeing girls and women as whole people who can be hurt by sexual aggression. Thank you for not wanting to be part of the problem.
At the same time, don’t forget that although you’re a decent person, you’re also capable of messing up. Assuming you agree that forcing sexual behavior on someone who doesn’t want it is wrong, take steps to stay on the side of the line that makes you feel good about yourself.
Go easy on the booze. Remember that it’s easy to miss someone’s No signals when you’re impaired, so err on the side of caution. With romantic and sexual partners, look for a clear, enthusiastic Yes rather than silence or a grudging Okay. Bonus points for encouraging other guys to be their best selves. Visualize how things in a sexual encounter can go wrong—so you can stay on the good-guy side of the line and respect yourself afterward.