Gender and empathy: Men shouldn’t need to “imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother”

Stassa Edwards, a new mother of a baby boy, has a really great piece on rape culture and how we teach our sons about consent. She notes that after reading about the Steubenville case, she asked herself for the first time, “How do I prevent my son from becoming a rapist?” And decided the answer is not as simple as we hope.

Like Stassa, when I watched that horrible video leaked by Anonymous of former Steubenville athlete Michael Nodianos joking about the assault, I was struck by the lone voice of a guy off-screen who repeatedly tries to make his peers recognize that they are talking about rape, and that rape is wrong. It is heartbreaking to hear him keep naming the action, emphasizing the word each time, expecting that will be enough to end the laughter. It is very telling that it isn’t. Nodianos doesn’t deny that it was rape; that’s the punchline of every joke–a dozen minutes worth of them.

It’s similarly revealing that invoking female family members doesn’t work either. Stassa writes:

At one point, former Steubenville baseball player Michael Nodianos says, “It isn’t really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not.” At another point an unidentified boy asks “What if that was your daughter?” Nodianos responds, “But she isn’t.”

Nodianos’s words are telling, because for too long we’ve been teaching our sons to think of the consequences of rape within a familial context (i.e. “Imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother”) and it’s clear that this method of education is a complete and total failure. Boys shouldn’t be taught that only women to whom they are genetically bound are worthy of being treated as human beings because, in part, that implies those who are not family are subhuman and therefore deserving of their own victimization. Nodianos’s justifications (akin to “she never said no”) and answers might be chilling, but they’re also relatively rational responses to the phrases we repeat to boys and consider enough education. No, of course, means no, but such language implies that the absence of a firm and loud “no” is the presence of “yes.” One has to look no farther than the recent onslaught of “forcible rape” legislation to see the pernicious failure of the oft-repeated phrase.

“Imagine if it were your wife/daughter/mother.” Yes, this phrase is almost reflexively brought up when discussing rape, other forms of gendered violence, abortion–really, anything that affects primarily women. But try to picture a woman being call upon to do the inverse: “Imagine if it were your husband/son/father.” It rarely happens. The idea that a woman would need a reminder on how to empathize with someone–as well as way of mentally replacing the object of empathy with someone else who is more personally valued to them–seems slightly ludicrous. 

The empathy gender gap is controversial. While many studies find women are generally more empathetic than men, the research suggests this difference is not innate–and may, acutally, be largely the result of motivation rather than ability. In other words, women know they’re “supposed” to be empathetic, and so they are.

And I’d bet that empathizing with the opposite gender, specifically, is even more strongly influenced by gender roles sexism. (Similar deal with racism, btw.) To some extent, women are socialized to do this simply because it’s kinda required to live in a male-dominated culture. As I’ve written before, if you don’t learn to identify with the men who populate the movies you watch, the books you read, the media you consume, well, this is a pretty alienating world, to say the least. Men, on the other hand, are taught the opposite. As Jackson Katz wrote recently, “We socialize empathy out of boys all the time.” And identifying with a girl? Well, that’s, like, actually the worst thing you could ever do.

Guys actively resist this pressure, of course, because we are all naturally empathetic beings, but it’s there. And it’s reinforced each time we set the bar so absurdly low. When we wonder if guys will possibly be willing to see a movie with a female lead. Or when we suggest that putting themselves in the shoes of the actual rape victim in front of them is too much of a herculean effort to expect. 

As one of my favorite books on masculinity shows–and the science backs up–these myths can be self-fulfilling. A wise fictional character named Jeff Winger once said, “People can connect with anything. We can sympathize with a pencil.” Let’s start acting like that includes men too.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Sarah

    THANK YOU, Maya, for saying this. It has always upset me when people make the “Think of your daughter/sister/mother!” argument. No! Think about yourself and how you would like to be treated; think about humanity and the dignity and respect that others deserve; think about right and wrong rather than what may or may not personally apply to you. Rape is about violating another person — even a man (or anyone!) who has never known a woman or girl should comprehend, understand and believe this is wrong.

  • Anne

    Lately I’ve found that my 4yo son is becoming very rigid about gender in his play–he has to be a male character, and I have to be a female character. I’ve been pushing back on that but only with regard to my character, insisting that I can be whoever I want and trying to get him to articulate why he thinks I have to be the female character. Reading this made me realize I also should be pushing him to try out empathizing and identifying with female characters. Wonder if anyone has any suggestions on how to do that?

