Rebecca Solnit: The Case of the Missing Perpetrator
On Mysterious Pregnancies, the Passive Voice, and Disappearing Men
In a detective novel, you begin in a state of ignorance and advance toward knowledge, clue by clue. The little indicators add up at last to a revelation that sets the world to right and sees that justice is done, or at least provides the satisfaction of a world made clear in the end. If detective fiction is the literature of disillusion, then there’s a much more common literature of illusion that aspires to deceive and distract rather than clarify.
A perfect recent example is the Center for Disease Control’s new and widely mocked guidelines to drinking. They are like a detective novel run backward—if you read them with conviction, you’d become muddled about what a woman is and how violence and pregnancy happen and who is involved in those things. On the other hand, if you read more carefully, you might know why the passive tense is so often a cover-up and that the missing subject in a circumlocutionary sentence is often the guilty party.
What is a woman? According to the CDC, all women are in danger of becoming pregnant. “Drinking too much can have many risks for women,” their chart tells us, [Ed. note: the chart has since been changed. See below for the original] and itemizes them for “any woman.” “Injuries/violence” top the list and “unintended pregnancy” brings up the rear. “Drinking too much can have risks for women including… any alcohol use for women who are pregnant or might be pregnant.” Medical professionals should “advise a woman to stop drinking if she is trying to get pregnant or not using birth control with sex.” This in a few deft, simple strokes reduces all women to fertile females in their breeding years who have what you might call exposure to fertile men. It denies the existence of many other kinds of women and the equal responsibility of at least one kind of man. Maybe it denies the existence of men, since women seem to get pregnant here as a consequence of consorting with booze, not boys.
Women is a category covering a great variety of us who fall outside the CDC criteria. Quite a lot of us are past the age of knock-up-ability and all the uncertainty that goes along with it. Even if we do laps with handsome sommeliers in the great barrels of pinot noir ripening in the Napa Valley, we will not accidentally become pregnant. Many younger women are not fertile at all for some reason or other, from longterm birth-control implants and tubal ligations to consequences of medical conditions and treatments and genetic lotteries. Not even with fountains of mojitos spouting up from the ground like geysers will they become pregnant, no matter what. Thirdly, a meaningful population of women are lesbians and/or, when they drink, keep company with other women and not with men or not with men who have sex with women or who have unprotected sex with women. No river of whiskey will have any impact on whether they get pregnant either. Finally, trans women generally don’t get pregnant even in the presence of a Niagara falls of prosecco, though some trans men have borne children intentionally, but that’s another story and a kind of nice one, much nicer than the one we have to investigate here.
Because here’s the really wild thing: how do (fertile cis-) women get pregnant? Get on back to sex ed, sixth grade style: remember that bit about the union of the sperm and the egg? Because what struck a lot of us when we read about the new CDC guidelines is that it avoids reference to how women get pregnant. Pregnancy results when particular subsets of men and women get together in particular ways. No man, no pregnancy. If that language is too strong for you, then just say that women become pregnant when a bit of male genetic material is introduced by a male organ (no one becomes unintentionally pregnant by the other methods of introducing sperm or fertilized eggs to uteruses). Oh, and I should mention that the male organ is pretty much always attached to a male person.
A woman can be fertile as the Tigris Valley in the time of Abraham and she’s not going to get pregnant absent consort with a seed-bearing man. But if you listened to the way it’s often framed, you might believe that women get pregnant on their own. Conservatives assert this when they excoriate women for having “fatherless” children or having sex for pleasure. The anti-abortion narrative is often about depraved women having sex for the hell of it and devil take the consequences; the fact that they cannot be having this risk-of-pregnancy type sex in the absence of men is the freaky part of it, a freakiness that is covered up by its familiarity.
A few election cycles ago politician Todd Akin claimed that women did not get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” He was the one who said that women’s bodies had ways of “shutting that thing down” as though a uterus has some sort of remote-controlled door on it. Sometimes overlooked in all the attention to the craziness of his idea was that his comment was in the service of denying rape victims abortion rights. In the current extremes of anti-abortion advocacy and enforcement (like the cases of women prosecuted for trying to produce miscarriages), women have no value in relation to the fetuses in their wombs, though about half of those fetuses will turn into women who will, in turn, be assessed as having no value in relation to the next potential generation of fetuses. Women may be worthless containers of containers of containers of things of value, namely men. Embryonic men. Or perhaps children have value until they turn out to be women. I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me how these people think.
Meanwhile, the mechanisms of pregnancy are assiduously avoided in this mystification of reproduction story. First there is what we could call the mystery of the missing man: it absents guys from reproduction and absolves fathers from what is called fatherlessness, as though their absence from the life of a child was somehow something that had nothing to do with them. (And yeah, there are bad women who shut out nice men from contact with their kids, though from personal experience I know more cases of dads missing in action and moms on the run from violent creeps.) Seriously, we know why men are absented from these narratives: it absolves them from responsibility for pregnancies, including the unfortunate and accidental variety, and then it absolves them from producing that thing for which so many poor women have been excoriated for so long: fatherless children. The fathers of the fatherless are legion.
You can imagine a parallel universe of non-misogyny in which men are told that they carry around this dangerous stuff that can blow a woman up into nine months of pregnancy and then the production of other human beings and that they are irresponsible, immoral, and lacking in something or other—what is it that women are lacking?—when they go around putting that stuff in pregnable people without consent, planning, or care for longterm consequences. There is not much scolding along those lines, outside of warnings about women entrapping men with pregnancy, which is often a way of describing male withdrawal of responsibility but not of sperm.
