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Yesterday I inadvertently watched a video, which I advise you not to watch if you come across it. It was taken by a woman in the process of confronting a man. The man had his arm around a much smaller young girl, and was marching her along hurriedly. The woman filming asked the man repeatedly if he knew the girl. He then walked off, leaving the girl with the woman. As he walked off, the girl's released vocal distress was unbearable to witness.
Whatever particulars of this case are established at a future trial, I want to draw attention to some incontrovertible general facts. Some men are sexual predators. Some men rape and sexually assault women and girls. These events often leave indelible trauma for women and girls in their wake. As a society, we seem unable to hold these general facts in mind without detaching, denying, excusing, blaming, sensationalising, or changing the subject.
Right now, I’m not talking about causes. To say that some men rape and sexually assault women and girls is an uncontroversial fact, even if there’s controversy about why: about whether such behaviour is caused by prior trauma, social conditioning, genetics, evolutionary pressures, or anything else. And nor am I talking about responsibility - about who should pay, or how. I’m simply referring to facts that cannot be denied, though they can so easily be mentally demoted – some men rape and sexually assault women and girls, and this can cause severe trauma for the victims.
Most people are aware of these facts, but there’s a difference between vaguely registering something, and having it front-and-centre in your mind as a factor in daily decision-making. For many women, personal circumstance has forced the fact of male predation into their consciousness. The published statistics tell their own vivid story but even if they didn’t, I’d be able to extrapolate out pretty easily from cases I know. Here’s my own fairly ordinary tally, offered not for sympathy (I’m fine) or for shock (it’s not that shocking), but simply as representative information for a member of the female group. My crotch has been violently grabbed and held twice, by two different male strangers in public spaces; a man masturbated over the train table he shared with my sister and I, as teens, in an otherwise deserted carriage; a man (dressed for work in a suit, trenchcoat, and carrying a briefcase) exposed his penis as he approached me in a tunnel on the underground; I was groped by a medical professional. Most women have a tally like that, and many others have far worse. I, and they, are not just particularly unlucky humans. We are women, and that makes it more likely that we’ll encounter this sort of behaviour over a lifetime than the average man. Chances are, so has your mother, your sister, and so will your daughter. It's a pattern.
Remember – I’m just stating facts. You may not like those facts but they are still there, perfectly indifferent to your emotional responses to them. If you are a man reading this, I’m not blaming you for those facts. But equally, I’m not talking about other, different facts. Some men get sexually assaulted too. I’m not talking about that right now, though people should. I’m talking about women and girls, and the fact that some men rape and sexually assault them.
So what – strategically speaking – can a society do about these facts, assuming it wants to do anything at all? Let’s not get distracted by big picture stuff - fancy rehabilitation programmes after the fact, or longer sentencing, or bringing up men and boys completely differently from birth, or whatever. Let’s just ask: what’s the very least a society can do, to reduce the chances of some men raping and sexually assaulting women and girls in the first place, and so sparing them some trauma? And I said “reduce”, not “eliminate”. Elimination isn’t a feasible goal. Some men rape and sexually assault women and girls, and given the dynamics of heterosexuality and the relative strength differences involved, some men probably always will.
One obvious thing a society can do, at the very least, is teach women how to try to protect themselves, even given their relative lack of strength on average*. So self-defence classes tell you how to resist; how to shout loudly for help; how to stamp the foot, knee the groin, and gouge the eyes; how to keep keys threaded through knuckles pre-emptively on walks at night; how to avoid dark and lonely places; how not to wear headphones so you can hear, and how not to wear heels so you can run. Some of this is difficult for women and girls to do: making a fuss doesn’t come easily. Physically wounding another human being – even one who is attacking you - comes even less easily. So self-defence classes get women and girls to practice shouting and pushing and stamping; to practice being less passive and more aggressive, so they can do it when they need to.
There’s an important thing to note here which will be relevant shortly. Talking about self-protection strategies as a good thing for women sometimes gets falsely labelled “victim-blaming” - as if it implies that what happens to women is their responsibility or fault. Yet recognising the practical need for these strategies doesn’t imply any responsibility or justification for anything. Remember, all I’m doing at the moment is describing facts, and how women and girls might strategically respond to those facts to try to reduce the chance of certain outcomes. Responding strategically doesn’t mean taking responsibility. Feel free to rage against the injustice of women having to change their behaviour to avoid the predation of some men - God knows, I do. But I am not having that conversation (today). I’m talking only about strategy, given the world we actually live in, and the reality it contains.
Other than teaching women self-protection, a second thing a society can do to reduce rape and sexual assault is to encourage safeguarding social norms to get embedded, so that it becomes unusual and indeed remarkable for men to be in public areas where women and girls undress or sleep. When in these areas, women and girls are more vulnerable to assault even than usual, for obvious reasons. If there’s a well-established norm that only women and girls are in these areas, a man will look out of place. And this appearance of abnormality, in that context, may embolden the women and girls in the room to say something, or to shout, or even to seek assistance – where doing these things may be the only protection they have in that moment against larger and stronger predators.
Just now, when talking about self-defence strategies, I pointed out that they were not a form of victim-blaming, because they were not about responsibility or justification at all. Equally, single-sex spaces are not about the culpability of men as a group (and nor, of course, are they about the culpability of trans women as a group). Most males are not predators. This is about tactics, not character reference. Males as a group are reasonably excluded from these spaces in order to try to protect women and girls from a few of their number. We used to understand that; or better yet, we didn't used to pretend to misunderstand this. It’s not exactly rocket science.
