‘Feminism: Not an Excuse for Stupidity’ – A Response

This is a response to Leonie Poshai’s piece on contemporary feminism. Read it here.

By Ellen Rimmer and Jonnie Bevan

“I am angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”

Perhaps this statement, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, is simply reiterating something which, we would hope, is obvious. Despite the belief that gender equality has been achieved, there are still many issues of gender inequality all over the world; there is still a need for feminism. Leonie Poshai’s piece criticising feminism is healthy and necessary for feminism to develop as a 21st Century movement. After all, how can a movement assessing gender’s position in society function if it doesn’t consider its own shortcomings?

However, our issue with this article was not its criticism of modern day feminism – instead, we took issue with its illegitimisation of sexual assault

The ‘Overheard at Lancaster’ incident, focused on in Poshai’s article, illustrated the overwhelming presence of rape myths in our society. Both the Facebook original post, in which a fellow student warned female students to take necessary precautions to avoid sexual violence, and the article that we are responding to share one thing in common: reinforcing the idea that rape and sexual assault are only committed by violent, calculated strangers, against an unaware victim. This is a hurtful and ultimately dangerous misunderstanding. Poshai’s generalisation ‘for the purposes of [her] article’ may be a careless action.

Poshai makes a valid point: teaching consent to those who have knowingly committed sexual violence could be considered too little, too late. But how could educating the rest of the world about consent not have a positive effect? A campaign in Edmonton, Canada, saw a 10% reduction in sexual assault within a year, through a billboard campaign aimed at perpetrators rather than victims[1]. 10% is an exceptional amount in just one year, especially considering that there was no great cultural shift; this was just a simple poster campaign which made a large dent in the number rape/ sexual assault incidences. Slogans such as “Just because you helped her home … doesn’t mean you get to help yourself” highlight the boundaries of consent to potential perpetrators; they send out a message that sexual violence or rape, no matter what the scenario may be, are unacceptable. It also has a slightly subtler positive outcome. In the UK, it is estimated there are between 430,000 – 517,000 victims of sexual offences, but only 54,310 offences are recorded by the police, and only 1% of perpetrators are convicted.[2] These offences so often go unrecorded, because victims often consider themselves to blame – seeing these posters helps them understand that they have indeed been victims, regardless of the circumstances, making them more likely to report rape.

We agree that the importance of safety is paramount, but the original warning given on the Facebook post seemed to apply only to women. Although the author argues this is not victim blaming, why are women forced to take extra precautions? The implicit suggestion is that should a woman fall victim to sexual violence, her failure to take these extra precautions mean that she is to blame. Ultimately, and most importantly, this perpetuation distracts from the real issue at hand: you are much more likely to experience sexual violence at the hands of somebody you are familiar with , with up to 54% of rape/ sexual violence cases being committed by partners/former partners. As already discussed, sexual assaults so often go unreported, but how can we expect victims to come forward when their experiences are being repeatedly disregarded? How can we expect individuals to understand consent when members of society imply that you can only be sexually assaulted by a stranger?

Frankly, we are “naïve” enough to believe that teaching individuals not to rape will have a bearing on their actions, especially if we remove this timid attitude around sexual education at a young age. We are “naïve” enough to believe that if we stop demonising women who express their sexuality, then we will move away from this hideous, victim blaming mentality which is devouring our compassion towards people who have often experienced the most traumatic event of their lives. Adichie also said “We teach girls shame. Close your legs! Cover yourself! We make them feel that by being born female they are already guilty of something.” Ultimately, we have not given women the tools to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Essentially, we do not think it is any person’s, or feminist’s, place to decide what is and what is not a feminist issue. To suggest that every feminist issue could be compiled and understood into one day by surfing Wikipedia is frankly ridiculous. But moreover, we feel it is nobody’s place to delegitimise anyone else’s experience of sexual violence.

[1]http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/dont-be-that-guy-ad-campaign-cuts-vancouver-sex-assaults-by-10-per-cent-in-2011/article1359241/

[2] An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, (p. 7)