Sexism in the Apocalypse

I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction.  I love apocalypse stories.  I love to read about how, when the worst happens, humans can discover levels of ingenuity we never knew we had to overcome even the most insurmountable odds.  You see the worst of humanity in these stories, but you also see the best.

That’s why I’ve had enough of how, yet again, even in what is otherwise a well-thought-out apocalypse story from a writer I respect, this is repeated as if it were the Gospel Truth: women in the apocalypse need men to protect them from gangs of rapist men.  Single women should pair up as soon as possible, and a woman on her own is certain to be taken as a slave by the marauding rapists, or raped and killed.  Even a married woman had better hope they married a bodybuilder and not a stockbroker.

No, seriously.  This is nonsense.  This is like Daenerys’ handmaidens trying to tell her the moon was an egg or “Goddess, wife of Sun” in Game of Thrones.

And just how do you know this, may I ask, please?  Just what statistics or historical examples are you basing this on?

Probably it’s just a consequence of lazy writing.  The roving bands of raping marauders are orcs for writers; you can feel okay about killing them because it’s justified.  But I think it’s perpetuating a dangerous, misogynistic (and misandristic) stereotype that has repercussions; the idea that feminism is dependent upon civilization, and that if the authority of civilization were to fall, women would become prey and men would descend immediately into acting like gorillas competing for a harem.  Even Margaret Atwood, hailed as a powerful feminist voice, has fallen victim to this stereotype.  At least she was courteous enough to have another woman be the rescuer.

I believe it may come from the fact that three of the seminal novels of apocalyptic fiction are, arguably, Earth Abides, The Death of Grass, and Lord of the Flies, all of which were written at the beginning of the 1950s, one of the most misogynistic eras of human history.  In each of these novels, the moment that civilization is stripped away, humanity decides to try to emulate the patriarchal savagery of chimpanzees.

But I think it’s a dangerous belief that is not at all founded in logic or reality, and this has unintended consequences on our whole society.  First of all, we don’t tend to descend immediately into savagery when civilization is shaken, and even if we did, we’d be just as likely to emulate bonobos as chimpanzees.  Secondly, I think this restricts and even oppresses women into accepting bad situations they should not due to a deep-rooted cultural belief that they cannot survive without a man.  Third, I think it demeans and degrades men, who are not nearly the barbarians that literature would have us believe.

I’m going to debunk a few myths that you probably believe.  When I’m done I’m sure you’ll agree with me that women risk no more danger than men do in an apocalyptic scenario, and do not require male protection.  But people, in general, do better in groups, especially when they cooperate.

Myth 1: People descend into savage depravity in disasters with little encouragement. It’s every man for himself!

People are more likely to be confused and bewildered enough not to have a clear idea of what to do when disaster strikes.  Only about 15% of people behave rationally enough to make life-saving decisions.  You never know which you’ll be until the disaster hits.

There are three typical reactions of humans in disasters, according to a presentation by Professor John Preston, who studies human behaviour in such situations:

  • People behave rationally. What we know is, they behave rationally to what seems relevant to them. So if they feel there is going to be a shortage of fuel they will go out, find and buy fuel even if the authorities tell them not to and this makes the shortage of fuel more likely.

  • People are helpful to others during disasters. People will put their own lives at risk to help others or help to put out a fire in a neighbour’s house when theirs has already burnt down.

  • People are vocal during disasters and will turn to social media to express their emotions, post their videos, pictures and even live stream the event.

So no, they don’t run rampant in the streets, trashing property and grabbing anything with a skirt.  They do loot if they feel their supplies are running out and they don’t know when more are coming.


I suppose with Hurricane Harvey having devastated Texas, Hurricane Katrina is on your mind, what with the killings and gangs and rapes and gods know what else going on in streets and in the Superdome.  Except that

It never happened!  Here’s a quote from a soldier who was involved in dome security and humanitarian work:

I think 99 percent of it is bulls—,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. “Don’t get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn’t see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. … Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved.” Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center.

“We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports of more bodies there,” Cataldie said. “But it just wasn’t the case.”

Here’s another quote from the same article:

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina – making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages.