At the moment, the progressive liberal left in the UK is stuck in a totally incoherent position. It happily approves of the first strategy – teaching women to be more assertive and even aggressive when they need to be (“listen to your instincts; channel your anger!”); yet, all the while, happily dismantling social norms separating the sexes in changing rooms, bathrooms, hostels, dormitories, and prisons, and undermining those who want to keep them (“be more inclusive!; if you feel discomfort, say nothing”.). If you work for a University, a media organisation, an arts organisation, a charity, a government department, or a third sector organisation, the chances are high that your employer now has policies stating explicitly that males who self-identify as women (not just transsexuals –any male at all who feels like a woman today, or who says they do) can legitimately enter formerly female-only spaces in your institution at will. Read that again. Yes, official policies. In some places, these policies have already enabled women and children to be sexually assaulted. You may not like that fact, either, but it is one.
University policies, with which I’m most familiar, say things like “The key principles of this policy are to: Treat people as their self-determined gender. This includes the use of facilities”; and “You have a legal right to access facilities – such as changing rooms and toilets – according to the gender with which you identify”; and “Accommodation Services will allocate student accommodation according to the student’s gender and preferences (mixed or single-sex) and it is important, where possible, to consult the student on where they will feel most comfortable.” These are all direct quotes. Equally, in many institutions, without any consultation of users, formerly single-sex facilities have now been designated “gender-neutral” (which means mixed-sex, in case you were confused about that). Congratulations, progressives! – you just took away one of the only simple defences against sexual predation that women and girls realistically had. If, despite these policies, the original social norm remains in these places nonetheless, so that in practice predatory males stay out of women’s spaces, this is due to luck not judgement. As time passes, and as the policy becomes known and the social norm disintegrates, some women and girls’ luck will run out.
Yesterday I also saw a piece about how responses to J.K. Rowling’s recent interventions about women’s rights have exposed a “generational divide”. Young people tend to reject her views about, say, the importance of single-sex spaces for women, whilst older people tend to embrace them. Well no shit, Sherlock! Young people are.... young. They haven’t been on the planet for very long. For this reason, they lack detailed information about patterns of behaviour in the world. They put personal experiences down to being one-offs, rather than seeing them as part of larger systems. This is not their fault - it’s normal for their stage of development. But this lack of information also makes them susceptible to magical thinking and unrealistic optimism. To put it crudely, many kids still believe in a fairy tale: that a male declaring he is a woman makes something magic happen, which means that from that point on, all general male-related safeguarding structures are irrelevant. I used to think this too when I was younger. But then I left Neverland.
So much for the young people. What’s the excuse of the grown-ups who apparently also believe in fairy tales; not to mention the ones who pretend that complaints about the removal of women’s safeguarding could only possibly be motivated by hatred of gender non-conformity? These grown-ups are sometimes at the top of organisations – sometimes even safeguarding organisations, for God’s sake! They’re journalists at the Guardian, or at the BBC. They’re in university departments that used to be “Women’s Studies departments”, before the word became unspeakable. They work for charities championing "social justice". They almost all still call themselves feminists. Yet they actively applaud the dismantling of structures originally designed, perfectly rationally, to enhance women and girls’ safety. What the hell could explain the apparent detachment with which such people contemplate the predictable suffering of some women and girls as a result of their preferred social arrangement?
The short answer is: I don’t know. In some people, there seems to be an automatic demotion of the interests/feelings/safety of women and girls which isn’t so much rational as pathological. If you are one of these people, reading this, chances are your brain is right now firing off distracting rejoinders at a rate of knots: “what about trans women at risk of attack in male bathrooms?” “what about trans men misgendered in women’s changing rooms?”; “are you saying all trans women are predators?”; “won’t some women just get raped anyway?”. In which case I ask you, in turn: what is it that makes you go to those questions first? Why can’t you stick with the subject, even for a minute? Why does the dramatically imagined plight of a trans person forced to use the “wrong” changing room somehow always seems a lot worse to you than the plight of a sexually assaulted woman or girl, or one who reasonably fears she might be? Why don’t you feel her panic rising, not to mention her physical pain? Why can’t you imagine her nightmares afterwards? Why can’t you think of her future, newly reconstructed with places she can’t easily go, and things she can’t easily remember?
Maybe you just can’t imagine the distress of a female rape or sexual assault victim. Or maybe you can, but it seems boring to you. Maybe you’ve seen that distress represented too many times in too many crap tv dramas and crime thrillers, so that now you can only relate to it as a kind of banal, vaguely titillating fantasy. Or maybe you’ve made a calculation, consciously or unconsciously, and decided that there’s no social capital to be had in feeling outraged about sexual violence against women; the cases are too common, and the rest of the world too indifferent to give you any credit for it. Or then again, maybe you secretly watch a lot of porn, and you can’t let yourself get too deep into the thoughts and feelings of a rape victim; it might turn out you were watching one while getting off on it, and what would that say about you? Or maybe, more basically, you can’t get too fussed about other women’s pain because no one has ever paid much attention to yours. Whatever. If you are one of the people leaping to "whatabouts" rather than stay with this particular bit of reality, I don’t know what your problem is: you work it out. But even if you can’t, at least notice your inconsistency.
*I've been reminded by a reader that the message should not be that fighting back is always the right thing to do during an assault (even though I continue to believe teaching women the skills is to fight is the right thing to do, whether or not they use them). Sometimes fighting back can make things worse, unfortunately. And of course, whether fighting works or makes things worse in a particular case, this has - to repeat for emphasis - absolutely nothing to do with a woman's responsibility what is happening. She isn't responsible, no matter what she does.