Friday, 20 March 2015

“Drives” and human behaviour

So I’ve been having a conversation with my friend Wolfboy in the comments to my recent post about Richard Dawkins – or rather, about the Drive Threshold Model that Dawkins discovered and what it teaches us about rape culture, i.e. that even if rapists are motivated by sex desire, “not dressing like a slut” still isn’t going to be an effective precaution against rape. And I was just on the point of writing another big reply as an addendum to my existing reply, when it occurred to me that the points I wanted to talk about could make their own blog post, which I’m accordingly writing now. Well, when I say “writing”, a lot of it is copypasted from that conversation.

In the original post I made a slightly misleading analogy:

It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

The misleading bit was where I linked one’s level of hunger to how long it’s been since they’ve had food. That is how hunger works, more or less, but it’s not how sexual desire works. I mean, OK, there is a sort of urgent edge of feeling that builds up over time like that, but it can be discharged by, shall we say, taking matters into one’s own hands. Your level of attraction to other people doesn’t drop down when you have sex and then steadily build up again.

Wolfboy made a cogent response:

I think the complicating factor with sex drives and rape as compared to hunger and food is that a) without food you’ll die, so the drive is a bit more fundamental and b) you don’t need to have any sort of relationship with your food while you do need to decide what sort of relationship you want with a sex partner.

Morally and rationally, Wolfboy is correct. The problem is, we’re talking about drives here. It’s not that your instinctive feelings are above the plane of dry logic and beyond all scientific ken or any such poppycock; emotional reactions can readily be analysed as strategic responses to events (and the fact that they don’t share their rationales with the brain’s conscious workspace turns out to be part of the strategy). No, where things go wrong is that “you” are not the author of your drives. They come from the structure and chemistry of your brain, and that’s not made by, or for, “you” – “you” don’t even exist until it’s been running for months and well on the way towards completion. Your brain is made by your genes (yes, yes, in interaction with the environment, that doesn’t change the point here) and your genes are just as dead if you fail to have sex as they are if you neglect to eat. And genes try not to be dead.

But that is no manner of excuse for predatory sexual behaviour (the “My sex drive was so strong I couldn’t help myself” kind of bullshit). The very fact that sex desire feels so overwhelming sometimes is a sign that it isn’t, in fact, an unstoppable force. Strong emotions tend to come with drives whose fulfillment frequently requires careful planning – lust, erotic love, parental love, anger – or else with drives to avoid rather than seek things – fear, disgust, shame, grief. Our genuinely unstoppable drives are felt as prosaic physical sensations, like the need to breathe or to urinate. Why should this be?

It helps if you think of consciousness as a sort of committee meeting in the brain. A very rowdy committee meeting – maybe a session of Parliament. The Ministers concerned with danger (Right Hon. Fear), contaminating substances (Right Hon. Disgust), social rejection (Right Hon. Shame), and loss of loved ones (Right Hon. Grief) speechify either to mobilize action against impending catastrophes or to compile lessons learned from recent catastrophes. The Ministers concerned with sex (Right Hons. Lust and Erotic Love), childcare (Right Hon. Parental Love), and vengeance (Right Hon. Anger) rant and declaim because the House may just bypass their concerns altogether if they don’t make a convincing case. The Honourable Members who are constitutionally guaranteed to get what they want in good time don’t need to shout.

And that links in to what Wolfboy says about sex involving a relationship where eating doesn’t. I’m not sure he’s completely right about the second part. You don’t need a relationship with the food, but you generally do need some kind of relationship, at the very least a non-theft relationship, with the person who provides it to you. I feel a strong natural desire for sweet and/or oily foods, inherited from millions of years of fruit- and nut-eating ancestors, but you don’t see me scoffing chocolate ginger straight out of the supermarket bulk bins. Clearly, then, however strong my chocolate-hunger may be, I retain conscious control of its expression; I act on it in non-harmful ways, guided by social norms and by my reason. There is no reason to do otherwise with sex.