The only ones who were doing the killing were the police, and that was mostly sparked by the rumours of social unrest.  Like the Danziger Bridge shooting incident, in which police officers killed two and injured four innocent people accidentally.  And then there was the controversial decision to close off a bridge over the Mississippi River to leave people to fend for themselves.

Funny though, how the stories coming out of Harvey’s devastation appear to all be about Good Samaritans rescuing each other.  It inspires me!  But I wonder how much of the perceived racial profile of the two areas might have something to do with the rumours that people chose to spread?

If you’d like to read more about the myths you have believed about Katrina that have been proven to be nonsense, you can read it here.

Cannibalism in Famine

Famine is a special case.  It’s true that sometimes, people will kill each other out of desperation.  Certainly that happened in the Holodomor, the great famine engineered by the paranoia and treachery of Josef Stalin.  Cannibalism was often the only method left to the survivors, so they did it.  Even then, however, most of the eaten people had already died of starvation; murdering for cannibalism was rare and was criminally tried when it was discovered.  And there were no rapes, or at least, no more than usual.

One thing that we know is that the worst cases of cannibalism during famines happened in places where the authorities either sanctioned it, or prevented people from doing anything else to relieve their suffering.  Here’s a list of ten major famines that resulted in cannibalism.

One more case in point: children seem to end up being the ones hunted for their meat when things turn that way – not women.  The only case listed here in which women were victimized more than men were was in a siege in Medieval China, the Battle of Suiyang, where the soldiers killed and ate the women in the city to feed the army, and they ate the children first.  More commonly they are abandoned; our folk tale of Hansel and Gretel may have originated from such stories.  We don’t like to admit this, because it runs contrary to our “sainted motherhood” myth, but there it is.  Certainly children should not be left alone with starving people in a famine.

Myth 2 – Only the rule of law stops people from killing each other

There’s always going to be a small fraction of psychopaths for whom that’s true.  And that’s why we have the rule of law. But mostly, this is nonsense.  People engage in threat displays a lot, but it messes us up to kill each other.

I’d like to refer anyone who would presume to write apocalyptic or war fiction to a fantastic book called On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  I learned that it’s been a constant struggle for military commanders through the generations to get soldiers to actually try to kill the enemy.  We’re more likely to just try to scare them off.  From the book:

A look at history might help illustrate what I am talking about. In World War Two, it is a fact that only 15-20 percent of the soldiers fired at the enemy. That is one in five soldiers actually shooting at a Nazi when he sees one. While this rate may have increased in desperate situations or with different units, in most combat situations soldiers were reluctant to kill each other. The Civil War was not dramatically different nor were any previous wars.

In WW2 only one percent of the pilots accounted for thirty to forty percent of enemy fighters shot down in the air. Some pilots didn’t shoot down a single enemy plane.  A very interesting statistic when you think about it.

In Korea, the rate of soldiers unwilling to fire on the enemy decreased and fifty five percent of the soldiers fired at the enemy. In Vietnam, this rate increased to about ninety five percent but this doesn’t mean they were trying to hit the target. In fact it usually took around fifty-two thousand bullets to score one kill in regular infantry units! It may be interesting to note that when Special Forces kills are recorded and monitored this often includes kills scored by calling in artillery or close air support. In this way SF type units could score very high kill ratios like fifty to a hundred for every SF trooper killed. This is not to say these elite troops didn’t score a large number of bullet type kills but it is interesting to note that most kills in war are from artillery or other mass destruction type weapons (airstrikes, mortars, naval gun fire, etc).

If one studies history and is able to cut through the hype, one will find that man is often unwilling to kill his fellow man and the fighter finds it very traumatic when he has to do so. On the battlefield the stress of being killed and injured is not always the main fear.

There’s more.  You caught that statistic, right?  Apparently it took 52000 rounds to kill one soldier in Vietnam.  In Civil War sites that have been dug up, often rifles are found that contain as many as ten balls in the chamber.  Apparently many soldiers commanded to aim and fire in ranks were not, in actuality, firing.  They were miming the motion.

