To say that sexual harassment and assault have been topics of both media interest and general discussion in recent years feels like, well, something of an understatement. I assume that this must be self-evident to anyone reading (in Western countries, at least), to the extent that I don’t especially feel the need to provide citations for this basic, but non-trivial, fact about reality. That said, much of the debate seems to be framed to fan controversy rather than provide insight, and the primary medium of Twitter threads is inconvenient to browse through. Even worse when it’s one of those topics which is easy for average schmoes such as myself to have strong opinions about - calling it a debate sometimes feels too charitable.
But what if one wants to read a take by someone who isn’t a random on a forum somewhere? What if one wants to read something that might actually sway them?
I was interested in reading Citadels of Pride, a book written by Martha Nussbaum and published in 2021, for this reason. She’s a Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and a feminist scholar, she seemed to have a reputation for being smart and nuanced, and I suspected that I wouldn’t be in agreement with her from the outset.
Now that I’ve finished it, I think it pretty much delivered.
The book is divided in three parts:
- A thesis on how the mistreatement of women by men is due to objectification, and how this springs from the emotion of pride,
- A history and review of sexual assault and harassment litigation in the United States,
- A summary of the state of things in fields which function differently than the norm due to the perpetrator of harassment being in a position of exceptional power/status.
Before we commence, an encapsulation of the book’s contents in the words of Nussbaum herself,
this book is, in a sense, about women, but it is really about hierarchies of power and the abuses they engender in people who are raised to think that they are above the law and that other people aren’t fully real.
The Main Takeaways
I’d describe myself as not a feminist, especially in the fourth-wave sense of the term, but sympathetic to the idea of becoming one in the future. That said, most of my objections come from reading or otherwise interacting with feminists who are much less thoughtful than Nussbaum. I was therefore interested in reading her take on what I see as three common feminist ideas (or, let’s be real, hashtags):
#YesAllMen: This slogan encapsulates the idea that yes, it is in fact all men who are responsible for perpetuating rape culture, whatever this nebulous term means. (To Nussbaum’s credit, she defines terms carefully and as far as I recall didn’t resort to vague intuitions about ‘rape culture’ or ‘the patriarchy’ a single time.)
How Nussbaum instead phrases it is that, while clearly not all men sexually harass women, they also don’t tend to stand up for the rights of women in such situations. She gives this as an explanation for how workplace harassment could be perpetuated by a workplace culture, even if only one or two men were doing the actual harassing.
I’m not sure that I buy this, or at least not as broadly as Nussbaum suggests. For one thing, just as women can “consent” to interactions out of fear of retaliation (e.g. losing their job), men around them could be perceiving the same risk to their own livelihood or social standing. Another important factor could be pure ignorance, that the more severe harassment or assault happens behind closed doors, and men networked with the perpetrator or victim may not be aware that it had occurred.
Thirdly, men could be unaware that the woman in question found it unpleasant to a significant degree, in the case of milder harassment. The difference between sexual harassment and a mere come-on is after all in the eye of the beholder much of the time. Since flirtation lives in the realm of plausible deniability, a bystander would have to be confident in their interpretation of events to intervene.
Teach Men Not to Rape: Sometimes I’ve seen the idea floated that rather than teaching women how to avoid dangerous men, we should teach men not to assault women. In theory this seems fine, and I understand that the point is to avoid victim-blaming. Nonetheless, there’s a serious problem - while I feel I have a solid grasp on what it means to avoid dangerous men, I’ve consistently failed to see what it entails to “teach men not to rape”. One must assume that the men most likely to adopt this lesson are the least likely to commit an assault regardless.
Nussbaum has an answer to this. Many, many answers, in fact, for different situations, and in my opinion this is where her book really shines. She seems to view the problem as one of engineering, almost, dispensing with unrealistic idealism: assuming that there will always be bad people who do bad things in this world, how do we set up accountability structures which limit the bad that they can do?
The second part of the book focuses on general cases, where both victim and perpetrator are anonymous individuals. She describes the evolution of law in the United States as the view of what counts as assault under the law has broadened (e.g. making marital rape illegal, or developing the notion that a woman may perceive a threat due to a steep status differential between her and a perpetrator). She also recounts how the view of workplace harassment has evolved from one of individual disputes to one of sex discrimination in the workplace.
The third part of the book focuses instead on so-called ‘citadels of pride’ - areas where, because a perpetrator is exceptional in some way, they receive special protections, or where a culture of male pride is self-reinforcing and encouraged. The examples on which she focuses are
- The Federal Judiciary, where federal judges are appointed rarely and work closely with clerks, who are much lower in status.