    • Sara

      Read him books with girls as the main character. Make sure he knows why girls are like him, and how they are different. Make sure he knows that girls are strong, beautiful, smart human beings, and that he should treat them how he treats all his friends. I don’t know if I would push pretend-play on him in a role he doesn’t want to play, but gender doesn’t have to be involved in pretend play if you are a horse, or an alien, or whatever. But you know your child best – I’m sure you will help him grow up to empathize with all sorts of people. (:

      • hat45

        How can all girls be smart, strong, and beautiful? Doesn’t that take the meaning out of the words?

        • Matt Markonis

          You’re through the looking glass on this one… walking into a kind of no-man’s land.

    • Matt Markonis

      I don’t know if you “should” be doing it. It’s clear that you want him to, but thinking that you “should” is a similarly rigid way of projecting your own wants onto an imagined, external authority. I learned this from a counselor who taught me that “should” is a way of not taking responsibility for my own wants and sets me up for disappointment when I realize that nobody is required to fulfill my wants (or yours, including your kid). Play is supposed to be fun and lighthearted, which rest especially from the constant learning children experience is a legitimate need. This sounds like a recipe for unnecessary conflict, at least potentially. There are plenty of other ways to instill empathy like being honest about how his actions make you feel, limiting exposure to media stereotypes, teaching him about women’s struggles, etc. The other thing I’d like to put out there is that, at least in Erik Erikson’s view, children don’t really begin to go through identity formation until ages 13-19. What he’s learning more about right now is probably autonomy/initiative v. shame, guilt, and doubt. It’s not surprising that he’d value male roles in this phase given the familiar tropes about male autonomy and initiative. I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about, in a way it’s very insightful about our culture. Of course there’s no harm in testing the waters about your own alternative wants. My concern is mostly with this idea of “should” which is part of the mechanics of guilt and shame.

    • Wendy

      I would suggest the book “An Unconventional Family” by Sandra Lipsitz Bem if you’re interested in finding out how one family raised their children (a boy and a girl) in a non-gendered and non-sexist way. It might give you some ideas.

    • caro

      Both my boys went through a horribly sexist period, as a result of going to school. It passes, but I do not know if there is anything you can do to stem the tide of gender identification. Like it or not, your son will recognise that as a male he is better than females – he will not be able to articulate this, and you may be able to resist for longer than most, but if he lives in society he is going to absorb that message. He will not want to empathise with females – in all likelihood. Thinking about your question took me back to that period where my sons learned sexism and male superiority and I felt very saddened and angered by that, but they are 13 and 16 now and there IS light at the end of the tunnel. They are lovely people, with strongly developed empathy.

  • Jennifer Smith

    “The idea that a woman would need a reminder on how to empathize with someone–as well as way of mentally replacing the object of empathy with someone else who is more personally valued to them–seems slightly ludicrous.”

    Though I agree with much of what is written here, the aforementioned statement is simply false. I have witnessed unwillingness of many women to empathize with the oppression of others. More often than not, they are White women. The most recent experience was with my White, upper-middle class mother-in-law who, though well intended and kind, doesn’t want to be “always worrying about what she says and that it might hurt someone’s feelings.” The eldest of her children, my partner’s brother, was bullied in school. I asked her how she would feel if her child’s abusers or the parents of those children said they didn’t want to always be worrying about how their behavior hurt someone else and that her son just shouldn’t be so sensitive?” I think she got the point. However, I don’t expect her to cast of her White upper-middle-class detached comforts anytime soon.
    I think the real problem is a lack of moral courage and one can not have moral courage without “wholeheartedness” and one cannot have “wholeheartedness” without empathy and one cannot have empathy without openness and one cannot have openness without vulnerability. I think the real problem is a lack of vulnerability, because of individual feelings of guilt and shame. People must confront their own guilt and shame (often associated with familial and societal dysfunction, standards and expectations) in healthy, self-loving ways. This is the path to “wholeheartedness” and developing the moral courage to do what is right.

  • dudley

    The challenge of getting boys and men to exhibit empathy towards women as equals, the fact that there was an offscreen voice naming the assault as a rape was a great step. The owner of that voice needs to be further lionized.

