Editor's Note: In this reflection originally published on Stratfor Threat Lens, senior protective intelligence analyst Mike Parks dives into the concept of toxic entitlement, arguing that men have a duty to police their sexual impulses and those of their fellow men, either through persuasion or established rules of conduct. Stratfor Threat Lens is a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind. Threat Lens enables industry professionals and organizations to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people, assets and intellectual property the world over.
More often than we'd like, we find it necessary to analyze crimes of sexual violence against women — especially sportswomen and travelers — who find themselves alone and reliant on their own resources to protect themselves against sexually aggressive males. These encounters never end well, even when the victims escape serious physical harm, because the psychological and social harms are severe whatever the outcome. Whatever happens, the victim — if she lives — must carry with her a palpable confirmation of what most women learn at or around puberty: Many males regard her merely as an opportunity for domination and control. Any notion of physical pleasure is not necessarily at the forefront of motivations for such men, and they are certainly oblivious to women's wishes and feelings in the matter. As they grow older and gain more life experience, women also come to understand that certain predatory males actually feel entitled to women's bodies and to see that that aspect of the problem is far more common than they might have thought before they were disabused of youthful naivete.
In the past, our approach in understanding and mitigating this subset of injustice and violence has been strictly practical and tactical, treating sexual aggressiveness like any other violent crime and providing the same guidance — situational awareness, avoidance, escape and self-defense measures — as we would for a robbery, a kidnapping or an active shooter situation. But that approach places the burden for action on women. We stand by it, but we understand that it doesn't suffice. If we accept the prevalence of male feelings of sexual entitlement — "boys will be boys" — as part of the atmosphere and leave it strictly to women to protect themselves, some women may get safer, but in essence the atmosphere will not change for the better.
During a team discussion of the most recent example of male sexual violence we studied, a female colleague pointed out that it is up to men to make the world safe for women to live their lives. By this we did not understand her to mean that men have a duty to protect women, although there are times and circumstances when that is true. Rather, men have a duty to understand and police their own impulses, and by extension and example, those of their fellows. As we will see, however, example is not always sufficient; improvement requires persuasion and in some cases, active enforcement of established rules of conduct. The psychological harm that male sexual predation in all of its manifestations brings with it is a commonplace experience, already well understood — by women. Thus, while we gladly invite women's critical attention, this article is really about and for men. Our aim is to help men understand the world most women live in, and why.
A Hierarchy of Needs
We should begin with an understanding of human motivations — particularly those of boys and men — as they interact with the world. We won't delve too deeply into the "nature versus nurture" argument, but it is important to understand the basic urges that we all experience in order to know how best to socialize their effects.
While we gladly invite women's critical attention, this article is really about and for men. Our aim is to help men understand the world most women live in, and why.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow's well-known hierarchy of needs is generally conceptualized as a pyramid. Briefly, the five basic needs, starting from the bottom, are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Maslow theorized that four of the five fundamental human needs must be satisfied, in ascending order, before self-actualization could be achieved, or even seriously sought. In a 2018 article in Simply Psychology, Saul McLeod refined Maslow's concept by separating the five into "deficiency" and "growth" needs. He claimed that — more or less — motivation to secure the lower four fades or disappears once they have been met. But the motivation for self-actualization, he posits, increases, the more the need is met. Maslow's needs may apply universally, but in our view they deserve further refinement. If we understand Darwin (and we must), Maslow's formulation and McLeod's refinements miss an important point.
Maslow's base, physiological needs, include such things as food, shelter, water and sleep, but Maslow doesn't mention a basic fundamental impulse of ours and most other binary species: perpetuation by every male of his own individual, singular DNA. Darwin's "great engine of nature" is not directly based on who lives or dies. It is based on who gets to reproduce. We of course see the need to perpetuate our DNA at the physiological level, but it follows us up the pyramid and often can be found at the very top, influencing our sense of self-actualization. Along the way, it finds expression in each of the levels, including safety, if we consider that absent religious belief, it is one of the few havens people find from the sure knowledge of death. We hold that these facts are fundamental atavisms common to virtually all of us, and as such, they carry no intrinsic moral value. In fact, beyond just biology there are distinctly positive ways these baseline instincts find expression, in the creation of lasting goods — in art, artifice and enduring, beneficial social innovations. Another, mostly (but not entirely) male, atavism is the impulse to dominate and control. This instinct does have an intrinsic moral dimension, although its effects are not always destructive. One example would be Islam's "inner jihad," which counsels dominance and control of the self's baser instincts.
