TV Tells a New Story About Sexual Assault

While college administrations dither about the problem of sexual assault and activists clamor for redress, television is doing something about it. Consider Aziz Ansari's new Netflix series, Master of None. Episode 7, pointedly entitled "Ladies and Gentlemen," provides a real-world model of the SeeActStop directive to acknowledge ("see") the problem and intervene ("act") when you see something wrong. Additionally, because the characters are young professionals, the episode points out that this problem doesn't stop after graduation. As the characters pursue their daily activities, the threat of sexual assault is omnipresent--from the theater to the pet store, from the subway to cyberspace. The episode gets to the heart of the matter when Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Dev (Ansari) ask Denise (Lena Waithe) and Rachel (Noël Wells), "What can two gentlemen like us do to help?"

As the question suggests, recruitment of male support is critical to reducing sexual assault. Humans have spent 99% of their evolution living in small, face-to-face societies in which everybody knew everybody else--and everybody else's business. Women typically would have grown up surrounded by male kin--fathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins. This afforded a highly visible means of discouraging sexual coercion: an assault was highly likely to become public knowledge, and the assailant would almost certainly face prompt retribution from the victim's male relatives. In modern environments, however, this deterrent is largely absent. We send our daughters off to colleges and careers hundreds of miles away, far from the protection of their families and armed only with the protection of the law. Laws, of course, are integral to maintaining order, but compared to the hunter-gatherer societies in which we evolved, the path from crime to punishment in modern societies is much more attenuated. Moreover--as shown in The Hunting Ground--in sexual assault cases, that path often leads nowhere. We need a deterrent that packs the same psychological wallop as the protection afforded by male kin in ancestral human environments.

One solution is to encourage "gentlemen"--i.e., the overwhelming majority of men who do not rape--to get involved in policing sexual coercion. It's certainly in their interest to do so--as any male with a relative, friend, or partner who has been assaulted knows. Rape tends to occur when a woman is alone, because this reduces the chances that the perpetrator will be injured or face retaliation. Thus, the mere presence of a male companion can prevent sexual assault. This is because, on average, men are taller, heavier, and stronger than women and thus pose a bigger physical deterrent to would-be rapists. Tellingly, when asked whether they fought back, assault survivors interviewed in The Hunting Ground repeatedly replied that their attacker outweighed them. This point is driven home in episode 3 of Jessica Jones in which, despite her Krav Maga training, Trish (Rachael Taylor) is unable to overpower her much larger male assailant. Clearly, it would behoove men and women to cooperate to reduce the incidence of assault.

This is the solution modeled in "Ladies and Gentlemen." The first step is for men to "see" the problem. Dev is shocked when a female co-worker, Diana (Condola Rachad), tells him she was followed home from a bar by a man whose advances she had politely rejected. He is equally appalled by Rachel's revelation that she was crudely propositioned by a stranger on Instagram when she posted a picture not of herself but of a frittata. Dev thus represents those men who are honestly unaware of the pervasiveness of such behavior. As Rachel observes, "There are a million things that guys have no clue about that are so annoying."

Diana's experience in the bar illustrates what this "annoying" male sexual attention looks like from a female perspective. Without asking, a man (Brian Berrebbi) sits down at her table, declaring "Hi, I'm Derek, and I just bought us two tequila shots." When she politely refuses, he gets angry. Clearly feeling threatened, she excuses herself to rejoin her friends, while Derek blames her for the botched interaction. When she goes home he follows her, and the scene ends with him banging on her apartment door, drunkenly shouting "Tell me where I went wrong." Using Diana's POV enables the audience to see his mistake--namely, his assumption that women only go to bars because they want to have sex and that accepting a drink from a man implies consent. We see this in his failure to ask Diana whether she wants a drink--let alone his company--and his attempt to make her feel guilty for refusing it. It never crosses his mind that she's not looking for sex and that she finds his advances frightening. Which brings us full circle: the reason women find unsolicited male sexual attention disturbing is that, by virtue of their greater size and muscle mass, men can overpower women in a struggle. Thus, a man who doesn't take no for an answer--no matter how politely he persists--is a threat.

The episode also models a way for men and women to "act" jointly to deter inappropriate sexual behavior. When Dev and Denise see a man masturbating on the subway, they do three things that any ordinary person can legally do: they film him with their phone, call him out in front of the other passengers, and declare that they are making a citizen's arrest. This inspires a fellow passenger to call the police, who apprehend the culprit at the next stop. The principle at play here is an ancient one: public censure is widely used in small-scale societies to negatively sanction behavior that harms the group, and is usually sufficient to curb it. This is because, as a species, humans are heavily dependent on cooperation for survival; consequently, we don't want stories of our transgressions to get around, for fear of being ostracized by our social network. In modern societies, where the power to record and broadcast such stories is at our fingertips, this principle is well worth remembering.