    If media and entertainment specifically valued the different ways men can be and are empathetic, boys who want to be the heroes of tomorrow will incorporate that into their identities. Perfect example, tons of movies and media portray a hero actively stopping (by fighting) a rape about to happen (usually evilly clad strangers.) If the hero narrative in our entertainment had more examples of men shutting down Nodianos-like conversations, offering a blueprint for young men and pre-teens, the model it provides would be excellent for young men and boys to navigate our sexist world. Everyone knows that they should interrupt the villain in the dark alley. Men, thanks to the confines of masculinity, are torn between fraternal bonds/self-comfort/social anxiety when it comes to other men’s sense of sexual propriety over-reaches (first in conversation then in action). If a model is provided that specifically tells teens/ that it is ok to vocally disagree then actively disagree, those twinges of feeling like something is wrong will be more easily acted upon.

    I have watched male college freshman refuse to leave a drunk female friend (with whom he had no selfish interest) with his colleagues (who obviously had selfish interests), nearly getting into a drunken brawl over it: This needs to be the content of a PSA.

  • Werner

    “How do I prevent my son from becoming a rapist?” And decided the answer is not as simple as we hope.” How about she raises him to respect and value himself and others – a pretty obvious and simple start. I couldn’t get past this first part … Ladies this thought process is huge part of the problem. The notion that all or most males are potential perpetrators or violence; sexual or otherwise. Let’s not forget a well-known but ignored fact anyway that men are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. The kid in the video is showing dismissive ignorance about rape, if nothing else. Ignorance should not be confused with endorsement or condoning of the behavior. Rape is profound, horrible regardless of who perpetrates it, or who the victim is

    • ELot

      Actually, it is only when we exclude rape from the data that males are more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Why we would even conceive of excluding rape from violent crime statistics points to the larger problem. But I digress.

      The thought process of “how do I teach my son not to rape” is actually not part of the problem whatsoever. It’s the fact that cis men are raping women an estimated once every 2 minutes in this country, and given that 54% of rapes go unreported we can be sure the frequency is higher than that. I don’t have a single close female friend who has not been raped. Not a one. So, yeah, most men aren’t rapists, but most men deny, minimize, or simply ignore the severity and rampant frequency of it, and instead blame women who ask men to not rape and women who wonder how to teach boys and men to un-learn the BS we all learn as the problem, rather than taking an honest look at the culture we live in and consider what they’ve learned from it, their role in it, what it has robbed from them, and how to transcend it.

      P.S. Do let me know if you’d like citations for any of these statistics.

      • Werner

        I would love to see the statistics. Do you know if there are available stats for the risk of incarcerated men and women to experience sexual violence in inmate-to-inmate situations? I think if you look at society as a whole that men are more likely to be victims of sexual violence when you include incarcerated populations … I don’t know for sure. Agreed that a significant percentage of assaults go unreported. I think a lot of unreported incidents have the victim giving consent to a point, and then the attack happens after consent is withdrawn, and they fear that they won’t be seen as credible because they had consented to a portion of the activity … Just a theory of mine. I don’t advocate victim blaming, and I don’t advocate assuming guilt of an accused perpetrator. A an allegation of sexual assault, even if it’s proven to be unfounded can literally ruin a person’s life.

        I will stand by my assertion that I think it’s absurd for mothers of sons to concern themselves with the question of “How do I keep my son from becoming a rapist?” She should start by demonstrating a respectful demeanor towards the boy’s father, even if they aren’t a couple. You can behave respectfully towards another human being even if you don’t respect them personally. The same goes for dad. They shouldn’t be taught to be empathetic to women only. They should be taught to be empathetic to people in general, and taught and have modeled for them the Golden rule. I know that there is a lot of hesitancy to admit this, but there are a lot of very troubling gender biases in our culture, and yes, it’s a two-way street.

        • caro

          “She should start by demonstrating a respectful demeanor towards the boy’s father, even if they aren’t a couple.”

          WHAT? Whilst I would hardly take issue with the sentiment of the statement, on its own, it very much gives the impression that some men rape because women have not given them sufficient respect. I do hope that that is not what you are implying.

          My children have no father – this is a happy and chosen situation. MY happy choice. The lack of father has never made me worry that somehow my boys will not develop into fully functional people, and certainly not that they will automatically learn the hate required to become a rapist. They have higher than average empathy for boys (I would say) as it is something that I highly value and believe to be essential to their psychological wellbeing. But I have NOT specified towards whom they should be empathic – I have taken a blanket approach.

          • caro

            That really should read ‘They have higher than average empathy AS boys’

    • Another Woman

      Oh boy.

      Re your theory of why women don’t report rape more often, and leaving aside the woman-blaming aspect of it:

      Often women don’t report rape because they fear further harassment. They’re not worried that they aren’t credible if they know they’ve been raped. They’re worried that you’re just plain going to attack them, whether there’s any basis for it or not, at a time when they’re trying to heal from the rape. They’re afraid you’re going to smear them, call them sluts, do anything to make it look like they’re the bad actor. And that’s a reasonable fear.

