Let’s take a look at a particularly awesome video, shall we? Content warning for brief sexualized assault and then a serious, physical takedown.
Although I’m not a person who engages in violence, not even violent self-defense, I’ve often said that if women physically fight back more often against seemingly minor assaults, a lot of good might happen. Since the law classifies offensive and unwanted touching as a battery (or, in some contexts an assault), of necessity the laws of self-defense that apply to victims of assault or battery apply to any offensive and unwanted touching. The law is anything but rapidly changing, but in one small area of the law that can work for women.
In the abstract, the sexualized groping that so many men find funny and non-serious often constitutes a serious misdemeanor under the law – something for which someone could be sentenced to several months in jail (though this almost never happens in practice). In this context, that means that punching someone who grabs your butt is, according to the law of many, many jurisdictions, perfectly well justified so long as you have reasonable fear that it might happen again. This reasonable fear that it might happen again is necessary to make your punch legal self defense and not illegal revenge. However, if a person actually has grabbed your butt, even if they appear to be walking away from you, it’s at least possible that a reasonable person in your situation might fear that the perp is doing so only to appear casual and escape accountability, not to actually leave the scene and not assault you again. it’s arguable, and generally if the person is walking away it’s probably a bad idea to throw a punch, but my personal opinion is that it probably won’t result in arrest if you have good witnesses or other evidence that the groping actually occurred.
But this physical fighting back isn’t supposed to be punishment. No, although I think that if guys who grope others get punched for their trouble even one out of ten times it will probably deter a lot of them, the main benefit isn’t dissuading an immediate repetition of the groping behavior and it certainly isn’t the catharsis a woman might get from striking back against someone who assaults her (though if you do strike back against someone who assaults you and it does result in catharsis, your catharsis isn’t what makes the whole scenario regrettable).
The beautiful thing about fighting back in the moment is that the police now have to take the incident seriously. If a guy gropes you and heads toward the door while you scream, “Asshat!” the police are unlikely to arrest the jerk for the assault. Even if the groping location, force, duration, and context are the same, if you punch the asshat right in the Freuding face the cops are much more likely to make an arrest because the whole situation seems like a bigger deal to outsiders. Remember, from the point of view of those in power, and therefore from the point of view of most cops themselves, the cops are there to keep the peace. Lawbreaking per se isn’t a problem. Most people who jaywalk aren’t under threat of arrest. However, if you’re homeless your mere presence is considered a threat to the public peace, so if you jaywalk – or do anything else that, while illegal, would not constitute an arrestable offense for some well-dressed other person – you may very well be taken into custody. Likewise, an ass-grope that precedes leaving a party will almost never be taken by cops as sufficient reason to make an arrest. An ass-grope that precedes a fist fight clearly causes a breach of the peace and thus is sufficient reason to make an arrest. It’s something peculiar to understanding the function of the law to the ruling class and thus how the ruling class trains its law enforcement officers to think.
Now, if it’s not going to be easy to prove that the asshat committed an assault, throwing a punch is a legally dangerous act in addition to carrying in-the-moment dangers to one’s physical safety. However, if there are enough good witnesses or if there is video of the assault, then when police show up to deal with the breach of the peace, they’re going to arrest the person who committed the initial sexualized assault, not the person who threw a punch in defense.
The laws which outlaw such groping aren’t kept on the books because those who write the laws want everyone to be arrested for the least serious of any possible sexualized assaults. Rather, they’re kept on the books because they are tools to be used as needed to punish people who cause a breach of the peace. So long as your response is reasonable according to the law, and please remember the law has an antiquated notion of the need to protect women’s bodies and women’s virtue, all the consequences for the breach of the peace fall on the person who committed the initial assault.
Obviously there will be many women who will never respond with violent self defense – and that’s fine. I’m not arguing that women should respond in a particular way. Rather, what I’m arguing is that women who feel like physical self-defense is an appropriate choice for them, who are targets of assault, and who immediately feel compelled to respond should not be deterred from doing so. Women should know our legal rights – if possible, we should know them in the way their specific local jurisdiction applies them and not just generally what rights of self-defense exist at a national level.
When appropriate for self-defense or when legal and appropriate for restraining a perp until cops arrive, the women who take physical action will make the problem of sexualized assault a problem for men. And by men, I don’t simply mean the perpetrators. I mean, right now women take up almost the entire social burden of such assaults. When we are negatively affected by such assaults, we might leave a job. The business will continue, but the woman assaulted will lose income. A woman might pay for counseling or, hell, even pay for a vacation. I’m glad if people can have vacations, but if your mental health requires a vacation – which costs real money – to temporarily escape a pattern of assault, then that particular need for a vacation is unjust and the particular expenses of that vacation are unfairly personalizing the costs of something that isn’t, at bottom, that one woman’s problem.
