At a meeting last week of the campus Interpersonal Violence Council, a new administrative leader championed what we could do with technology–for example, by acknowledging that today’s students don’t read through webpages, and instead get a lot of information on their smart phones. Wonderful, we thought. She also suggested that the Council partner with the campus Chief Information Officer and others who might not be on the Council. Also wonderful! Finally, as an example, she suggested that our students and employees could learn how to change their privacy settings and turn off the location services on their phones because those committing interpersonal violence might be tracking and stalking a person using these technologies. Again, wonderful– and there is where we see that people who typically say that advocating self-defense is victim-blaming do not have a problem with these other means of self-defense–call them cyber-self-defense. No outcry that we should be teaching people not to stalk online! No nervousness that such actions would not count as primary prevention! Why not?
The difference between learning to defend yourself in cyberspace and learning to defend yourself in meatspace (the brick-and-mortar environment of, say, a college party) is a physical one. People tend to recognize that women, in particular, are vulnerable in both situations, and embrace the idea of their being able to do something about that vulnerability in cyberspace. But not in physical space. And yet the very same principles of knowing where you want to draw your boundaries, and what level of privacy and autonomy you expect to have, apply equally in cyberspace and in the very physical space of a college party.
We are often told, by those doing rape prevention work in particular, that suggesting women can learn physical and verbal personal safety strategies smacks of victim blame. And yet, there is no similar concern about teaching women to turn off location tracking on their social media apps. This makes us wonder whether the charge that f2f self-defense is victim blaming is really just a cover for a belief that women can’t – or shouldn’t – actually engage in physical self-defense.
Because physical self-defense challenges rape culture and gender ideology in a way that cyber self-defense does not, cyber-security techniques maintain the illusion of female vulnerability and masculine prowess. The idea that women can powerfully, forcefully, physically, and effectively defend themselves is far more threatening than the image of a manicured finger tapping the “off” button of a smart phone app.
Perhaps we can embrace the general willingness to accept the validity and necessity of teaching people about their “virtual” boundaries and show how that applies to their “meat” boundaries as well. As with cyberspace, so with meatspace.