[*To avoid any possible misreading from the outset: this is written in support of feminism. It is a critical commentary on a single article by one writer. Very important issues are raised by the article. They need greater attention from all individuals and groups in society and also demand much more rigorous thought than they have received in this instance.]
This article by Laura Bates, published in The Guardian, addresses a complex problem. Indeed, a problem that appears periodically and has been dealt with in print and online by similar feminist figures elsewhere.
The issue is this: a woman or women are the victims of a sexual or violent assault by a male. Police issue a media statement warning women of potential danger.
The feminist writers rightfully criticise these warnings for not addressing the root cause: stopping the perpetrators (males) from doing it, rather than warning women.
In this specific instance, Bates tries to demonstrate what is wrong with these warnings. They are informed by a “logic” that may appear to be commonsensical but is totally implausible. She argues this point with an attempt at transferring this “logic” to other areas where authorities may issue warnings and offers the following examples:
“Police warn motorists not to drive after speeding drivers cause crashes in local area.”
“Police warn residents not to have garden sheds made out of wood after spate of arson cases.”
Such warnings would be “absurd“, she says.
Of course they are absurd! As nothing more than rhetorical devices, they are meant to be.
How about the following, though. Are these warnings absurd?
Police warn gay cruisers of danger on Clapham Common
Police warn drug-users after a string of 16 overdoses resulting from a toxic mix of heroin, believed to contain fentany
Well, they are examples of actual warnings. Do they constitute victim-shaming, or are they pragmatic attempts to ensure public safety?
Given she has an MA in English Literature from Cambridge, Bates surely has some mastery of the English written form. Using this kind of tabloid style rhetoric in the Guardian thus appears as little more than an insult on the intelligence of readers or an extremely poor and transparent attempt at manipulating thought. Perhaps it was a performative statement, with a specific purpose or intended audience……..that is something only Laura can clarify for us.
Society is Symbiotic
While the article is not as bad as some others that deal with the same issue, this line in particular needs to brought to attention:
The notion of telling women to take responsibility for their own safety from sexual violence is as old as it is ridiculous
For Bates and other similar feminist writers, it is ridiculous because, as they rightly point out, it is “men who rape”. If men didn’t rape, they would be safe. This is the ideal situation society should be, needs to be, moving toward. Ideals are worth upholding and aiming for, but they can easily become utopian, in the bad sense, when abstracted from social reality.
Is any complex society really capable of achieving complete safety for women? (it would obviously have to be complete safety for every single member of society, for it is surely impossible to imagine a society in which violence in any form, apart from male sexual violence toward, existed.) Unfortunately, this ideal situation that some feminists in the mainstream media invoke, is sadly very far off in the distance, if even possible in the first place.
Still, for Bates, any notion that women should take responsibility for their own safety is seen as victim-blaming. Such notions do of course possess that meaning, or can be read as such, even if not always intended. Furthermore, rather than telling women what not to do, any warnings or words of caution should indeed be addressed at the real solution to the problem: men and getting them to stop raping.
Such public statements need to be made by the police and other authorities and the push that feminist writers in the mainstream media have given to getting this recognised has been vital. But to think that a linguistic shift alone would have an immediate impact on the safety of woman is overly simplistic and idealistic. The research I have read shows that the primary causes of sexual violence and rape are still not able to be isolated in conventional social categories (class/ethnicity/socio-economic status/etc.) because it is so general and widespread throughout all segments of society. Therefore, to have any real impact, a much more rigorous and holistic approach to ending sexual violence against women is needed.
If proper care is taken to avoid victim-blaming, why shouldn’t one part of that approach include warnings to the “public” where necessary, if there is an active or immediate threat to safety. (This would be made alongside public warnings targeting the perpetrators.)
Deconstruction and Unintended Consequences
Finally, why it is “ridiculous“, as Bates suggests it is in the case of women, to expect members of society to take responisbility for their own safety?
One of the implications of Bates’ statement, which I am sure is against her expressed intention, is that in saying that it isn’t women who need to take responsibility, men are by default given the responsibility for ensuring the safety of women. In other words, Bates unthinkingly reinforces the conventions of gender relations that feminism fights against: Men are the subjects; Women are the objects. Men need to make sure women stay safe. Women need to be protected. In its unthinking statements, Bates’ text allows Patriarchy to reassert itself!
Surely everyone, as a member of a society, should aim at being a subject that takes responsibility for their own wellbeing and safety as much as possible. If a society is ever going to achieve true equality, it would be ridiculous for each individual not to.