- The performing arts, where an individual with rare talent only seems to face accountability once their career has waned.
- College athletics, where both rare talent and a culture valuing stereotypical expressions of masculine aggression can cause transgressions to be overlooked.
She gives policy solution suggestions in each of these cases, which are numerous and in some cases intricate. As I have no background in law (or in the U.S., for that matter), I’ll refrain from going through these. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in specifics, and any summary I could give would be significantly worse.
Toxic Masculinity: Just as Nussbaum doesn’t use the terms ‘rape culture’ or ‘the patriarchy’, conspicuously absent is the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’. Instead, Nussbaum focuses on male pride, an emotion which causes self-absorption and a failure to realize the full personhood and diginity of others. In many places it seems that what Nussbaum means by ‘pride’ is what is normally meant by ‘toxic masculinity’, but I appreciate that she used a different term that comes with less baggage.
Nussbaum makes a bold claim, that pride leads to objectification of women in a number of ways (which she helpfully lists), and that this is what is at the root of men assaulting women.
In the first chapter, Nussbaum cites the book Sex in America by Laumann et al. published in 1994, wherein they present the statistic that while about 22% of women claimed to have been forced sexually by a man at some point after age thirteen, only 3% of men admit to having forced a woman. While some men could be lying, they believe that a more plausible explanation lies in different perceptions. Nussbaum then constructs a couple of plausible-sounding examples of how a situation could arise in which a man and a woman perceived a sexual encounter differently, and takes for granted that “The basic fact of these interactions is a male sense of entitlement, connected to the idea that women are there to do something for men”.
But is this really the case? It seems like a strong conclusion for the empirical evidence which she cites in support, which is none.
A plausible but perhaps marginal effect is the prevalence of serial abusers; it could be the case that a relatively small number of men are perpetrators in a disproportionate number of cases. Then again, it could be that several of those 22% of women were forced by more than one man.
Misperceptions and miscommunications could be making up at least some significant portion of the difference. In one place Nussbaum cites a study [LINK muehlenhard 1988] which found that about 40% of the roughly 600 undergrad women surveyed admitted to offering token resistance (saying no when they meant yes) at least once. Nussbaum offers a simple solution to this: men should avoid sleeping with women who are thus confused. But don’t women then have a corresponding responsibility to be clear, if men are expected to understand their intent?
Which brings up a more general point: What is the responsibility of women in all of this? Nussbaum suggests that now that women are more likely to be listened to, they are to a greater degree obligated to come forward if they’ve been abused. But a less pleasant idea is that it is often also women who reward bad behavior in men; that some women are drawn to men who display ‘toxic masculinity’, either because or in spite of these attributes. Because yes, the young superstar athlete may become prideful because his coach pays attention to him, because he wins athletic competitions, because he is scouted and singled out from an early age. But he is likely also prideful because women have been eager to sleep with him.
Nussbaum is a legal scholar, and views legislative progress as an achievement that’s also caused a shift in sexual norms. But sexual dynamics extend beyond what is merely legal, and attraction seems almost orthogonal to virtue. What are men to think, then, when displaying toxically masculine behavior works?
I’m not a feminist, and sometimes I feel bad about that. After all I’m a beneficiary of a world which feminists helped build, and insofar as I haven’t experienced workplace harassment, for all I know I might have in the counterfactual world where feminists didn’t fight for women’s rights in the workplace.
And I started reading this book in an effort to be convinced. To Nussbaum’s credit, she gives a much stronger and more lucid explanation of what it means in practice to set up systems of accountability for badly behaving men than I’ve read anywhere else.
At the end of the day, however, there are some sticking points that I just can’t seem to get past.
I feel that feminists attribute too much of the difference in perceptions of men and women to self-absorption or malice rather than simple ignorance. Of course there are the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, who are malicious. But most men are not Harvey Weinstein, and nobody (as far as I know) is a mind reader. In everyday interactions, including those of a non-sexual nature, I can’t help but suspect that miscommunications and misunderstandings happen more often than most people care to realize.
The role of women in propping up and rewarding bad behavior and the men who exhibit also seems to get glossed over. What is a man to do or think when he observes that the reality of what and whom women respond to differs from what they sometimes claim?
Nussbaum doesn’t answer that question, and to be fair that’s not what she sets out to do. But even though she is smart and insightful, the question of what women out in the world want of men has always seemed to me to be feminism’s great elephant in the room.