As others have mentioned, recommendations for women around the Zika virus have been similar to these alcohol guidelines for women: the responsibility for preventing pregnancy in the presence of a disease that causes birth defects has been portrayed as entirely up to women, even in countries like El Salvador where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, birth control is not readily accessible, and (like pretty much everywhere else) women do not always have a safe and easy time saying no to sex. Seventeen women accused of having abortions (which is sometimes how a miscarriage is interpreted there) are in prison for homicide in El Salvador. It’s arguable who their bodies are thought to belong to but clear their bodies are not regarded as belonging to them. Brazil did get around to telling men to use condoms during sex with pregnant women (but not with women at risk of being impregnated).
This mystification of reproduction is full of missing men and missing access to resources. The CDC’s highlighting of unintended pregnancy in the United States raises the questions of how maybe better access to reproductive rights and education and healthcare might have more to do with reducing unintended pregnancies than asserting that all reproductive-age women not on birth control should not drink alcohol (a mandate that ignores how many women get pregnant unintentionally while actually on birth control).
I wish all this telling women alcohol is dangerous was a manifestation of a country that loves babies so much it’s all over lead contamination from New Orleans to Baltimore to Flint and the lousy nitrate-contaminated water of Iowa and carcinogenic pesticides and the links between sugary junk food and a host of health conditions and the need for universal access to healthcare and daycare and good and adequate food. You know it’s not. It’s just about hating on women. Hating on women requires narratives that make men vanish and make women magicians producing babies out of thin air and dissolute habits. This is an interesting narrative for the power it affords women, but I would rather have an accurate one. And maybe a broader one talking about all the ecological and economic factors that impact the well-being of children. But then the guilty party becomes us, not them.
Language matters. We just had a big struggle around the language about rape so that people would stop blaming victims. The epithet that put it concisely is: rapists cause rape. Not what women wear, consume, where they go and the rest, because when you regard women as at fault you enter into another one of our anti-detective novels or another chapter of the mystery of the missing protagonist. Rape is a willful act, the actor is a rapist. And yet you’d think that young women on campuses in particular were raping themselves, so absent have young men on campuses been from the mystificational narratives. Men are abstracted into a sort of weather, an ambient natural force, an inevitability that cannot be governed or held accountable. Individual men disappear in this narrative and rape, assault, pregnancy just become weather conditions to which women have to adapt. If those things happen to them, the failure is theirs. This training begins early. Girls in middle and high school even now, even in supposedly progressive places like New York and San Francisco, are told their forms and garments cause male behavior. Who is responsible for the behavior of boys in these narratives about spaghetti straps and leggings? Girls.
We have a lot of stories like this in this country, stories that, if you believe them, make you stupid. Stories that are not expositions but cover-ups on things like the causes of poverty. Stories that unhitch cause from effect and shunt meaning aside. The CDC extends the absence of perpetrators from crimes by telling women, in their simple orange and green chart, about why they shouldn’t drink, that drinking too much carries the risks of “injuries/violence.” Now, falling over and breaking something is a risk of being drunk, but since “injuries” here is coupled with “violence”, and tripping over a chair is not commonly regarded as violence, it’s clear that what’s meant is: someone might hurt and injure you. In sane worlds and grammatically coherent narratives, violence has a cause, and that cause has agency and consciousness: it has to be another living entity. Alcohol cannot be that entity, since alcohol doesn’t have agency and consciousness. A tree that falls on you is not violent, though a landlord might be responsible if your ill-maintained house collapses on you
You drink, you get injured, but who injures you must not be mentioned, so that it’s as though there’s only women and alcohol in the room. Even when that someone is the person being addressed; the CDC guidelines telling men that they too should watch their drinking notes that “Excessive alcohol use is commonly involved in sexual assault.” It’s as though there’s a person named “excessive alcohol use, or rather Excessive Alcohol Use whose shirts or maybe hip flasks would be monogrammed EAU. We have all met EAU. He is often involved in sexual assault. But here’s the point: he never acts alone. Because the CDC is twisting itself into baroque knots to avoid saying “you” or “men” or “drunk guys” or “perpetrators.” They seem less worried that someone might get beat up or raped than that someone’s feelings might get hurt. But people get hurt in part because we don’t want to talk about who does the hurting.
Excessive Alcohol Use has a brother named Excessive Alcohol Consumption on this list, and he’s trouble too: “Excessive alcohol consumption increases aggression and, as a result, can increase the risk of physically assaulting another person.” EAC apparently acts alone in this narrative, which is a sentence in search of a subject. Whose aggression? Who will assault? Maybe the CDC should cut to the chase and issue warnings about men. After all men are the main source of violence against women (and for that matter the main source of violence against men). Imagine the language! Use of a man may result in pregnancy or injury; men should be used with caution. Assess each man carefully for potential risks. Be careful about using men with alcohol. Maybe they should come with warning labels? But that too would exonerate men from responsibility for their acts, and I think a world in which we don’t perform that exoneration so often would be a better one. Seriously, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44 in the United States.
In the wildlife sanctuaries of literature, we study the species of speech, the flight patterns of individual words, the herd behavior of words together, and we learn what language does and why it matters. This is excellent training for going out into the world and looking at all the unhallowed speech of political statements and news headlines and CDC instructions and seeing how it makes the world or in this case makes a mess of it. It is the truest, highest purpose of language to make things clear and help us see; when words are used to do the opposite you know you’re in trouble and that maybe there’s a coverup.
Detective work and the habits of perception it generates can save us from believing lies and sometimes show us who’s being protected when a lie is also an alibi. The CDC is right to warn about the dangers of misusing alcohol, if not in how it did so. I am myself trying to warn about the misuses of language. We are all language detectives, and if we pay enough attention we can figure out what things mean even when they don’t mean to tell us, and we can even tell when stories are lying to us. So many of them do.