In defense of the “weaker sex”

Note: This article first appeared on Monday, February 28th on Canadian Atheist. While it is CA policy not to cross-post, I felt that this case needed to be made on as many outlets as I could.

A good friend of mine posted a story on my Facebook wall last week about a police officer who fell victim to the arch-stupidity of the “she was asking for it” argument:

A police officer who suggested women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” has apologized, saying he is “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”

“I made a comment which was poorly thought out and did not reflect the commitment of the Toronto Police Service to the victims of sexual assaults,” Const. Michael Sanguinetti wrote on Thursday to Osgoode Hall Law School where he made the comment. “Violent crimes such as sexual assaults can have a traumatizing effect on their victims. . . . My comment was hurtful in this respect.”

It’s a tired trope that is almost guaranteed to come up in any discussion of women and sexuality – if women didn’t make themselves so open to sexual predators then they’d be safer. It is due to the privilege of being male that this argument offends me only intellectually, since I will never be the target of a sexual assault. I will never appreciate the visceral part of the feminist response to this argument, try as I might. The reason this particular friend posted the link on my wall is that she and I have gone 9 rounds on it in the past, with me articulating the “personal responsibility” position. Don’t worry – I got better.

However, a second friend of mine saw this and posted what he thought was an entirely reasonable response. His response (I’ll call him “Billy” just so we can avoid pronoun confusion) was that the story failed to take the police officer’s side into account. It is a fact, said Billy, that women will be less inviting targets for assault if they are dressed more conservatively and hide their sexuality. Billy didn’t understand why this was such a controversial statement, and was taken aback with Sheila’s (again, for the same of pronoun confusion) full-throated and confrontational response. Billy messaged me afterward to apologize for starting a fight on my wall, and confessing that he couldn’t really understand what he had said that was so inflammatory.

The problem with this “she was asking for it” argument, aside from the fact that it isn’t true (sexual assault is just as common in Muslim countries where women have to stay covered and none of them dress sexy for fear of being arrested, beaten, or scalded with acid), is that it completely misses the point, and tries to derive an “ought” from an “is”. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. The solution to the problem is not for women to “dress less slutty” (a phrase which is provocative enough on its own), but for men to realize that a woman’s choice of dress is not an open invitation to sexual assault.

It seems as though this seemingly-obvious (once explained) argument still has yet to suffuse through common consciousness:

A University of Manitoba law professor has concerns about a judge’s comments at a sexual assault sentencing. Karen Busby said the remarks by Justice Robert Dewar are a legal throwback to the time when how a woman dressed or acted could be treated as implied consent to sex. Dewar said “sex was in the air” when he spared a man jail time by handing him a two-year conditional sentence instead and allowing him to remain free in the community.

During the sentencing, Dewar also commented on the way the woman was dressed and her actions the night she was forced to have sex in the woods along a dark highway outside Thompson in 2006. The man and a friend met the 26-year-old woman and her girlfriend earlier that night outside a bar under what the judge called “inviting circumstances.” He pointed out the victim and her friend were dressed in tube tops, no bras, and high heels and noted they were wearing plenty of makeup. Dewar called the man a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted.

On a Facebook wall, the kind of statement that Billy made (although, to be sure, he didn’t intend to suggest that it is a rape victim’s fault for being assaulted and he went out of his way to say so) is merely annoying. When it comes from a judge’s mouth, it carries behind it the force of law. I do not wish to derogate Justice Dewar’s abilities as a jurist – perhaps he would have handed down an identical sentence if the victim’s clothing had not been a factor. One cannot guarantee that this would have been the case for all judges, although it certainly should be.

And certainly, this kind of cavalier attitude toward sexual assault does appear in other places:

Reports that women are being sexually assaulted at a Downtown Eastside shelter are being ignored, a coalition of women and women’s groups is charging. But the agency that oversees the First United Church co-ed shelter at Gore and Hastings says it has had meetings with both police and women’s groups on the matter and is actively working to address it. “The safety and security of people using provincially funded shelters are our top priority,” said a statement from BC Housing, which funds and has an operation agreement with the shelter. “We will continue working together to make sure the shelter is a safe place to stay.” But Harsha Walia, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter, said women have reported sexual abuse to front-line workers, police and staff at the shelter, and nothing has been done about it.

When it is a woman’s fault for being assaulted, when her mere presence is provocation enough to justify some kind of violence against her, we know something has gone terribly wrong. When we turn a blind eye to women being assaulted, we cannot call ourselves a society where women enjoy equal or sufficient rights under the law. And because language like “she was asking for it” or “don’t dress like a slut” only serves to reinforce the casual tolerance of violence against women that leads to assault, it is the job of every feminist to speak out against it whenever it comes up. It will forever be a source of chagrin for me that I didn’t always speak this way, but I bloody well will from now on.

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