The Natural Golden Rule

Feminist debates have long raged over what is and is not biologically “natural” for women and men. To those who defend certain qualities as innate, it is unrealistic to hold humans to a higher standard than the limits of our biological programming, or “nature,” would dictate. To critics of this line of thought, “natural” is all too often (mis)used as a substitute for “excusable.” A classic example is the argument that women can avoid sexual harassment by wearing non-revealing clothing. You’ve heard it: women who wear mini skirts and halter tops are “asking for it” because men “naturally” have a stronger and less controllable sex drive than women. Catherine McKinnon put it best, in response, when she said something along the lines of, “Most men don’t go around raping women. There is nothing natural about it.” I would like to offer a second line of reasoning to arrive at the same basic, but broadened, conviction. Even if natural, sexual harassment—and all forms of negativity toward others—is not—are not—okay.

Many women, reacting strongly against the idea that women could be at fault for our own victimization, yet fail to offer a real counterargument as to why, if men have a naturally hard-to-control sex drive, women who try to be sexy are not at least partly to blame for unwanted sexual advances. I call their argument, “yes, but—.” Yes, men have a crazy sex drive, but that doesn’t make it okay to rape or otherwise sexually assault women. Okay, but if you’re going to take this view of the “nature” of man, why is his nature not at least a mitigating factor in an assault? Wouldn’t nature make his actions sort of understandable, even if not totally okay? For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that men are in fact biologically endowed with a stronger and less controllable sex drive than women and that all women know this.

So aren’t women who nonetheless choose to flaunt their sexuality in front of men sort of “asking for” any sexual attention they might subsequently receive—violent, demeaning, generally unpleasant or otherwise? Yes—so long as we allow ourselves to be limited by nature.

But think of all the times you’ve heard someone extolling the ingenuity of the human brain, praising the wonders of technological innovation, marveling at the “uniquely human” ability to overcome or manipulate nature thanks to our remarkable “capacity to reason.” And then think how easily the very same people fall back on the logic of “boys will be boys” to explain, to at least partially excuse, the rape of a scantily clad woman, the unsolicited sexual advance of a teenage boy on a cute young girl. “It’s unfortunate,” they might say, “but it’s natural.” Natural. But what, really, is natural about modern life? Is working for twelve hours a day, enclosed in concrete and glass, and sleeping for a mere four or five, really natural? Is traveling thousands of miles in a matter of hours really natural? Is eating food created from a combination of chemicals we don’t recognize (and certainly can’t pronounce) natural? Is monogamy even particularly natural, for either sex? Is treating someone you despise with diplomatic politeness natural?

Humans have been defying the limits of “natural” possibility for more years than we can count—socially, physically and technologically. As a species, we have adapted to wildly different conditions over time, and (more importantly) we have conformed to wildly different notions of proper social conduct. So if reason is our defining characteristic, let us take charge of our instincts and bring them into line with this reasoning: every human being deserves reciprocal respect. No human being should be treated with offensive aggression or violence; every human being should be given equal chance to prove the capabilities she or he believes her or himself to have. Treat others as you would like to be treated. We all have certain tendencies that need to be forcibly restrained for the collective good. If we only spent less time transcending the limits of external nature—polluting up the planet and wreaking latent havoc on future generations in the process—and more time transcending the ugly “limitations” of our own internal natures, we could achieve real progress towards a more harmonious world.


Filed under Opinion & Essay

6 responses to “The Natural Golden Rule

  1. Alright, that’s great that you can “transcend natural instincts” or whatever. All I know is, every single day I deal with a half a dozen ladies at the office who aren’t afraid to put their assets on display, and every day I have to bite my tongue, every day I have to not give more than a glance, every day I have to keep my eyes “up here”, and I am about to


    It’s completely infuriating. They can run around wearing just about whatever they damn well like, and they never have to worry about what they look at because you’d never see a guy showing off that much skin, but I so much as look at them the wrong way and I’ll be in the HR Office. I like my job, you know. This isn’t exactly a great economy, and I like having a fairly stable income that isn’t reliant on flipping burgers. But I don’t know how much longer I can take this, day in and day out, before I end up just staring or letting some inappropriate words slip out. I’m at my wit’s end.

    Why is it such a big freakin’ deal for women to show off their skin anyway? Guys don’t do it and they still look great. I’ve seen plenty of women who are covered up just as much as us guys and still look great, and it has nothing to do with a large bust sticking out from underneath your sweater either. People seem to have forgotten how much a winning smile and a pleasant personality should be worth these days.

    I’m sure I’m just blowing wind, especially considering how long ago this was written, and since I’m staying anonymous. But if you do this, consider for a minute that just because we can transcend our own “natural” limitations for a while, that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful to an “unnatural” degree, heh.

  2. Thanks for your comment, and for the opportunity to make an important clarification.

    I agree that it is unprofessional and inappropriate for women (and men!) to flaunt their sexuality in the workplace. I would never advocate such behavior. There is a time and a place for every style, and sex doesn’t belong in the office (except, you know, maybe some occasional consensual stress-busting in the coat closet after hours ;).

    Furthermore, the punishment must [always] fit the crime. If some girl is showing off her boobs on the (office-based) job, or some guy is busting out his abs, a wrong look in the direction of said boobs/abs probably shouldn’t land anyone in HR (except maybe the show-off). A comment might land you in HR but certainly shouldn’t threaten your job.

    What I am addressing in this piece is more serious reactive behavior. Touch, aggression, abuse. The “crime” of unprofessional revealing of one’s body should be dealt with in HR, but this transgression in no case warrants or excuses whatever loss of self-control might be involved in a coworker (/anyone) going further than a wayward look or comment.

    Nobody is asking for harassment. But if one doesn’t want to ask for stares and stutters (and, hopefully, a visit from HR), s/he better keep it covered at work.

  3. Tim

    Great post!

    Your mention of the wonders of technological innovation coupled with the topic of rape brought an article to mind that if you’ve not seen I think you may find interesting. South Africa is the rape capital of the world, when faced with the grim and systemic acceptance of this fact within their society one woman looked to technological endeavours to deal with this “natural” element of daily life.,news-comment,news-politics,rapex-the-internal-anti-rape-device

  4. Thanks Timmy.
    Wow! I wonder how many women are opting to wear one of those barbed contraptions. I’m glad it was invented for those who want to use it – who would maybe rather the guy gets his due regardless of how it might make him react (and I certainly can sympathize with that) – but they would probably all be better off carrying a concealed knife. Or, you know what, just openly carrying a big ‘ol kitchen knife. Hopefully this thing will act as a deterrent, but woe to the first women wearers for the beatings they will almost undoubtedly endure…

  5. Being sexy is not anti feminist, rather the opposite, I find women in control of their own sexuality to be one of the most empowering things of all.

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