Book projects – Whiplash: 10: From victim to survivor to chooser

Throughout the history of feminist literature, one of the most common themes has been the portrayal of women as victims: victims of the culture (‘victims of fashion’), victims of their own bodies, but especially victims of men. For thirty years, we’ve heard about very little else. But increasingly, if slowly, information is coming out which, as we’ve seen, indicates that men have just as much right as women to claim to be ‘victims’ too: of the culture, of their own bodies, and of abuse by women.

These facts – and they are facts – are not exactly popular: one woman I know, more puellist than feminist, retorted “So men are claiming to be victims now? – that’s particularly revolting.” It seems that the reason why puellists find it more than a little unpalatable is because it destroys the illusion that women have a special case requiring special attention and special treatment. If we really are to have equal rights, they have to be equal, both as rights and as responsibilities – which means that no-one can claim to be a ‘special case’.

The reality is that if we really want to label ourselves as such, everyone is a victim. Violence, for example, is a human problem, for which all of us are and must be responsible: but puellists, for obvious reasons, prefer the ‘easy out’ of denial and blame, assigning exclusive responsibility to men alone. Yet, like violence, to ‘play victim’ is a choice – and one that helps no-one, especially the self-declared ‘victim’. Far more useful, then, to find choices that do empower – rather than those that blame others for our own self-created disempowerment.

The ‘victim’ stance has been central to feminism, but it has been neither constructive nor truly honest – and it has always been wide open to puellist delusions. In particular, since ‘victims’ often seem to be given special status, it’s one of the simplest ways in which ‘equal’ rights can be claimed without equal responsibilities. For example, the ‘Principles’ listed by the National Committee on Violence Against Women refer only to violence against women, not against everyone: so as a minimum they need to be amended to apply to both genders – at which point the appropriateness or otherwise of those ‘principles’ become clear. (It seems sad that it should even be necessary to have to make these amendments, because they should all be obvious: yet so totally has puellist ideology come to dominate politics that violence against men has become all but forgotten…) The amendments are shown in italics:

1. Violence against women or men must be responded to as a crime.

2. No woman or man deserves violence, ever.

3. Women and men have a fundamental right to be safe.

4. Men and women must be held completely responsible for their violence.

5. Women and men are at greater risk of violence in their homes than on the street, and are likely to know their attacker.

6. The criminal justice system provides the appropriate response to violence against women and men.

7. Male and female violence against all others is about power and control.

8. There are no social, cultural or economic boundaries of violence against women or men.

9. Everyone, everywhere must become intolerant of violence against women and men.

10. Violence against women and men will stop only when men and women stop being violent and the community stops condoning it. [1]

There are several points here which, at least in their amended form, we know are true. We do know, for example, that violence is primarily concerned with power – or, more accurately, dispower – and control. And we do know that falling for the delusions of dispower is a human problem – hence there will obviously be “no social, cultural or economic boundaries of violence”. The ‘boundaries’ are defined primarily by how much the familial or social culture condones paediarchy: so it’s also true that “violence … will stop only when [people] stop being violent and the community stops condoning it”.

But some of these ‘Principles’ are completely counter-productive – especially if they’re not amended to include both genders. Even the first point in the list starts off in the wrong direction: responding to violence simply by defining it as a crime is pointless – since everyone does it to a greater or lesser degree, everyone is criminal. And the ‘criminal justice system’ – more accurately, the criminal retribution system – is in general a totally inappropriate response to violence: all it does is create further violence. Neither does intolerance help: what is needed is understanding – and the honesty to admit that we all do it. Since violence arises as much out of confusion, childishness, the chaos of our culture and a failure to understand that to be violent is a choice, it’s doubtful whether anyone will ever manage to be “completely responsible for their violence” – and the demand that others alone should be so is itself an act of violence.

