Feminism Friday: Safety vs. Patriarchal Overprotection

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.

Now, while I was waiting for Friday to roll around, Kate Harding posted her terrific essay that I quoted in the FAQ: What Can I Do For Feminism?, which addressed my #2 above.

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.

About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

3 comments on “Feminism Friday: Safety vs. Patriarchal Overprotection

  1. I am writing to say something about the effect of having been raped by someone I knew. The trauma I suffered was so intense and painful that I was frightened of everything and everyone, friends, strangers, men, women…the whole nine yards. Having a male friend walk me home was comforting and did not suggest to me that I was responsible for the crime or that I was powerless. Rather, it suggested to me that there were wonderful men in the world who cared deeply for me and saw in me something worth protecting. It was incredibly healing.

    Thank you,


  2. Thank you, Paige. I have tried to imagine the degree of violation that is added when sexual assault is committed by those whom the victim trusts. I can’t, really. I’m so glad to hear that the generous acts of kind men have helped you heal.

    I expect that, as with so much when it comes to issues of social justice for women, it comes down to listening. Some women will want the protectiveness of kind men, and some women will want to go without, to do it on their own.

    Both are valid responses. Just listen to what that particular woman wants.

  3. Where Justin talks about victim-blaming, he doesn’t mean that he or other feminists blame the victims, he’s talking about the kind of unhelpful responses to rape that say the victim should have been more careful, should have dressed differently, shouldn’t have been out alone, etc – focussing on what the victim did or did not do, not on what the rapist did. The problem with those kind of responses is they imply a tacit acceptance that women are always going to be under threat of rape by men, even a belief that rape is somehow natural or that the rapist can’t help it (people would certainly deny that they mean this, but this is the implication). Therefore all women can do, according to this kind of thinking, is take evasive action and hope it works.

    The dilemma that Justin was articulating was that he didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce those kind of attitudes about rape by assuming that all his women friends need his protection or by insisting that they don’t go out unless a man is with them, while at the same time he desperately wants to give what protection he can because he knows, from the attack on his friend, that rape is a very real threat.

    Tigtog’s comment above is right – it’s about listening to what each woman wants. Some women will accept his offer of a walk home, some will decline it – and Justin’s powers of physical protection, though useful, are limited. Justin’s concern for his friends’s safety is natural and good, nothing wrong with that. Tigtog’s other point to him is simply to remind him that as a feminist, his response does not need to end at offering practical protection, there is much more he can do and should do to challenge the misogynist attitudes that feed into acts of sexual coercion and violence. To not accept that women should expect to be threatened by rapists.

    I frequently am glad to have the company of a male friend or relative when out late at night, precisely because their presence does or would deter other men from hassling me. But it makes me angry that their presence is needed for some men to not hassle me – that some men will not respect my boundaries, will assume that my body is for their benefit, whether to be looked at, coveted, commented on or touched. I can usually fend off unwanted attention by invoking a male protector, whether a friend who’s there, or saying I have boyfriend. Yes it works, but it angers me that it works because it buys into the idea that as a woman I am an object to be used or property to be owned, and that if I already have an ‘owner’ I am left alone and if I appear unclaimed I’m fair game.

    Needing male protection also makes me angry because it drives home the reality that there are some men out there who could attack and hurt me because I am a woman. There is no shortage of news stories about women attacked by men, whether by strangers or partners. The threat is real, our vigilance is justified. And this means also that feminist activism challenging misogyny, sexism and patriarchy is urgent and necessary.

    (n.b. There’s a big difference between the victim themselves holding onto the idea that they could have done something to make things turn out differently – that’s a natural way to try and reassert a sense of control about a situation where control was taken away from you – and people around her/him, not to mention uninvolved observers or commentators, placing responsibility on the victim instead of on the rapist).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: