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Personal Responsibility or Education?Posted on: March 30th 2021
By: Harley Dalton, Area Manager, Greater Manchester
Personal responsibility, not education, is the solution to sexual violence.
Sarah Everard is a name we all know for the most tragic of reasons, and her killing has sparked international debate about the treatment of women in our society. Of notable contributions, it is arguably the intervention of Jenny Jones, Baroness of Moulsecoomb and Member of the House of Lords that has most inflamed passions with her suggestion that a 6pm curfew on men could solve the problem of sexual violence.
To be clear, Baroness Jones wasn’t being entirely serious – as she wrote last week, hers was an ironic reaction to advice that women should adapt their movements and behaviours to account for the risk of sexual violence. The sentiment behind the suggestion however, is a genuine and common belief that such advice constitutes a form of victim-blaming and oppression, whereby women who exercise their free will are culpable for the wrongs inflicted upon them if they don’t conform to male safety standards.
Correspondingly, proponents of this kind of thinking are open about who is really to blame for sexual violence by insisting on referring to the problem of rape and sexual assault as ‘male violence’. The attribution of this collective responsibility and guilt strongly insinuates that the problem of sexual violence is so sufficiently ingrained in men, whether through their savage nature or patriarchal nurturing, as to warrant and justify more stringent societal and legal impositions on them.
“Don’t protect your daughters, educate your sons,” as the popular viral slogan goes. Yet if the likes of Baroness Jones want to deal effectively with sexual violence against women, they are best advised to check their premises. By blaming men for their alleged lack of education, we risk trivialising what is largely the real and ineradicable cause of sexual violence, while attacking sensible appeals for personal responsibility risks dismissing what is the only effective option for risk mitigation which would protect greater numbers of women.
Dismissing the supposed need for education isn’t to say that men ought not to be more mindful about how women perceive the threat of violence, nor should we dismiss women’s fears on the basis that men are more likely to be assaulted than women. Empathy necessarily means understanding similar situations through different perspectives; on a purely physical basis, for example, there is a stark difference between the options of fight or flight available to most men against most other people, versus the vulnerability of almost any woman against unexpected attacks by men who, in most cases she can neither outrun nor outmuscle.
Likewise, clearly defined and transparent rules around consent is of benefit to both sexes, and it is reasonable to suppose that greater social understanding and condemnation of what constitutes harassment or non-consensual contact – catcalling, or touching when dancing in a club, for example – might lead to a decline in non-invasive yet upsetting breaches of consent and good taste.
Such improvements are, though, beside the point. Greater understanding of personal boundaries might well reduce instances of catcalling, groping and unsolicited sexual images online, for example, but the nature of these repulsive transgressions is still very different to sexual violence. Sexual violence is malicious and barbaric. There’s nothing contextual about sexual violence. Its evil, its immorality, its physical, mental and spiritual harm, its social ignominy and its illegality, are unmistakable.
It is not a lack of education or understanding on behalf of men that leads to rape and sexual assault, or the more egregious cases of harassment. The wanton disregard for boundaries is no accident – it is deliberate, malevolent intent from a tiny proportion of men who know fully the evil of their actions. Despite all the laws and social conventions already widely known and accepted, the cold, hard, harsh truth is that bad people will always find some way to do bad things. Evil is intractable. The problem of sexual violence, just like ordinary violence is therefore also intractable; when you drill down to the core of the problem, beyond mental health disorders, social immobility, conviction rates, alcohol abuse, and everything else which contributes to the problem, you’re still left with raw, perverse, uncompromising evil.
And this is why, ultimately, those who take offence to well-meaning safety advice are so dangerously self-defeating. Those who advocate for personal responsibility are routinely chastised for advising women to stay safe; sensible behaviour apparently ought not to be a requirement for increasing one's safety. A woman should have the right to wander drunkenly through secluded areas in the dark wearing whatever she wants, without fear of ambush. This is obviously nonsensical.
The truth is that when people rally against personal responsibility, they're objecting to the nature of reality itself. Whatever mitigations one might adopt between, reality dictates that both the first and last lines of defence against life's suffering are personal responsibility. The hypothetical total absence of law and social order would necessitate self-defence to preserve life and liberty; the hypothetical total absence of modern medicine would necessitate cautious and healthy living; the hypothetical total absence of established food sources (think Tom Hanks in Cast Away) would necessitate foraging. You get the point. Now layer on all the protections, mitigations and conventions of state and society, the laws and principles, the services and technology, to their exhaustible limits. People are still killing and raping other people, despite law and custom. People still die of cancer, despite advanced medicine. People still starve, despite abundant food, welfare, charity and employment opportunity. The problems of life, uh, find a way. They will continue to do so, probably for centuries to come. And all you're left with, once external mitigations are exhausted, as all finite resources must be, is yourself and what you choose to do.
Being responsible still won't mean a total elimination of sexual violence, obviously not - bad people will find ways to do bad things. And I'm not going to sit here and tell women what constitutes "responsible behaviour" for them, because it's subjective and contextual. But it is highly irresponsible to tell women that a rape-free utopia is just around the corner if only we accept more government control over us all; personal responsibility is clearly, logically a necessary factor, because once you've exhausted the finite capacity of the state and society to mitigate risk, it is only in changing your behaviour that any further meaningful reduction in personal risk can be achieved.
So it isn't ‘oppressive’ or ‘misogynistic’ to suggest sensible behaviours to women to mitigate their risk of rape even with robust legal and social preventions, any more than it is oppressive (or tobaccophobic, say) to advise a smoker to quit despite the existence of chemotherapy. Personal responsibility is essential whether you like it or not, and abdicating that responsibility is a foolish and dangerous thing to do whether you like it or not.
There is much that could be done to improve conditions for women in our society. Clarifying and, if possible, strengthening laws on consent is an ongoing process, as all things in their imperfection must be. Low prosecution rates for sexual crimes are a real concern, and addressing this – for example, with more investment in reporting and forensic detection measures – is an important deterrent. Preventative policing could potentially make the streets safer at night. Our binge culture is a curse. Our society also needs to have an honest and open discussion about effective self-defence: denying women the ability to defend themselves with projectile weaponry like pepper spray is perpetuating a physical imbalance keeping women and their bodies in a constant state of disadvantage.
But we don't live in a utopia, or even in a potential one. The resources of the state are and always will be finite. With the best of intentions, cracks always exist in any system – the bigger the wider. No one can protect themselves against all things at all times. And there are bad eggs in every batch. But by treating personal responsibility as though it were futile in the face of the various problems of life, or oppressive and undesirable compared to a society which could or ought to aim through the state at utopian conditions, we expose ourselves to the whim of any external threat that slips through the cracks. I would call it wishful thinking to treat your personal safety as someone else’s problem, but I don't know what sort of person would wish that.
The views expressed represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UK Liberty Party. UK Liberty Party sometimes publishes articles we may disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.