Agency in the Modern World

Human interactions don’t always follow scripts, and methods to solve human problems aren’t always obvious. In this case we’re talking about agency–our ability and right to make decisions for ourselves, decisions that will affect our own lives.

We’re going to take a round-about trip, but first, I have a question: Are women equal with men? Not the same, not just alike, but worthy of the same consideration, respect, freedom, and rights that men have? If you answer no, then you might as well stop reading.  On the other hand, I could ask the same about blacks, Muslims, Jews, Asians, and Hispanics.

It comes down to this, if “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal” is true, we need to listen to all those people–today, it’s about women. I have listened to women over the past few years, and it’s been eye-opening.

Let’s start with a movie: Passengers, with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a science fiction tale about a generation ship where everyone is asleep for years as the ship travels interstellar space. Pratt, for unknown reasons, wakes up. He spends a year alone and starts obsessing over Lawrence’s picture in the computer. Eventually, he wakes her up. The thing is, she got on that ship to start a new life on a distant planet–a new job, a new home, in a new place. In other words, she had hopes and dreams, but none of those mattered, because Pratt was lonely. He is important, and she is not.

There’s another movie that isn’t much better–Disney’s Frozen. Our princess, Anna, goes off in search of her sister with the mountain man, Kristoff. It turns out he’d been raised by trolls–and when Anna meets them, they say her betrothal to Prince Hans doesn’t matter. (Hans turns out to be a bad guy, but at the time we don’t know that–and wouldn’t have had to be if the writers didn’t decide Anna should be with Kristoff after she’d chosen Hans.) The point is, Anna chose Hans, but her choice was not important. It didn’t matter to the writers, and it didn’t matter to the trolls. (The trolls flat-out said her betrothal didn’t matter.)

In other words, this disregard for what women want is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t notice it. (As my high school history teacher said, “We don’t notice propaganda we agree with.”)

Here’s the thing: this disregard for women is the basis of rape culture. What she wants doesn’t matter, because the guy wants to have sex. It shows up in lenient sentences for rapists (because it might ruin his life). It shows up in trials where the woman is blamed for getting raped. And in the end, your sister, your mother, your daughter, your girlfriend or wife, when she is walking down the street in any town big enough that she doesn’t know everyone, has to always be aware of the men around her. She has to watch and take care not to get raped. (And by the way, don’t think women don’t participate in the propagation of rape culture, they do.) This makes me angry. My daughter should be able to walk down the street without being afraid.

If we teach our children agency–that they have a right to their own lives, their choices, their careers, even their own bodies, then we can end rape culture.  But we specifically have to teach our daughters this, and we have to teach our sons that our daughters have agency in their own lives.

As a side note, one of the best descriptions of rape (and consent) I’ve seen is a comparison to boxing. If two men (or women) decide to get in a ring punch each other in the nose, it’s a sport. If one guy decides to punch someone in the nose, it’s felony assault, a crime. That is the difference between consent and lack of consent.

If we teach girls (and I do mean children–that we use the term girl to describe women is also indicative of the problem) that they are responsible for their own lives, that they can make their own decisions, and then teach boys that the girls have a right to agency in their own lives, things will start to change. This is the long-term solution for women being afraid to walk down the street.

And remember how, at the beginning, I said solutions to human problems are not always obvious? There is another side-effect of ensuring women have agency in their own lives: these women decide when it is and is not time to have a child. The result is that unwanted pregnancies drop to almost zero (it’s never entirely zero because you can have equipment malfunctions and other accidents). And if unwanted pregnancies disappear, then abortions also disappear (again, not entirely zero because there will always be medical reasons). So, if you are against abortion and want abortions to stop, then fight for the agency of women and girls in their own lives.