There’s a lot of discussion of the Bill Cosby case going around Twitter tonight. One question that’s been coming up, and which other smartass feminist chicks are handling better than I have is, basically: “Yeah, but what’s wrong with advocating for self-defense?”
One answer is that there will always be many victims who literally cannot defend themselves effectively. Elderly people, children, physically disabled people, and so on. Drugged/drunk victims probably will not defend themselves very well. Then there’s the phenomenon of tonic immobility, in which the victim basically freezes up and cannot move while she’s being violated. It’s a well-documented physiological response to violence. Happens all the time. Self-defense is sometimes impossible even for the most physically formidable people. But most people targeted for rape are not the most physically formidable, and when they try to defend themselves, their attackers retaliate and they get injured much more severely than if they’d submitted quietly to the attack.
In addition to all that, I would like to introduce another question: let’s say most women, and men in groups prone to rape victimization, did learn to defend themselves effectively against attempting rapists. Let’s say they put their skills into practice, and the ones who don’t get tonic immobility manage to fight their attackers off.
I’ll admit, it’s a tempting scenario. Maybe, just maybe, if more women managed to inflict painful injuries on their assailants, those rapists would think very hard about raping again.
They’d probably just choose less physically formidable people as their victims, but the problem goes beyond that.
You do know that most rapes are not a matter of some hooded monster jumping out of the bushes at a woman he’s never seen before and never expects to see again, yes? Such things do happen, but most rapes are between people who know each other and have mutual friends, family or colleagues.
But the biggest issue here is that when a woman (or anyone) tells people she’s been raped by a particular assailant, lots of people will look for any reason not to believe her. Accusing someone of rape where their friends can hear you is the quickest way to be called a liar.
The very question of, “But if you didn’t want it, then why didn’t you fight back?” is a good reason why telling women to defend themselves is not the way to combat rape. Those who are unwilling to believe the victim are much of the reason why she didn’t put up a better fight against her attacker.
So let’s picture a scenario of successful self-defense. We have a man* who is at least moderately well-regarded by his community, he chooses a woman he wants to violate, he gets her alone, and let’s say he allows her to stay mostly sober while he assaults her. She fights back, well enough to make him let her go. Then what happens? Then we have this man with visible physical injuries inflicted by a woman who has not experienced a completed rape. His injuries may even be more serious and/or more obvious than hers. So then while she tells everyone she had to beat him up because he was trying to rape her, he tells the same people this fucking psycho bitch went apeshit on him for no apparent reason while he was just trying to be friendly with her.
How does she prove, at that point, that he was trying to rape her? It’s difficult enough to be believed when there’s a completed rape with physical evidence. How does she prove that she was acting in warranted self-defense? How does she convince everyone she had good reason to inflict those injuries?
The same people who are now demanding to know why women don’t do more to protect themselves would instead be insisting that women cannot go beating up every guy who puts his hand on their knee, and how could she be so sure he was trying to rape her, and why do you have to be so suspicious of any guy who seems interested, and why would a man like that even bother with someone like you?
This is especially salient when the rapist is a beloved, famous person like Bill Cosby. Who’s willing to be the one who puts bruises on him?
Then we have differences in how some women are perceived differently from others. I occupy a higher privilege profile than most women, and I’m not sure that people would take my word for it if I pummeled a guy who couldn’t take no for an answer. Maybe if my assailant came from a much lower privilege profile, but most rapists don’t choose their victims that way. If a mostly respectable-looking, well-spoken, cisgender white lady can expect to be called a liar, what happens to someone with more marginalized identities? What happens to an undocumented sex worker who puts up a fight against a well-off family man who forces himself on her? The chances that she won’t be treated like a vicious criminal are basically nonexistent.
They don’t really want us to defend ourselves. Not that well, and not often. Maybe against stranger rapists, but not against most of the people who actually commit rape. They don’t want us to fight back. It’s just another way to move goalposts around what we should have done.