Now of course, there are many factors that may have influenced these statistics, aside from an unwillingness to kill.  Means and opportunity clearly play a role too.  But that much?  Lt. Col. Grossman tells us that one of the big changes that occurred between WWII and Vietnam was that soldiers were trained to fire as a mechanical reflex, and this may account for the increase in PTSD among veterans.

Myth 3 – Women can’t fight as well as men

This is a frustratingly pervasive myth, and I keep getting into arguments on social media about it.  Let’s break it down.

Women Are Less Aggressive than Men

If we’re looking at the raw percentages of men who commit violent crimes than women who commit violent crimes in our culture, it seems to support that conclusion.  75.6% of all violent offenders are men, while only 20.1% are female.  I suggest you have a good look at that link though, because it details a lot of mitigating factors that might explain that besides “evolutionary nature”.  Among them are:

  • Many violent crimes perpetrated by women go unreported (and, it doesn’t say so, but “unprosecuted” even when they aren’t reported also)
  • lack of social equality between the sexes
  • unstable family situations
  • societal expectations

The article suggests that if a lack of social equality between the sexes were a factor, we should see violent crime among women increase over time.  Here’s the quote:

But this theory suggests rates of violent crime committed by women should increase over time. According to Darrell Steffensmeier and Emilie Allan, the arrest rate for women accused of committing homicide actually dropped from 1975 to 1990 [source: Steffensmeier and Allan].

Clearly they don’t remember the 70s and 80s, which, I was startled to discover, were appallingly sexist.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch any random three TV shows or movies made in the 70s.  It’s kind of scary.  Women were engaging in an unprecedented fight for their liberation because they had to be!

Also during that time, there was a popular and influential theory in second wave feminism that women are naturally the nurturers, and we need a balance of the sexes to have a stabilizing approach on humanity (see The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler.)  So women may have been starting to bridge the social equality gap, but the pressures on women not to be aggressive were more oppressive than ever, and even came from people who were fighting for their rights!

Now, third wave feminism may have changed the balance, as women question whether or not there’s any difference in psychology between themselves and men at all, or if these are artificially created due to cultural expectation and reinforcement.  And here we do see a difference.  From a study that appeared in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

Until recently, research on aggression and violence has focused primarily on boys. This is understandable given the fact that, compared to girls, boys engage in more physical acts of aggression at every stage of development. But over the past few decades, juvenile justice statistics have documented an unprecedented increase in the rate of violent crime perpetrated by girls, a trend that has both alarmed and puzzled researchers, clinicians and social policy analysts. In concert with this, researchers have also started to recognize that although girls engage in fewer acts of physical aggression than boys, they engage in equal if not higher levels of social or relational aggression.

One thing statisticians often forget is that social changes take time to manifest.  The researchers who said that we should see an increase in violent crime among women if it were about social inequality, are mistaken.  We have indeed seen that increase, but it took a generation for the changes in social conditioning to manifest.

Now the truth is that male violent offenders still vastly outnumber female violent offenders.  But as the study points out, this could be more due to how we are socialized than nature.  Women are more likely to be socially aggressive; spread rumours, use group exclusion tactics, that sort of thing.  Is that because we feel less aggression or is it due to social expectations?

This article from the New York Times states the nub of my argument very well:

There are indications that differing parental conceptions and socialization in relation to physical activity and aggression may start very early. Dr. Paula J. Caplan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, cites studies indicating that adults identify newborn babies as heavier and more active when they are told they are boys than when the same babies are described as girls.

Behavioral scientists also point to the greater willingness of adults to engage in rough-and-tumble play with boys, to tolerate their rough behavior and to use physical discipline on them. They also note that parents and other adults are much more likely to tell a boy to fight back when he is picked on; a girl may be told to walk away from the situation or report it to a teacher or other adult.

While boys can be taught that aggression is not always a bad thing, Dr. Caplan says that girls are taught to suppress aggression because of their role in child-rearing and the undesirability of expressing aggression toward children. Dr. Maccoby and Dr. Jacklin suggest that the female’s childbearing and child-rearing role may also cause adults to watch girls more closely and to train them more in nurturing behavior.