      As for the childrearing part: Werner, if your children’s mother isn’t friendly to you, and isn’t bigging you up to the kids, really do think about why, and what there is in your own behavior that’s turned your kids off. I hear divorced dads complain in this vein all the time, and so often, when you talk to the mothers, you find out that the man’s managed to alienate his kids by behaving like a jerk, but expects the mom to make them love him and want to be with him anyway, and then blames her for not working that magic. All too often the woman doesn’t even get upset about it; she just shrugs and says, “That’s how he is, I just ignore him.”

      Some tips:

      – Actually pay attention to what your children want to do. Don’t force on them things that you want to do because you have some idea that they’re cool and will be awesome fun.
      – Actually pay attention to your children for reasons other than trying to make them like you (best).
      – Notice things like the fact that they have lives, friends, and a mother. Don’t treat them like possessions, take interest in their lives, help them in school, ask them questions (without grilling them), get to know their friends and friends’ parents (and not as a tactical maneuver, but out of interest for you kids’ lives).
      – If they need medication or special arrangements, take care of it (and not as a means of competing for ‘best parent’ title).
      – Don’t put them between a rock and a hard place; respect the rules they live by most of the time, don’t ask them to break them or suggest it’d be fun to do so.
      – Don’t, don’t, don’t force your girlfriend(s) on them. They don’t think she’s awesome, they don’t enjoy sharing you with her, they feel weird when there’s pressure on them to like her. If they like her, they like her; don’t force it, and don’t force them to spend time with her if they don’t. And please don’t let your girlfriend use them as a means of showing you what awesome mom material she is. Likewise, don’t start playing Dad of the Year in order to show off to her. These things don’t end well, and the kids get nothing but hurt.
      – Treat their mom well. Meaning don’t throw her curveballs, don’t let your girlfriend or wife mess with her (deal with those insecurities separately, and don’t ignore them, either), pay your child support timely and without complaining (no, you’re not getting robbed; she’s likely doing most of the work of raising your children while also finding most of the money to do it with), listen openly when she’s concerned about something you’re doing with them, and now and then thank her for all the work she’s doing.
      – Finally, if you cheated on their mom, or were violent, or had a habit, and broke up your family…well, all bets are off. She’ll have good reason for wanting to find them a better role model, and while she shouldn’t be dissing you in front of them, the fact is you really messed up a few people’s lives. And the kids do figure it out regardless of what kind of propaganda their mom puts out. (Remarkably fast, too.)

      In the end, most kids really aren’t that stupid. If you respect them and treat them and their mom well, they’ll know it and love you for it. If you’re making excuses or being selfish, they’ll figure that out, too, especially if their mom’s busy showing them what a solid and unselfish parent is. In other words: Be that man you want them to respect, and through you they’ll learn that men are good people.

  • Darlene

    There’s another sinister side to the “imagine it’s your daughter/wife/mother/sister.” Not only does it separate men from their own human vulnerability and encourage them not to empathize (or be able to handle it if they themselves do become a victim of sexual assault), it also promotes the notion that women and their sexuality are the property of men. The “imagine it’s your daughter” comments go right along with sexist ideas like “Dads Against Daughters Dating” and those things in turn are a slightly more civilized cousin to honor killings, female genital mutilation, and other violent means by which men control or eliminate the sexuality of their female relatives. Men are encouraged not to think about how their female partner would feel if she were raped, but about how they would feel knowing that their sexual “property” had been touched by someone else. It perpetuates the idea that “good” men should control women in order to “keep them safe.” That in turn perpetuates employment and educational discrimination and loss of opportunities for women to socialize, be physically active, and generally participate fully in society.

  • Werner

    @ Another Woman –

    “Re your theory of why women don’t report rape more often, and leaving aside the woman-blaming aspect of it ….”:

    I believe that I said in my original post that I don’t advocate victim blaming, or nor do I support assuming guilt of an accused perpetrator prior to every benefit of due process. Rape is a serious thing, and allegations of it are just as serious.

    “As for the childrearing part: Werner, if your children’s mother isn’t friendly to you, and isn’t bigging you up to the kids, really do think about why, and what there is in your own behavior that’s turned your kids off …”

    So, am I hearing that if my wife treats me like something stuck to the bottom of her shoe, or doesn’t treat me with the same respect with which she’s treated, even if only for the benefit of the kids … it’s my own fault? It’s not possible that she just lacks a modicum of human decency? Maybe she has a personality disorder? Oh, that’s right … I almost forgot that one of the many “gifts” that feminism has bestowed on our culture is that of female hypo-agency … or rather the notion that women are not responsible for their own personal shortcomings, or their participation in pretty much anything. Poor victims of patriarchal overlords.

