(Conversation) – Sexual assaults on university campuses and executive offices may sound less commonplace than the stories we sometimes read about. The idea that rape and assault can happen in executive offices and on university campuses — in secure and guarded environments — can be hard to comprehend for some people.
We tend to see a “sick mind” behind the assaults. Yet sexual assaults in power-structured, hierarchical work environments and in executive offices are suspected to be common. And for every sexual assault being reported in a corporate office, there are probably a thousand unreported cases.
As a biologist, I study the variation and evolution of sex- and reproduction-related genes and sexual differences. As an activist, I study human nature including race, caste, class, sex and gender inequality; and for the past 20 years I have been working with women in rural India to promote empowerment and eliminate violence against women.
What’s happening in corporate offices is a tiny reflection of human history.
Sexual violence against women is not the result of a few odd, bad elements. Sexual violence is part and parcel of masculinity — much of it taught and socialized.
Sexual violence is everywhere
From feudal lord to factory and farm, from army bases to corridors of political power, from Hollywood’s casting couch to corporate towers, wherever and whenever women have found themselves in subordinate positions and at the mercy of the employer, they ran the risk of being sexually exploited.
Of all the gender-based discriminations, sexual misconduct is — in the majority — perpetrated by men. Why is this so? Does a man’s biology influence him in any way? Or is it all socialization?
Sex is encoded in our genes but there are no genes for gender. Males and females are genetically determined and distinct. The rest of the genders in varying degrees are biologically affected, socially learned or self-declared categories. They are all part of the same biological-sexual-social rainbow.
That hetrosexual males chase after females is not new. What is new is that when mixed with masculinity, the same sexual behaviour becomes abnormal, harmful and often lethal in our modern society.
Masculinity and male sexual behaviour are not synonymous. Normalized masculinity implies strength, vigour, potential to compete, to do harm while heterosexual male sexual behaviour merely implies attraction to and courting females.
Sexual and gender violence are the result of masculinity combined with outdated sex and gender-based cultural, social and religious norms.
DNA is not destiny: Biology vs. social
Three decades of research in our lab has shown that sex- and reproduction-related genes evolve faster than non-sex genes in most organisms, including humans. To add to that, male sex genes evolve faster than female sex genes.
The difference in the rates of genetic changes in the male-biased sexual genes lies in male-driven sexual selection and evolution. This is the result of male sex drive and male-male competition.
The male sex drive and male-male competition have far-reaching impact, directly or indirectly, on women’s biological fitness and health as well, but here I will limit my discussion to sexual violence.
The biological male sex drive has some impact on human sexual behaviour, but the majority of this anti-social behaviour is the result of social sanctions. The biologically determined male sex drive is not hardwired and it responds to social conditioning.
DNA is not destiny. All the information contained in the DNA ultimately comes from the environment. Crucially, we also have a brain that gives us the power and choice to veto or override unwanted behaviour.
What this means is that while every man may not be a sexual “predator,” every man has the biological potential to be so. Men will continue to be threats unless the working environment becomes gender-neutral and supportive.
Science is not a justification for these behaviours, but it prepares us to ask relevant questions and seek tangible solutions.
We need an all-gender “feminist revolution” now
Sex is a paradox: On the one hand, we hide it. Yet sex occupies most of our time. We have developed institutions — marriage, monogamy, family, religion, community norms and standards — to regulate sex. Much of the language of our social interactions is directly or indirectly based on sex. Arts, literature, music, romantic arts, even temples of gods and goddesses, are full of sexuality.
The sexual dimension is an important aspect of students’ campus life and we cannot pretend it will take care of itself. However, most of the time, tens of thousands of students — males and females — behave well and enrich campus life with friendship and fraternity. They do not need policing.
Yet sex is also the raison d’être of patriarchy. Patriarchy cannot be dismantled without rewriting the rules of the gender relationship between men and women.
We need an all-gender feminist revolution now.
Men are also victims of patriarchy. Man has become cocooned by patriarchy.
The solution to the problem of campus safety lies in making male students aware, individually and collectively, of the dangers of masculinity. Their social upbringing combined with their biology is a deadly mix for doing harm to others.
At the same time, we must make them aware of their inherent potential for doing good to others.
Inscribing sexual codes on the gates of academia may not be necessary but universities can incorporate a voluntary pledge “to respect, to protect, and to stop violence against women” as part of freshmen’s welcome. All university personnel, men and women, can be invited to participate and the school’s president can administer the solemn pledge.
As institutions, universities are not known for launching revolutions but in this case, doing so may be most appropriate. Universities are currently the hub of gender debates and if a final, all-gender “feminist revolution” has to take place, there is no better place than the universities. Men must lead.
Take the pledge.
And work to help make your workplace and your campus safer.
Sex is fun. Sex mixed with patriarchy can be lethal. It must stop.
Sexual violence must stop. Now.