I’m not even going to get into the numerous examples of women who were leaders of nations in some of the bloodiest warmongering nations on Earth (Elizabeth I and II, Victoria, Catherine the Great, Hatshepsut, to name a handful) or the many examples of famous women warriors, but if you thought we were the gentler sex – you thought wrong.

Women Are Not as Strong as Men

Well, not exactly anyway.  The line really isn’t as clear as you’d like to think.  Here’s a quote from an article by a professional female athlete:

The age-old myth of women having less muscular strength than men do is just that—a myth.  This excerpt from Shameless Magazine puts it best:

Many people believe that all men, as some sort of single unit, are stronger than women. And reason says that simply isn’t true. Men’s strength is just as variable as women’s. Men, on average, are bigger than women, with a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio. But women generate the same force per unit of muscle as men. That is, muscle pound to muscle pound, women and men are similar in strength. A strong woman is strong, full stop. (emphasis mine)

This observation was confirmed by a study from the US National Strength and Conditioning Foundation, which adds that although women and men have the same muscle strength, the reason many men appear stronger on the surface is because they have more muscle mass from being bigger (as opposed to muscle strength), have a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio, and have different fat distribution in the body than women do.

In other words, women tend to have less physical strength than men do because we tend to be smaller.  But pound for pound, it’s not much different.  As Joaninha, author of this blog points out:

Moreover, even though muscle mass is cited as a contributing factor of men’s strength, the same studies have shown that women build strength the same way men do yet without building as much muscle mass—which is interesting, because if both men and women build strength equally, but only men’s muscles build much mass to go with it, to me that suggests that in the end, women’s muscles would actually have more power per inch/pound than men’s, to do the calculations!

Also as she points out:

The problem arises when people start making unqualified statements like the ones at the beginning of this post, and making them frequently and thoughtlessly.  Although clearly I was kidding when I said “I feel weaker already”, can you imagine what the effects of reading or hearing statements like that over and over again would be on someone’s mindset, whether consciously or subconsciously?

If you imagined the logical, you’re right: other studies have shown that women significantly underestimate their own strength, compared to men.  Because we’re told we’re weaker, we think we have even less strength than we have to begin with.  This affects everything from whether or not a woman will reach her full potential while weight training, to whether or not she’ll choose to fight off a man who attacks her in the street, or just “let it happen” because to fight back would make it worse (according to another disastrous, popular myth).

‘Nuff said, I think.

Women Are Less Capable Fighters

This statement depends on a number of arbitrary opinions to determine.  The first is, what makes a “good fighter?”

We’ve already addressed the “aggression” question, so that’s not a factor.

Physical strength and fitness? We’ve dealt with that too.

Experience?  Okay, that’s a reasonable critique.  It has repeatedly been pointed out that women are more socialized not to be violent.  It is entirely possible that women will find it more difficult to release that conditioning if the feces hits the proverbial air distribution device.  But will that translate in a real, life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed situation?  Not according to Lt. Col. Grossman.

And with equal training, it doesn’t matter.  The truth is, with my modicum of marital arts and medieval combat training, the serious weight training I did as a teenager, and my many years of yoga and general fitness, I will be in a much better position in any physical life-or-death combat than any male stockbroker or computer programmer, unless he also happens to work out at the gym regularly and practice MMA.  I’d even be in a better position than men who work out at a gym but have never practiced a combat art, because I know what to do with a mace.  And to the second generation after the collapse, it won’t matter either, because we’ll all be trained to fight then!

Or are you talking about soldiering?  There was a study released by the US Marine Corps that threw shade on a woman’s ability in combat.

But what it’s really throwing shade on is a perceived view of a woman’s ability in combat.  Women tend not to do as well at the arbitrary standards that the US Marine Corp use to determined the skills that make a good soldier, and that, as Lt. Col. Grossman has told us, has not one thing to do with our willingness to pull a trigger.  As I have already pointed out, women warriors have been with us for all of human history.  And despite the American preoccupation with the last boys’ club in North America, the Canadian Forces have had women in combat roles since 1987, have been completely and totally integrated since 2000, have lost women soldiers in combat, and are currently trying to increase female presence in our Armed Forces.

