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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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