Feminism is not about blame
There’s a damn good reason to have Women’s Officers, argues RIKKI WOLKIND, and we should respect it.
At the beginning of the academic year I helped out at a sexual consent workshop.
Afterwards, many of the male freshers I spoke to said the same thing – they had taken offence at the idea that sexual consent was posed as a female issue, with men viewed as perpetrators. This was despite the fact that one of the ‘myths’ we had discussed was the idea that only women are subject to sexual assault.
The realities of sexual violence, assault and misogyny are shocking. If the onus of such acts was placed upon me, I wouldn’t be surprised that I found it so unpalatable as to respond defensively. But that reaction misses the point; feminism is not an attempt to blame. If it were, it wouldn’t be productive. The idea is to cultivate female power, not to hand back power to men.
Feminist rhetoric is about claiming. The philosopher Joel Feinberg articulates the special power of ‘claiming’, though unfortunately he follows this by saying that claiming ‘allows us to stand up like men’.
It is claiming, though, that allows us to have our place in human existence. Here, we have females talking about their experiences, allowing them to stake a claim to being human. This form of speaking out may be gendered in the sense that it is exposing sex-specific crimes, but it is also gender-relevant because the claim itself is women standing up ‘like a woman’.
I read about rape for the first time in a magazine at seven years old and immediately threw up. At seven, I didn’t particularly understand the sexual nature of the crime, yet the image of such domination struck fear into my very core, enough to make me actually vomit. I had a very clear plan faced with rape – be quiet and submit.
At about age sixteen I read a book by Susan Brownmiller called Against our Will, which allowed me to see that, in order to remedy my fear of men, I ran into the arms of men. This makes practical sense, the fact that I chose to get a man to walk me to the bus stop at night, to protect me from other men, would gain a stamp of approval from most parents worried about the safety of their young daughters out at night in London. I am less physically strong than men and men are structurally dominant in their capacity to rape – this is fact. Moreover, most of my friends are the ones who protected me by walking me to the bus stop, not those I needed protecting from
But I need a way of asserting my claims for respect, for freedom from harassment, other than vicariously through my male friends.
Women writing about the everyday experiences of womanhood are not attempting to blame men. The sexual consent workshop is not simply an attempt to ward men off rape – it is significant because it is claiming space in a public sphere for an issue which has been kept as personal or private, a sphere historically associated with females, and which has allowed for their experiences to be obscured.
We cannot simply replace our Women’s Officer with a gender equality officer because it is not about equal access to a category of human.
It is about recognising that the category of ‘human’, ‘student’, ‘academia’, and of ‘merit’ have been undercut by a male bias. But this is not about shaming, excluding or blaming men.
In the simplest terms, historically we have a deficit of female presence in particular public institutions; in more complex terms, the entire structure of our world has been based on a particular notion of how to be human that as far back as Aristotle has seen women as subordinate.
Do we think that our friends, boyfriends, brothers or fathers have maliciously instated male bias? No, probably not. The point is: we do not want to assimilate to categories that are historically male and still bear that shape. Supervisors have frequently told me that despite the merit in my work, I will have to write ‘more like a man’ in order to get the examiners to notice me. They mean this as a helpful tip; they want to see my work valued as much as my male friends’. Then, i’ve been told to ignore that ‘awfully sexist comment’ and reconceptualise it: what they really mean is for me to be more assertive. Writing ‘assertively’ is not just a male characteristic – it is a category equally open to women too.
But what if there is a particular male and female way of writing, what if the way I write has just not been recognised as a way of being assertive?
We need females to make claims, so as to introduce new possible ways of being human, being academic, being assertive, being strong: new ways of being.
Women are not writing about their experiences to blame men. This is a misunderstanding. Women are writing about their experiences to claim womanhood, and in doing so to expand the category of human to fully incorporate us.
I understand why men some men may feel offended, but there is an overinflated sense of self-importance there. This is not about them.