And although we might say that everyone has a ‘fundamental right to be safe’, life is not quite that simple – especially when the claim is made, as NCVAW do, that only women have a need for that ‘right’. Women are not, as NCVAW claims, “at greater risk of violence in their homes” than men: it just seems that way because they are actually at less risk out in the street. Katie Roiphe emphasises this point:

According to these statistics [quoted by Roiphe], a man walking home in Cambridge is more likely to be attacked than a woman. Of course, men only represent a tiny percentage of stranger rapes, but rape is much less common than other forms of assault. When I was living in New York, I knew lots of men who had been attacked, and fewer women. … The idea that men are safe and women are not, that danger is a gender issue, springs from something other than fact. [2]

“The idea that men are safe and women are not”, that women are somehow deserving of especial safety whilst men are not, springs, in fact, from childish self-centredness – paediarchy again. And for women to demand ‘special protection’ solely because they are women leads, inevitably, to women being protected like children – a kind of stifling self-imprisonment from which many generations of feminists have struggled to break free. Rights only exist with concomitant responsibilities: we all have a fundamental right to safety, but we also all have a fundamental responsibility to maintain our own safety. Attempting to claim safety as a ‘right’ whilst assigning to others all responsibility for maintaining that right is an act of paediarchy: and as an attempt to export dispower to others, it is also, in its own way, an act of violence – the very opposite of what is being claimed.

And while there’s no question that “no woman deserves violence, ever”, neither does any man. It’s a point which many puellists would dismiss – because they, like puerist men, would justify their own violence by saying that the other ‘deserved it’ – but which real feminists do not dismiss. But precisely because they do have the courage to challenge this paediarchal dishonesty, and aim to tackle violence as a human issue rather than a gendered one, real feminists like Jenni Manners of Swindon Women’s Refuge are attacked as ‘anti-feminist’:

We’ve had abuse thrown at us [by self-styled ‘feminists’]. They say it [husband-battering] is just women hitting back in self-defence. They often deny that women are violent. The television programme Central Weekend covered the issue. I was on it with Sandra Horley of the Chiswick Women’s Refuge. She started asking men what they had done to deserve it and why they hadn’t tried to help their wives. I was so angry. If someone had asked that of a battered woman, she would probably explode. [3]

The notion that one person deserves violence and another sympathy – often for exactly the same incident – is a subtle piece of paediarchy that’s surprisingly hard to shift. But it has to go: completely. Perhaps the wisest comments in this regard – characteristically framed in a fictional guise – come from another true feminist, Ursula Le Guin:

…what men deserve. For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think. [4]

No-one deserves abuse, no-one earns it; but mistakes do happen, and we live in a culture – of which we ourselves are part – in which dispower is the norm rather than the exception. It’s well understood that rape, for example, is generally more concerned with ‘power and control’ than with sexual gratification: but it’s by no means something which only men do only to women. Men rape other men; and women not only rape men, but also other women. [5] Even if we don’t go quite as far as the vastly-expanded puellist definition of sexual assault, in which even an unwanted comment is classified as rape, there’s a strong argument that women are just as much ‘rapists’ as men. For example, one Australian study of university students noted that, whilst fourteen percent of the women reported agreeing to sex under pressure from a male partner, a greater number – fifteen percent – admitted making “persistent physical attempts to force their [male] partner into intercourse”. In a parallel, but much larger, study in the United States, sixteen percent of men claimed they had been forced into sex – a larger percentage than the women in the Australian study. [6]

Some women do coerce their partners into sex – just like some men. And, like men, female coercion of their partners is not only verbal: David Thomas quotes one example in which the woman “demanded sexual intercourse when [her husband] did not wish to have it and pulled his hair, caught hold of him by the ears and shook his head violently until he was induced to comply as the only means of getting any rest”. If this was done to a woman, it would be grounds not merely for divorce but for criminal proceedings for marital rape; but in British law, amazingly, if a man submits to sex under duress it is still defined – as in that example – as a ‘voluntary act’ on the part of the man, one that “operate[s] as a reinstatement of the wife and therefore will be a condonation of her previous misconduct”. [7] Although the behaviour – and the violence – is exactly the same, the law simply does not have a concept of ‘female rape’: about the nearest that can be found, as usual, is a notion that somehow the woman may be suffering from ‘temporary insanity’.

