If I Can’t Defend Myself, I Don’t Want Your Unfinished Revolution

In a Dec. 12 New York Time Magazine piece called “The Conversation”, Emily Bazelon interviews several notable feminist academics and journalists on workplace sexual harassment.  Laura Kipnis, author of a recent book critiquing Title IX overreach on college campuses, is one of those in the conversation.  Kipnis points out that feminists have struggled to gain what she calls “civic equality” (access to full participation in politics, the workplace, and other public spheres) as well as to gain bodily autonomy (such as reproductive freedom and freedom from interpersonal violence). Both of these revolutions are unfinished, as the sexual harassment of working women brings to light.

Of course, one’s lack of bodily autonomy impedes one’s civic equality.  And as feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon pointed out in her landmark 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem keeping women from both economic and sexual self-determination.  By the way, it’s interesting that MacKinnon is not one of those interviewed or referenced in these recent conversations.  She has been stereotyped as anti-male and anti-sex, and yet her work was crucial in making sexual harassment a legally actionable form of sex discrimination in the workplace.  In short, at some level anyway, we are all MacKinnon feminists now. 

In the NYT Magazine interviews, Kipnis is the only one in the group to ask the question about how women respond to this kind of sexual aggression.  When Bazelon asks who should be responsible for change, Anita Hill answers: “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture.”  Danyel Smith, Soledad O’Brien, Lynn Povich, and Amanda Hess all chime in that we must change men or the culture.  Kipnis asks, with the innocence born of the utter sensibility of the question and the trepidation that stems from knowing full well that feminists have embraced a victim politics and she’s sure to get hammered, “Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?”  After all, it’s not as if changing women is not also changing the culture–and vice versa.  Of course, we would argue, empowerment self-defense training does not “fix” women who are “broken”.  Kipnis mentions that she wants to embrace the kind of assertiveness training that was once a popular and acceptable part of the feminist movement.  

In suggesting this, Laura Kipnis faces what we’ve been facing for years in our advocacy of women’s verbal and physical resistance to men’s sexual aggression: the reality that for many feminists, self-defense is verboten.  The taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is.  (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)

Ironically, the outright refusal to embrace the embodied tactics that resist one’s oppression embraces and essentializes the very feminine comportment and victim mindset that themselves constitute the lived realities of a sexist culture.  In response to Anita Hill’s remark that “if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women,” Kipnis simply, but insightfully, comes back with, “Good luck.”  Suggesting that we make men change is not only unrealistic but demands and solidifies a Victorian ideal of male chivalry.  This is not equitable, nor is it pro-sex, nor is it chock full of girl power.  Indeed, it is an attitude that goes against all other ideas popular among feminists today.  

Amanda Hess goes so far as to say that women cannot challenge their sexual harassers, proclaiming:  “I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.”  In short, Hess wants men to change–and no doubt rejects the arguments that, thanks to evolution, our male coworkers are just cavemen in suits–but wants to underscore the fact that women, biologically, cannot change their responses to sexual harassment.  Women are engaged in a “human response” that we can’t “teach away.”  (Try telling Hess her male colleague’s ogling the gorgeous young woman who arrived at work wearing a bodycon dress, stiletto heels, and no bra is just a “human response.”)

Wanting to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace without training women how to challenge it flies in the face of sexual harassment law itself.  After all, unless it’s the quid-pro-quo type of sex harassment (e.g., “perform this sexual act if you want the promotion/don’t want to get fired”), the law itself demands that the victim first let the perpetrator know that his verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome.  The condition-of-work type of sex harassment presumes that people are differently sensitive to jokes, touching, and asks for drinks, and that people have different views of what conduct is sexual in nature.  Thus the victim must first say something either through her supervisor or established written complaint channels, or directly to the perpetrator, such as, “I’m not comfortable with your sexual jokes; do not tell them to me anymore”, or “I don’t want you to touch me”, or “I do not want to see the porn on your computer; do not show me that again.”  If a guy continues to subject his colleague to these working conditions after he is told to stop, and such action unreasonably interferes with her work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, then it is sexual harassment.  (Note: gendered terms used to make the argument easier to follow. OF COURSE some harassers are women, some victims are men, etc.)

We still need to challenge gender inequality in intimate relationships, in the workplace, and in civic life.  And, to appropriate Emma Goldman, if I can’t defend myself I don’t want to be part of your unfinished revolution.


5 responses

  1. Another extremely educational post, thank you very much! One thing I have been thinking about alot recently in my own work on armed self-defense is the uneasiness of liberals (and I count myself as one) with violence. Even the language of “self-defense” can evade the reality of violence, and (perhaps?) make those who need to use violence in self-defense hesitate when they need to act.

    I am currently reading “When Violence is the Answer” by Tim Larkin in response to my perception that liberals lack a theory, ethic, and practice of justifiable and necessary violence. Larkin begins the book stating, “Violence is rarely the answers, but when it is, it’s the ONLY answer.”

    I think of firefighters as a parallel. Firefighters are anti-fire, but there are certain circumstances in which firefighters have to set fires to contain fires — i.e., they have to fight fire with fire. For better or worse, that is the mindset I am trying to cultivate if some black swan violent event besets me. It would seem to be all the more important for those whose likelihood of violent victimization is much higher.

  2. Martha McCaughey | Reply

    Thank you for this interesting comment, David! I think feminists have for so long positioned violence as patriarchal, and have cautioned us that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house”, such that we are scared to embrace any technique that is “violent”. This is why the V-Day Campaign does not want money raised in the hundreds of productions of The Vagina Monologues to be donated to self-defense training. They explicitly stated that they are trying to “stop violence” against women and so do not want to train women in the use of violence to stop that violence. Some would say we ought to read more Derrida on how violence is inescapable.

    1. On the other hand, I just read a post by a self-defense trainer who encourages people not to use the term “violence” because it always has negative connotations. Advises to use “force” instead.

    2. p.s., looking forward to reading a chapter of your book about physical feminism in my sociology of guns class again this semester.

      1. Martha McCaughey

        Great! Tell your students they can email me if they have questions. Just give them a key word (like Yamane) in common to put in the subject line so I’ll spot the emails from them easily. In my book, I took the position that we ought to call it violence rather than find other words for it. I may have been overly optimistic and not pragmatic enough!!

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