Benjamin Bestgen: Women and safety from violence
Benjamin Bestgen this week discusses violence against women. See his last primer here.
One of the fundamental justifications for permitting an organised state, government and law enforcement to exist is that these institutions, and the people who serve in them, are meant to guarantee public safety. People shall enjoy peace of mind that nobody has to fear violence against them or if it happens, be confident that the assailants will be prosecuted and punished. Philosophers as diverse as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, the prophet Muhammad or Confucius are aligned in this.
Indeed, not having to fear for your personal safety is what Montesquieu understood political liberty to mean: being free doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, regardless of how others are affected by it. It means you can do as much as reasonably possible without having to fear that the forces of the state or your fellow citizens cause you harm.
Perspectives on violence
Lawyers and philosophers both tend to pride themselves on their intellectual rigour, the ability to consider the world from various angles. We aim to look at it for what it is (and imagine what it could become), even where that might make us uncomfortable or doesn’t lead to conclusions we’d like to hear.
One of the most critical issues affecting women is violence. With depressing regularity, we receive news of yet another woman harassed, threatened, beaten, raped, choked or killed every day. Sure, men are victims of violence too and sometimes women are the abusers. Nobody denies that males and females are capable of violent and abusive behaviour.
But statistically speaking and only looking at the UK, ca. 75 per cent of violent crime (including sexual violence) against our fellow humans is perpetrated by men. And that’s only what is officially recorded – the unreported figures are estimated to be even worse. Likewise, when it comes to violence against women, the offenders typically get away with it – successful prosecution rates for domestic violence, rape and sexual assault are abysmally low. No amount of deflection, denial, defensive posturing and “whataboutism” can make these facts go away.
Philosophically, we cannot allow that 50 per cent of our population has to live with a considerably greater risk to their personal safety than the other half. That is, unless we are comfortable conceptualising women as members of society whose social and political entitlement to personal safety is somehow less legitimate or worthwhile than men’s.
Classifying women as “lesser” than men has a long history and still persists in many societies, openly or tacitly. But this stance is supported neither scientifically nor intellectually and is certainly no longer the accepted norm in 21st century Britain.
- Many men I know or read about seem uncomfortable with the “violence against women” debate. Manufactured Twitter outrage, aggressive pseudo-debates around ”wokeness” and being “PC”, personal attacks and language policing make them fear to say the wrong thing and get dragged through the mud for it. Better to say nothing – but this can have the unintended consequence of disappointing or saddening the women around them who might appreciate support on this issue not just from other women but also men.
- Others object to the tone of some debaters and think the actual topic is about “hating men” and “policing men’s freedoms”. It isn’t. Women are legitimately angry about politicians and a legal system which too often fails to uphold the basic social contract to guarantee and protect their personal safety. Too many violent men get off the hook or the victim is blamed instead.
- If it helps, compare it with workers’ protests for safer working conditions and better wages during the industrial revolution or the Thatcher years: labourers were too often treated as expendable, exploitable, their safety mattered less when compared to rich and powerful factions of society. Protests weren’t about “hating the rich” but demanding that the basic social contract of enjoying safe and decent living conditions be upheld for everybody.
- Naivety or ignorance can be another reason for male reservations on the subject. By nature or upbringing, they would never consider being violent against women, or almost anyone. Such violence happens in the movies, in the bad parts of town, in other countries, is more likely with people from [insert cultural or ethnic group], in “broken homes” – it’s far removed from their own day-to-day, hence no reason or motivation to inform oneself properly. It is normal for us to think about the world along the lines of our own experience with it, unless we make a conscious effort to broaden our horizon and acquire new knowledge and experiences.
What men can do
We all have women in our lives and we owe it to them morally, as friends, colleagues, parents, siblings or partners, and more abstractly, as fellow citizens, to make ourselves knowledgeable on topics that fundamentally impact women. As men also pose the greatest risk of violence to women and indeed other men, it is also an important reflection point for men to ponder their attitude to violence, dominance and use of force more generally.
Just consider that if a man goes on a date with a woman, the worst that probably happens is that the date isn’t great – maybe she even says something hurtful or rude. But concerns about being drugged, assaulted, badgered/intimidated into unwanted sex, raped or killed are low on the man’s list of concerns. Women do not enjoy this kind of carefree attitude to meeting men in the same way – that they don’t, is an indicator of political and societal failure on the subject.
Apart from thinking about such things and doing one’s research, there are many tiny things men can do to counteract violence against women without breaking a sweat. For example only:
- Listen to your female friends, wives or girlfriends. Personally speaking, every close female friend or romantic partner I had in my life so far could tell at least one story (and sometimes many more) where she was randomly groped, crudely insulted, pushed, choked, hit, sexually mistreated or threatened with violence by strangers, family members or acquaintances – the aggressors were almost exclusively male. Just take these stories in and acknowledge how awful but also how common they are. It’s both depressing and infuriating. Don’t be that guy – always a good first step.
- Donald Trump exemplified “locker-room talk”, essentially crude, sexualised comments depicting women as sex-objects for the use of male specimen like Mr Trump. There are few, if any, contexts where such talk is socially appropriate or funny. If you are amused by a crass sexist joke, ask yourself how you would explain to a stranger (or your mother, wife or daughter) why the remark is funny. If you can’t or feel sheepish trying it, maybe it isn’t that funny after all?
- Don’t validate controlling or coercive behaviour by normalising or ignoring it. You might know or hear about someone who is going through their partner’s phone, tracking them with apps, calling/texting multiple times per day to check their whereabouts, demand curfews, social restrictions etc., acting jealous and short-tempered: sometimes the joke “S/He holds him/her on a short leash.” is just that – but sometimes it indicates a bigger problem.
- Habits of thought and behaviour develop early. As a father, teacher, older sibling, sports coach, mentor: if a young boy or teenager claims that cleaning the kitchen is “for girls”, holds contemptuous views of women or hits and bullies his siblings or classmates, ask them calmly to explain and have a chat. Male role models’ and peers’ attitudes towards women matter a great deal. Most children (and even teenagers) love to think and have meaningful conversations with adults – men’s attitudes towards women and violence in general starts at home, amongst their peers and in school.
- Don’t vote for political parties or candidates with a poor record on women’s rights. Also stay clear of “strongman” politicians trying to tell you that draconic penalties, “compliance measures”, more police powers and military are the answers to complex social problems.
- Give a like, signature or thumbs up to petitions, news or events which promote women’s issues you feel are just and worthy of recognition. Do the same with worthy causes aiming at reducing violence.
- The current government tries to tell us that we should be proud of things like navy-blue passports or the Union Jack. History shows that demagogues always offer a diet of patriotism and symbols to people if they fail on delivering anything more substantial.
But as lawyers, I like to think we’d rather be proud of a society where violent crime and sexual offences are reliably reduced. And on a fundamental constitutional issue, we cannot afford to ignore that the basic right of women to be safe from violence is nowhere near as strong as men’s in our society – and that’s nothing to be proud of.
The author thanks Sally French for her thoughts on violence against women and men’s silence, which ultimately inspired this article.
Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.