Sunday, 24 January 2016

A better analogy

Content note: rape, victim-blaming

So we’ve had yet another terrible article, and surprise surprise it’s in the New Zealand Herald, telling women that when they get raped it’s their own fault for being fall-down drunk. Rather than link to the original and give them oxygen, here’s a DoNotLink. The only thing even slightly novel about it is the author, Liz Holsted: not only is she a woman, but she’s a member of the Sophie Elliott Foundation. Sophie Elliott was murdered in 2008 by a man she’d just broken up with; the Foundation’s stated aim is “to prevent violence against women by raising awareness about the signs of abuse in dating relationships.” Apparently Holsted thinks this goal is advanced by statements like the following:

Wise up, young women. You, and only you, have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe, by behaving in a manner that signals that you are precious, special and deserve a man that is appreciative of you and your unique character. Please, you beautiful young women, do not downgrade yourself by behaving in a trashy manner – because you will attract trash.

You catch that? Not just “You have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe” but “You, and only you”. Not the men to whom a few square inches of skin is a liability waiver and an unconscious woman is an opportunity. Not the men who think they’re owed something if they paid for the meal, not the men who think their own feelings of attraction give them usage rights over another person’s body. Not them. They’re not responsible, not according to Holsted. They may be “trash”, but they’re not responsible. That burden falls on “you and only you”.

Well, I guess it’s refreshing, in a way, that Holsted is being so direct. Most people making this kind of argument try and weasel their way out of being victim-blamers by using what’s now a rather tired analogy: “It’s just like advising someone to lock their car against thieves. Of course the thieves are doing a bad thing and of course it’s their fault, but locking your car is still sound advice.” The main problem with this analogy is that women are not cars. Women are people. And no, that isn’t missing the point of the analogy. Let me explain.

The reason why you lock your car boils down to this: it’s an inanimate object. If someone other than you opens it, it won’t know. It won’t make a fuss. Your belongings might be taken without you knowing anything about it. That’s why it’s an opportunity for theft. What’s more, an unlocked car looks the same as a locked one, unless you’re actively looking in the windows (and why would you be doing that, unless you’ve already decided to steal something?) It’s not putting out any kind of “signal” to “attract” thieves. The natural moral of the “Lock your car” analogy isn’t “Stay sober and dress modest”, it’s “Wear a chastity-belt”.

If you want to make the point Holsted intends to make – “Don’t put yourself on display or someone will take advantage of you” – then your analogy needs to be to something else that someone might display. Businesspeople, keep your goods safe from shoplifters: stop putting them on shelves where people might walk in and nick them! Well, it’s true. Sometimes people do that. And yet no-one, no-one, shakes their head and tut-tuts over the foolishness of the shopkeepers. Now that I think about it, that’s a much better analogy. Why do shopkeepers put things on display on shelves, despite the risk? Because they do actually want people to take them – with consent.

In retail, of course, the condition for consent is payment, but don’t get stuck on that. Lending libraries also display their goods on shelves so that people can take them consensually, but this time the condition for consent is that they’ll bring them back. Again, a few people don’t. Again, no-one calls the libraries foolish. Art galleries display goods and don’t consent to their being taken at all. No-one calls them foolish either. Consent is the critical point. Lack of consent is what makes theft theft. (Granted, some shops and galleries put physical barriers up to make theft difficult; but, as with the car analogy, that’s because their goods are inanimate and can’t object to being stolen.)

Holsted makes a distinction between nice men, who appreciate women’s character, and “trash”. The implication is that nice men are more particular than “trash” as to what kind of woman they’ll want to hook up with. As a man myself, I don’t think this is true. My sexual feelings quite frequently prompt me to do “trashy” things like stare at women’s bodies or make suggestive remarks. I don’t act on these promptings, not because I’m fussy about who I might wake up next to – I have an exclusive partner, I’m not in the market at all – but because I have learned that women are human beings and don’t deserve to be treated like that. And what’s more I know this is true regardless of how said women are dressed.

If men who commit sexual assault do so because they feel strong physical attraction towards people whose humanity they have no regard for, then they probably won’t be very picky, at the time, about their victims’ attire and comportment. Strong desires do that. But that has the opposite implication to what Holsted thinks. It means that no amount of “modesty” is going to dissuade them. You know who it will dissuade? People who take care to read other people’s signals, that’s who. People who respect other people’s boundaries. People who care about consent.

Not very long ago, the societal standard for sex was not “Is it consensual?” but “Are you married?” While the wedding ceremony as such no longer has quite this significance for most of us, there’s still a widespread attitude that a woman going out looking for casual sex is doing something disreputable. Maybe that’s what these supposed anti-rape warnings are really about; that would make more sense. Modesty won’t curb rape, but it will put a damper on casual consensual sex. But if that’s your ideal, then please have the honesty to say so.

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