Domesticating the Passions
As George Will wrote in his 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility, successful human society requires the "domestication of the passions." Will was echoing English philosopher John Locke, who in turn was echoing the Greeks. Thus, however out of style that statement may be with regard to postmodern modes of thought, Will is standing on the shoulders of giants when he says it. It is when that process of domestication fails that men make themselves the enemies of women, and often, the enemies of the society as a whole. Toxic sexual entitlement is a spectrum, ranging from mere unexpressed instincts of which we are morally innocent (but morally at risk), veering illegitimately to acts of unwelcome attention, through confrontational behaviors, illegitimate bargaining and coercion, and finally to actual physical violence. Each man occupies his own place on that spectrum, and many of us rationalize our place on it based on our upbringing, our passions and surrounding social forces. But wisdom in this area comes when we begin to see ourselves as women see us.
It has been said that the fabled antipathy of dogs toward cats is rooted in the fact that the two species don't understand each other's nonverbal cues. So it is with men and women, who are united by their common humanity, but divided both by nature and by their divergent life experiences. It is, however, possible for dogs to learn, especially when socialization begins early, and thankfully this is true for men as well. We should pause here to address the imagined question: "Isn't it equally incumbent upon women to learn about men?" To which there is a two-part answer. First, within the framework we are discussing, we should understand that women are simply living their lives, amid what they sometimes see as a hostile environment. Second, traditionally women have been expected to learn to read men accurately, with little reciprocity required of men. We suspect that most modern women have had quite enough of that dynamic. We agree.
Misunderstanding Each Other
Men are stating the obvious when they say defensively, "Not all of us are sexual predators." Women already know this, but the knowledge is not helpful. What women can't know — and seldom can afford to risk — without substantial association is which we are: benign, neutrally harmless, merely annoying or sinister. Therefore, their default position in encountering strange men must be to respond strictly to their behavior, absent knowledge of the intention behind it. This is how people misunderstand one another.
Like the rest of us, women generally want nothing from strangers but benign neglect, except where and when they choose otherwise.
To take just one example, the way women appear in public — their choice of clothing or their bearing — is too often interpreted by men as speech. More often than not, those choices have to do with conformity to a chosen aesthetic that has no particular intended meaning, beyond self-image, utility and comfort. And even when those choices are intended to send a message to others, it is a very selective one. For men to assume these imagined messages are directed at them is like intruding on a private conversation. At its base level, we have to acknowledge that this error is more common than most of us realize. But when the error is weaponized by solipsistic narcissism or other personality disorders, direct action including violence can result. The author and public intellectual Paul Theroux commented on how women choose to present themselves in public: "The fact that women might wish to be admired does not imply they want to be possessed." These are wise words, but they don't go far enough. Like the rest of us, women generally want nothing from strangers but benign neglect, except where and when they choose otherwise. That right to choose is expressed in a modern woman's parlance for a chance encounter with a man not known to her: random as in "Some random guy came up to me and …." This formulation seldom describes a serendipitous encounter.
Intimacy as Currency
It would be naive, and inaccurate, to say that intimate relationships are never transactional, although ideally, intimacy is a gift freely given and received by willing respondents. But when intimacy, at any level, is used as currency in the marketplace of skills and attention in exchange for legitimate compensation, it is a perversion with severe consequences for any organization, especially for workplaces. And withholding any right — including earned recognition or legitimate compensation — in lieu of intimacy is more than a perversion: It's a crime. Neither of these is exclusive to men: People of both biological sexes and all sexual orientations have been known to abuse power for sex. But that power dynamic, at least for now, is weighted heavily in favor of men, and it is overwhelmingly men who abuse it. Throughout the spectrum, including extreme violence, cultures and subcultures that privilege the male (let's be honest — that would be most of them) are potential minefields for women trying to make their way in the world. This is as true in workplaces and other professional environments as it is on a city street, or along a remote stretch of running trail in a developing country, where time and again we see local males committing sexual violence against women whom their instincts and upbringing have taught to see as fair game. These behaviors, along the whole spectrum of severity, poison the air and can do untold harm to the microculture that is any professional organization or group. We know women abhor them. Men should as well.
Example is not enough. Men must go beyond exemplary behavior in purging the culture of sexually entitled behaviors. All men, at every level of influence, must speak out against them. That means, for workplaces and other professional environments, promulgating strict codes of conduct and working hard to achieve buy-in from all employees. These are uncomfortable subjects to address explicitly, but we see all around us the consequences of soft-pedaling them in euphemistic language. In an ideal society, there would be only one law: Conduct yourself with honor, compassion, decency and respect. But we don't live in an ideal society, so vague laws are often worse than no laws at all. Unofficially, companies should build a culture where disrespect for women is not tolerated at any level and where men police themselves and one another by outspokenly rejecting such things as "locker room talk," which is now so commonly tolerated and even participated in. From words, so emerge deeds, much like venomous internet chatter encourages or gives privilege to predatory behavior of all kinds.
Contemplation of this subject by any man — including the writer — is necessarily an exercise in metacognition, alertness to one's own inherent biases. But it is the only pathway to positive change.