    As far as your “tips” are concerned, I can’t even dignify that with a response because I’m not divorced, and don’t plan on it … but I guess nobody really plans on getting divorced.

    • Another Woman

      “Rape is a serious thing, and allegations of it are just as serious.”

      Um…I don’t know about that. *False* allegations are serious in the sense of damage to an innocent person. But is a false allegation of rape as damaging as an actual rape is? I’m not willing to say that’s true. Actually my guess is that one recovers more readily from an allegation than from a rape. I hear your men’s-rights agenda coming through loud and clear, but it seems to be marred by the usual “men have problems too, therefore we’re just as oppressed as the people you claim we’re oppressing” attempts at staying on top.

      And yes, in your initial speculations on why more women don’t report rape, you are in fact engaging in victim-blaming. The idea that a woman’s not credible because she said yes up to a certain point…this doesn’t occur readily to people who understand the whole “no means no” business. It does occur readily to people who have the idea that if a woman “led the guy on”, why, then she’s at least a teensy bit responsible for her own rape.

      If your wife actually treats you like crap and gives the kids to understand that you’re crap, and you’re quite sure you’re reading that right, then divorce certainly seems to be in the cards, but I’d recommend not only taking those tips to heart but dealing with your own attitude toward your wife, because it’s going to come out in how you handle your kids and any future girlfriends or wife. Personality disorders…I’d wait for a professional to make the diagnosis. When people are divorcing, every woman’s got a personality disorder, every guy’s a narcissist.
      But you might also seriously examine your own behavior. Given how you’ve written so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw yourself as eminently reasonable and generous, while in fact being not so terrific to her. Frankly, given how you talk about her, I’d advise her to consult a lawyer. You clearly have very little respect for her.

      • Werner

        Well of course an actual rape is more harmful to the victim than a false allegation is to the accused. A person in their right mind wouldn’t dispute that. The fact remains that there are profound consequences for both a rape victim and the recipient of a false allegation. In a perfect world, there would be obtainable evidence to support claims of sexual assault. Usually it’s just the victim and the perpetrator present, and it’s one person’s word against another. Perpetrators of sexual assault should be hammered to the extent that the law allows. There should also be legal consequences for individuals who make sexual assault claims that are proven to be false. I know, equality is a real bitch some times.

        Every day I have to make the conscious choice to value my relationship with my wife more than I value my ego. Being a human being, that is difficult sometimes because people are self-centered by their very nature. My marriage is not great, but I love my wife – period. I make sure to model respectful behavior towards my wife in the presence of my kids, even in moments where I that’s not what I’m feeling on the inside. Sure, I don’t get it right %100 of the time. One of the greatest gifts a parent can give their kids is to show them that you love the other parent. It’s part of being an adult.

  • Joeliyn

    I looked up the definition of empathy: ” the ability to understand & share the feelings of another”

    Like many words, the difference between knowing and understanding, is often blurred. I think it would help, if people are can see the negative consequences of rape and what the victims experience. Instead of saying rape is bad, demonstrate why it is and explain what happens. For instance, show students pictures of cuts and bruising, and tell them to imagine what it would feel like to experience that down there to the point where stitching is required.

    I think it’s hard for people, male or female to have empathy, when these truths about rape are not shared. Rape happens to people of all skin color, age and sex, why are we only barely teaching older kids, elementary kids should know too (parents too). When discussing sexual content, innocence comes up often. However, I think people need to realize that no matter how sexually knowledgeable a child or an adult has, they can can still hold on to their innocence. I like to think everyone has some innocence in them, and that its wrong that society has attach knowledge and experience with innocence. I believe innocence is something we control, I often hear that rape victims say my innocence was taken from me. Would a child of six years old lose their innocence if he or she was raped? I don’t think so, that child can still be pure, it would be wrong to say that child is dirty now, thus that child is still innocent, the only difference is that child is now a victim of a horrific crime. Furthermore, saying innocence can be lost because of rape can only make victims feel worse about themselves.

    Innocence is a good thing, we should hold on to good things and not give rapist the power to take our innocence, I know about rape I am still innocent, victims can still be innocent too.

    From the perspective of a girl who once didn’t know rape victims usually have to be sewn up until she was an adult.