When men who commit these less legally serious sexualized assaults spark fistfights with their behavior, that requires police response time. That fills up jail cells. That requires attorneys and judges and court clerks and bailiffs and jail cooks and EMTs and nurses and probation officers and holy Freud, that’s a lot of people. Each person might not spend very much time per assault, but instead of one perp and one victim, that’s a whole lot of people whose lives are affected by that one assault. Moreover, it’s a whole lot of money for the system to spend on these everyday assaults.
Even when the perps don’t spend any time in jail after arraignment (and I would hope that they don’t for most of these assaults), some of them will lose their jobs, which while less than ideal is certainly the just outcome if the assault has been committed and someone is going to lose a job – the victim, leaving to try to gain more safety, or the perp, as a natural consequence of being an asshat.
Sometimes even for women who are physically confident and willing to engage in physical self-defense it will feel too dangerous at times. That’s okay too. Remember that I’m not advocating for a single response regardless of person or context. However, I think that physical self-defense is going to be far more effective at keeping women safe than some might fear. Many of the men who engage in these assaults are cowards and bullies. Although the manner in which they assault women might be different in form, they are also likely to treat men and trans people badly. The disproportionate rate of assaults on women strangers are a function of how likely these jerks think it is that they will get away with their bad behavior. Having judged the situation safe enough to engage in groping, there will be a tendency for a significant segment of these guys to be shocked by women who physically fight back.
It’s just a guess, but I do think that most would rather flee than escalate their assaults when someone they’ve targeted as a victim uses violent self-defense. You see that in the video above. Now, the video above probably doesn’t show the server using violent self-defense. Rather, the server uses violence to throw the perp to the ground and intimidate him into staying there until the cops arrive. The immediacy of the response makes it possible that, “I don’t want this jerk doing that to me again,” was running through the server’s mind. Maybe self-defense is happening in addition to restraint-through-intimidation. But it certainly isn’t the only thing intended by the server, and maybe not even the main thing.
Because of that, this isn’t the scenario that I’ve generally imagined when discussing the positive social benefits of taking seriously women’s legal rights to self-defense. Generally I’ve imagined a grope in a more crowded area – maybe a party – with the perp not actually leaving the area and the victim spinning and punching, not chasing and grabbing. Even if there isn’t security footage as there was in the case of this server’s experience, if you yell, “Don’t grab my ass!” or something similar while you’re throwing the punch, things are likely to work out along the same lines as the situation in the video. As I discussed above, police often don’t think of such groping as a serious enough assault to merit the attention of the legal system. For similar reasons, even though the laws are on the books, the men who commit the vast majority of these assaults are likely to consider them legal because they are de facto legal. But de jure, there is authority to arrest, try, and convict those who perpetrate such assaults. As a result, it seems more than plausible that a man given a bloody nose when his victim fights back will frequently admit to police that he groped the person who punched them, thinking that violent self-defense is by definition unreasonable and illegal in that context. They would be wrong, of course, but the very sexist and dismissive attitude that makes it possible for some to treat their desire to assault as more important than others’ bodily integrity or consent also makes it possible for those same arrogant jerks to think that they don’t have to lie to escape legal consequences. Many might even call the cops themselves, thinking to have the police arrest someone who was only engaged in self-defense.
It would always be a risk, of course. The risks are also much more serious who the sexist asshat is a man of color or has a significant disability. The risks are also heightened when the person considering self-defense is a trans person, a woman of color, or a woman with a significant disability. And, of course, ultimately what I want is an end to violence, not an escalation of it. However the way that the law is structured right now, justice is largely unavailable to women assaulted in these ways. While the law could be changed in many positive ways that might make such self-defense unnecessary or undesirable, I think that if the law is structured so that the only way to get justice is to fight back, then some fighting back – with its attendant costs for both perpetrators and for society at large – can much more quickly motivate reforms than women’s current tendency to personalize all the costs of others’ sexist assaults.
Given that, and knowing that there are some women who, unlike me, aren’t philosophically opposed to the personal use of violence, I think that Punch A Sexist Perp is a systemic response that deserves a hell of a lot more serious discussion than Punch A Nazi. Why don’t you help start that conversation below?