October 24, 2012

Schrödinger’s Rapist

schrodingers cat is off todayIf you are a regular reader of the more feminist-oriented of the Freethought Blogs, Skepchick, or other feminist blogs, odds are good that you have heard of Schrödinger’s Rapist. Even if you actively avoid such blogs, you've likely encountered reactions to Schrödinger’s Rapist on other blogs. I have read the infamous Schrödinger’s Rapist post a few times, and I'd like to share my reactions. I suspect that they may be a bit different from what you've read elsewhere.


To provide a bit of context for my comments, I want to point out that the Schrödinger’s Rapist post is highly derivative (i.e., unoriginal). I read a few very similar articles back in the 1990s when I was learning about feminist and multicultural theories in graduate school. Some dealt with women and rape in virtually the same way; others dealt with the subtle forms of racism experienced by members of many ethnic minority groups.

What these articles had in common was that they were tools designed to inform readers about privilege. When I note that Schrödinger’s Rapist is derivative, I do so not to criticize it but to place it in this broader context. Being derivative in this case is a good thing, as the post belongs to this tradition. This is why it sounded so familiar when I first read it.

The Value of Schrödinger’s Rapist

Articles like this are not designed to bash men or to assert that all men are rapists. Rather, they are intended to provoke thought and stimulate discussion of privilege. In the U.S., male privilege and White privilege are similar to Christian privilege in that those of us who belong to these categories (i.e., White men) do not naturally go around thinking of ourselves as privileged. Schrödinger’s Rapist is one of many pieces of writing aimed at raising awareness of privilege, much like many of us have attempted to do with Christian privilege.

The value of Schrödinger’s Rapist lies in the strong reactions it elicits, positive and negative, if we assume that these reactions lead to meaningful dialogue. Articles like this can be extremely effective in raising awareness and prompting discussion. Having had the opportunity to discuss (and debate) articles like this in a mixed-gender group of about 12 graduate students, I can attest to how powerful they can be. They do bring up strong feelings, but in the right environment, that is precisely what is needed.

When an article like this is widely disseminated on the Internet, many who encounter it lack the context I described. Instead, it reads like a paranoid attack on men. It is dismissed, dissected, and disputed but not really discussed. That is not to say that some might not read it and broaden their perspective as a result, but I suspect that articles like this are far less effective on the Internet than as fodder for small group interaction.

Reactions and Their Implications

Predictably, reactions to Schrödinger’s Rapist in the atheist community seem to be split along the usual lines. We have PZ Myers praising it as the ultimate guide for men who want to interact with women. And we have countless others dismissing it as paranoid rantings and man-bashing. These reactions highlight one of the larger divisions in our community today and should surprise no one.

I find myself taking a somewhat different position. Personally, my attitude toward Schrödinger’s Rapist is quite favorable. I recognize what it is trying to do. I have seen how effective articles like this can be. I could even see myself using this post in a class to stimulate discussion on privilege, much as I have done before with similar articles. At the same time, I understand why we are seeing many of the strong negative reactions to the post. Without my background and knowledge of the larger context, I'd likely react the same way.

Separated from this context, the protagonist of Schrödinger’s Rapist seems hypervigilant and even a tad paranoid. In my experience, most women (and this includes some with a history of sexual assault) do not live like this. They do not regard all men as potential threats, constantly scanning their environments for warning signs and the like. This woman sounds like she may be suffering from a fairly severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, but of course, that is not the point of the post.

Does the post offer some decent advice for men wanting to approach unknown women? Sure. It tells men to listen and pay attention to social cues. It tells men to respect what women say. It tells men to think about the nonverbal signals they are sending. It tells men to recognize that women will differ on how they handle advances from strange men. And of course, it tells men not to threaten, grope, or assault women. My advice to a socially awkward man who was coming to me for assistance with dating would likely include these suggestions.


I think that some of the negative reactions to Schrödinger’s Rapist are missing the point of what articles like this are trying to accomplish. The intent behind articles like this is usually constructive dialogue and not misandry. At the same time, I think that some of those praising it (and simultaneously condemning anyone who criticizes it) are mistaken as well. All this does it make it even less likely that anything productive will come from having an article like this in circulation.

In the end, I think we'd all benefit - women and men - from more rational discussion and less name-calling.

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