At the end of 2017, the Me Too movement pushed an important issue to the front of our collective consciousness: sexual harassment and assault are horrifically common. Often, (but not always!) men have been the assailants and women have been the victims. How has our society made so much progress in so many areas, yet remained one that allows many men to prey on women, often with no consequence? The causes are complex, systemic, and intertwined, and many people are more qualified to speak to them than I am (for a few examples, Dr. Gerald Walton for The Conversation, Anna North for Vox, and Robert Cox for HuffPost).
But one under-appreciated cause of this social morass may be the metaphors we use to talk about courting and desire. New research by Drs. Jarrod Bock and Melissa Burkley explored whether the predator-prey metaphors that are often used to talk about dating and desire affect the way people think about rape. As Burkley points out in this great synopsis of the work, predator-prey metaphors are common in language about dating broadly, not just in recent #MeToo discourse (for example, when a male is courting a woman, it’s common to refer to “the chase,” or a man seeking a woman might be “on the prowl”). Importantly, the language is not restricted to men pursuing women — the predators and prey can be any gender. But the research focused on the most common predator-prey relationship — of men chasing women.
The researchers found that these metaphors are more than just a way of talking. In fact, men who read a description that included predator-prey metaphors held more “beliefs that perpetuate rape (e.g., women who are raped while drunk or sexily dressed asked for it; if a girl doesn’t fight back it’s not rape; women often lie about being raped)” than men who read about the same scenario, but without the predator language. In other words, these metaphors encouraged specific patterns in thought, consistent with thinking of men as predators and women as prey.
This does not mean that after a man hears the song “Animals” by Maroon 5, he’ll go out and rape the next woman he sees. But it does suggest that the more he hears language like the lyrics of Maroon 5’s song (“Baby I’m preying on you tonight/ Hunt you down eat you alive/ Just like animals”) the more normal it might be in his mind to take advantage of women — to prey on them.
Even though I think we should nix predator metaphors, I should also note that a number of women have appropriated these metaphors, using them in a way that empowers women speaking out. The hashtag #WomenWhoRoar shows that women don’t have to be relegated to prey.
Appropriation aside, predator metaphors are still dangerous because they perpetuate images of one party (usually men) chasing and capturing the other (usually women). This language contributes to rape culture, regardless of the genders of the predator and prey. The study by Bock and Burkley quantifies this problem, which is all the evidence I need to advocate that we enthusiastically drop predator metaphors from the way we talk about dating and desire.
So predator metaphors are out. While I’m tossing common metaphors for courting out the window, I’ll add another group to the no-go list — sports metaphors. When sports metaphors are used, it’s primarily men who aim to “score” with women, though both genders are guilty of “playing” hard-to-get and referring to all kinds of sexual activities with baseball metaphors (I’ve griped about this in the past). There’s no empirical research showing that these sports metaphors shape thought in unproductive ways, but I’ll speculate that they do. If we think about dating as a game, how seriously are we going to take it? Starting a relationship or having sex or whatever kids these days do… they’re all big deals, and probably more successful when treated as something more important than a sports game. Plus in sports, the objective is to win — to out-perform your opponents. I’ve never heard of a healthy relationship in which the two parties spent their time trying to defeat each other. So sports metaphors are out too.
What does that leave us with? Metaphors are so pervasive, especially for complicated situations like romance, so it’s unlikely that we’ll just stop using metaphors to talk about courting and desire altogether. We need more productive domains to compare them to — domains where there’s mutual respect. Where the aim is not to win or to satisfy a hunger, but to be content, safe — happy.
To be honest, I don’t have many good suggestions here, but I don’t doubt that good possibilities exist. A few somewhat corny clichés might work, like when we say that two people “have chemistry.” When combining the two elements, the product is something new and distinct from the individuals; no one wins. Rather than being “on the hunt,” you can search for someone with whom you “bond” — your “reactant.” Or maybe the go-to American peanut butter and jelly metaphor would work. “I’m just searching for someone to be the smooth peanut butter for my jelly.” Yeah, that’s not weird. Others have suggested that courting should be thought of as a dance — a collaborative effort consented to by both partners. Also intimate, pleasant, and beautiful.
I realize that guys might not rack up bro points by telling their buddies that they’re just looking for the sodium to their chloride, some sweet grape jelly, or a waltzing partner. These metaphors are not dude-approved. But I’m ok with that. #WomenWhoRoar