Reader Justin wrote and asked me for advice on an ethical balance problem, and with his permission I quote his email:
I have a question which has been bothering me for some time, and which may/may not be worth addressing on the site. In any case, its something I don’t feel precisely comfortable asking my close friends, but it does bother me. Not that you have any obligation to spend time assuaging my liberal guilt, but worth a try.
I’m a male college student from the Midwest and I’ve been self-identifying as feminist (or feminist ally) for quite awhile. Through activism and academia, I’m pretty familiar and comfortable with feminist thought. About a year ago, my best friend–who attends another Midwestern college–was raped at knifepoint by two strangers who attacked her as she walked to her dorm one night. As I’ve attempted to help her work through the fallout of that experience, I’ve grown very protective (read paranoid) of my female friends. Particularly, I feel like I should refuse to let them walk home by themselves at night, and do my best to convince them to let me accompany them after parties, etc., which usually isn’t a problem.
Still, sometimes I feel a bit patriarchal and condescending, and I recognize that discouraging women from walking at night is a sort of variation on the whole “asking for it” theme, shifting the blame [on to] the victim [and away from] the victimizer. My question is, how do I find an ethical balance between protecting my friends from often underestimated dangers, and avoiding stereotype reinforcing paternalism. Obviously, in a sense my personal stake in this issue is minor compared to the actual threat of sexual violence, but I would still like to know how best to handle these situations. . .
Thanks for listening to my ramblings; any thoughts you have would be appreciated, though certainly not demanded. . .
Now, as I mailed back to Justin, I had two immediate responses come to mind.
1. although your protectiveness is noble, as I’m sure you’re aware most sexual assaults are date/acquaintance/partner rape, and you can’t be there for that. So the utility of your protectiveness is, through no fault of your own, limited.
2. the greater work to be done is challenging sexist attitudes in men around you when women aren’t there. It’s a long term effort, with no short term fanfares of triumph, but as more and more profeminist men undertake to challenge misogyny it’s more likely to make a difference in the end.
As to #1, I certainly wouldn’t want to minimise the fear, pain and distress of stranger rape, and I don’t have the personal experience to back it up, but I’m sure from what I’ve read of others’ experiences that the fear, pain and distress can only be multiplied when the rapist is someone known and trusted, and there’s sadly little the Justins of our world can do about untrustworthy deceitful men.
EXCEPT: as said above, don’t reinforce their casual misogyny about crazy bitches who are asking for it.
You might not know which of the men around you are untrustworthy deceitful misogynists, but guaranteed that some of them are, and if blokes who would never bully or harm a woman play along with the crazy-bitch jokes just for a laugh, some of those men laughing are getting their misogynistic violence fantasies reinforced by what they perceive as acceptance from other men.
Justin, thanks so much for writing.