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.