Wolfboy pointed out that

Counter to the popular “criminals are monsters” thesis, most rapists are rational human beings who come to the rational (if awful) conclusion that it’s far safer for them to target someone who’s an easier mark than a total stranger in a park. A far more popular strategy is to pick on someone they have prior connection with and either socially isolate them or incapacitate them with drugs or alcohol (or both).

Again, he’s right, but the “don’t dress like a slut” precaution was never intended to prevent date rape or marital rape in any case. Many of the people who recommend “not dressing like sluts” are the same people who argue “A man who pays for a date has earned something in return” or “When you’re married you’ve got a right to expect some sex, haven’t you?” But while few rapists hide in bushes and leap out at lonely passers-by, there’s a more common situation where a man at a party or a bar seems friendly at first but is practised at manipulating women into a position where they’re alone with him or too drunk to resist. There again the attacker has a choice of targets before initiating the action, so it could be argued that making oneself undesirable as a target might be a workable countermeasure. What scotches that argument is the Drive Threshold Model. A man prepared to do that kind of thing probably most often does it when he’s feeling horny right now god damn it, that is, when his sex drive is above the threshold at which his victim’s attire makes any difference.

Wolfboy agreed:

I think that’s true, I just thought that was worth mentioning because I think the people you allude to who think a man is “owed something” on a date, also tend to minimize the amount of rape between acquaintances because they have a narrative of “real” rape that they’re trying to uphold (as a way to control women’s sexuality, whether that’s conscious on their part or not)...
I think the drive threshold thing is quite possibly relevant to when someone might attempt rape, but I think there’s probably a decision that gets made earlier about whether rape is a strategy that they’re willing to use in the first place.

Wolfboy raises an excellent point here. The horny right now god damn it frame of mind does not make it OK to disregard consent, not even “OK” in the weak sense of “Well, I disapprove of his actions, but in the circumstances what was he to do?” It is the disregard for consent, not the horniness, that makes someone a rapist. There will be single guys out there looking for sex who are committed to respecting their partners’ consent. And the precautions so often recommended for not getting raped just happen to close down the options available to any single woman trying to hook up with one of those guys. Is that the point, perhaps?

I think the mindset behind the contradictory sexual values of patriarchy is basically: each man is simultaneously trying to guarantee himself sex, and exclude other men from it. It’s easiest to understand if you assume that the men basically think of women as livestock producing a commodity. You don’t want your goats stolen, but you also don’t want them to wander off of their own accord. There’s a small difficulty, of course, in that women aren’t in fact goats, and that if you try and pen them or tether them they will gang up on you, and quite likely recruit your rivals as allies. You have to resort to making rules about sexual conduct and hoping they’re internalized as “morality”. But such men also want to leave wiggle-room in the rules for when it’s OK to have sex with women that don’t belong to them, and generally it comes down to “sluts are fair game”. As it happens, women don’t want to be “fair game” and will therefore adhere to the norm rather than be seen as “sluts”. That’s a benefit for such men as possess women of their own, but it comes at the cost of there being fewer unclaimed women to have sex with, which is why I think it’s a side-effect rather than the main point of the plan.

All of which is horrible, but it highlights a major point: absent counteracting social norms, the default human attitude to strangers is predatory. That sounds more surprising than it is. A typical example of predatory behaviour would be if you snaffled an unattended umbrella from a library foyer on a day pouring with rain. You’re getting something you want at someone else’s expense; that’s predatory. And if your response to this reflection is to start making up excuses that conveniently blame your victim for giving you the opportunity (“If they still wanted it they wouldn’t have left it”), that too is typical human behaviour, with analogues in slut-shaming and rape culture. We don’t do this to our family or friends, but if there are limits on how much you would harm a stranger for your own benefit, those limits come from internalized social norms (unless you’ve developed your own moral philosophy from scratch). Any straight man who is not willing to commit rape has had his consciousness raised to the humanity of women at some point in the past. There will not be a generation that doesn’t need to be educated about consent for the foreseeable future.

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