I know three men rather well who have served in the Canadian Armed Forces; two soldiers and a sailor.  All three say that women soldiers are soldiers first, and they never in any way saw them as lesser soldiers or any sort of detriment to the unit.

Myth 4 – Men rape women they don’t know

Check this handy list of rape myths.  Over 70% of rape victims know their attackers.  So why go to such enormous trouble to prevent something that’s statistically unlikely to happen in the first place?  Are we all going to walk around with lightning rods on our heads too, just in case?

Myth 5 – Men only rape women

Check the same list.  Men are often raped by other men, especially if they are at a disadvantaged position, such as being a child or a prisoner.  If it’s rational to allow the statistical unlikelihood of stranger-rape to determine the shape of our whole society, why not take this unlikely statistic into account too?

Myth 6 – But women have the babies!

Ah, says your inner voice, who is invested in either maintaining our current cultural biases or accepting them, now we get to it.  Yes, women have the babies.  Pregnant and nursing women are indeed at a physical disadvantage, and the positive aspect of patriarchal culture (not everything is all evil) is that men are more willing to sacrifice themselves to physical threats to save women and children than they might otherwise be, because our culture encourages it.

But even that is not a given.  First of all, how often is any given woman pregnant?  Secondly, what about lesbians?  Third, there are methods of birth control that don’t involve modern technology that are rather effective. A regular concoction of red raspberry leaves maintains a regular menstrual cycle, and if a woman should happen to find herself with an unwanted pregnancy, black cohosh and pennyroyal will take care of that.  There are other herbs around the world that do similar things, but these are the ones I know best.  Condoms, being plastic, will last for many years after the collapse, and we invented other forms of condom before we had plastic.  Combine these techniques with the pull-out or rhythm method, and we have a form of birth control that’s more effective than condoms alone, and an abortifactant should things go wrong.

Also, just how stupid do you think women are?  I’ll tell you frankly that if the apocalypse happens, I’m not likely to plan for kids until the dust settles, the rad count is safe, and we’ve had a successful harvest for at least two or three years.


The fact is that all the things we believe that lead us to conclude that women need special protection in the apocalypse are nonsense:

  • Women can be (and often are) as effective in combat as men are, especially with equal training
  • People are unlikely to rape people they don’t know, so protection from roving bands of rapists is unlikely to be needed
  • People don’t want to really hurt each other anyway
  • Disasters, in fact, facilitate human cooperation, rather than savagery, other than in a desperate famine. And in that case, it is children who are unsafe, not women

So when society collapses, I’m getting a .22 and the people I care about, not a man to take care of me.

6 thoughts on “Sexism in the Apocalypse

  1. I’m not actually big on post-apocalytpic stories, but I totally agree with you.

    I write many female characters (not post-apocaleptic) and they are almost always bad-asses. Men might look at them protectively, but it isn’t one-way and they do (and have) fought to protect men as often as women (my first novel started from a Sword and Sorcery story where a woman is rescuing her kidnapped husband). The nurturing and protecting thing can be a damn powerful motivator for aggression, too, though people often overlook that.

    And, I am also in Houston at this very moment. I can definitely vouch for the extreme camaraderie (sans racial divides) you mention. I might also add that I can’t figure out why men aren’t front and center in debunking some of this. There are plenty of decent men out there; they should be the first to decry the notion that all men become monsters if the opportunity presents itself.

    (And thank you for mentioning that men do attack each other, sexually)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, I hope you and yours are okay! I am delighted by the stories I am hearing from Houston, and we should be impressed and inspired, but this is also what we should expect, because this is what most of us do in disasters.

      Second, kudos for writing badass women in Sword and Sorcery pieces! I love S&S, and I approve and thank you. One of the first great books I read was The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Good stuff that made a lasting impression.

      I don’t really understand why more men don’t decry this nonsense. I think some of them think, “Yeah, that’s some guys, but not ME, I’m going to protect the women when the shit goes down because I’m a good guy,” not realizing the damage that can be done by their good intentions. Or maybe more men really do believe that we are less capable than they are than we know. Or, perhaps our culture doesn’t allow them to decry it without marking them as being sexist themselves.

      It’s not just men who rape, either, but I didn’t have enough useful stats on that to speak to it in the article.


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