Much the same applies with parental sexual abuse. A few fathers and stepfathers abuse their daughters or their sons; and a few mothers do the same – except that the sons are the ones who are blamed. It’s unfortunately not all that rare that a mother molests her son until he achieves an erection simply through fear; and, as Carol Lee comments:

Since male arousal – in the form of an erection – is so visible and so undeniable it makes the burden of complicity in boys even more pronounced, especially when, in the case of a woman abusing a boy to full sexual intercourse, the penis then penetrates the vagina. It would seem as if the male is doing something to the female, not the other way round. This does not easily square with a view – his own or anyone else’s – of the young male as victim. [8]

Like violence, sexual abuse is a human problem, not a gendered one: and it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise. Men are just as much victims of sexual abuse – and every other form of abuse – as women: and it’s time we stopped pretending about that too. But perhaps most of all, we need to stop pretending about ‘victimhood’ altogether.

Where women tend to make a big issue out of ‘playing victim’, men tend to deny being victims, and bottle up the emotional trauma inside themselves instead: but neither approach is appropriate. The psychological trauma of rape and its many analogues – such as fathers forcibly isolated from their children – is severe: it does need to be treated as such. If it isn’t treated – as it so rarely is in men – there’s a tendency to need to export the abuse to someone else: yesterday’s victim is, all too often tomorrow’s abuser. For that reason alone, if nothing else, we need to take abuse seriously: which means we need an environment in which everyone can move from victim to survivor to chooser, to being powerful in their own right without resorting to the delusions of dispower.

As Brendam McNutt, principal of a rehabilitation community in Wales which provides that kind of environment, commented, “the image of a hurt and abused infant cowering in a dark corner, clinging to a teddy bear for comfort is an image that none of us easily forgets. But we tend to forget what happens next.” [9] The abuse doesn’t stop: it’s an inherent part of any paediarchy. Abuse of girls is rightly considered abnormal; but abuse of boys is so common, and so all-pervasive, that it’s considered normal – so much so that when Carol Lee asked her young interviewees about their childhoods, for example, the most common answer was “What childhood?” [10] So, as Brendan McNutt argues, “next time that you hear a call for stiffer penalties and more prisons for young people who misbehave … remember the pathetic infant cowering in the corner. He has grown up; but he still needs our help.” [11]

What we do know is that blame does not help anyone. Puellist abuse of men in the past few decades, for example, has been horrendous, but for men to copy puellists and ‘play victim’, blaming women for all men’s problems – such as by writing a book called “The Rites Of Woman” defining violence as inherently female, or organising a march called “Take Back The Right” during which men come to the microphone to list abuses at the hands of women – would not be a useful response. And we also know, as Katie Roiphe comments, that the puellist obsession with blame and with ‘playing victim’ is rapidly undermining almost all of the feminist gains of the 1960s and 1970s, entrapping more and more women in a violent powerlessness:

Besides the shady element of spectacle, the march itself is headed in the wrong direction. Take Back The Night works against its own political purpose. Although the march is intended to celebrate and bolster women’s strength, it seems instead to celebrate their vulnerability. The marchers seem to accept, even embrace, the mantle of victim status. As the speakers describe every fear, every possible horror suffered at the hands of men, the image they project is one of helplessness and passivity. … But there is a reason [women students] come year after year. There is power to be drawn from declaring one’s victimhood and oppression … and unfortunately right now there is strength in being the most oppressed. [12]

The ‘power’, unfortunately, is dispower: and like all dispower it is both self-defeating and dishonest. Often the bleating about ‘chatting-up is rape’ is no more than a childish – and selfish – attempt to grab the attention due to someone who really has been raped. For the purposes of disguised dispower, the ‘victim’ stance is perfect: it provides immediate access to what therapist John Bradshaw describes as “that special attention which is the prerogative of the miserable”. ‘Playing victim’ can easily become a childish demand for special attention:

If you don’t know how to react next time you see me, give me a hug and tell me that you think I’m very brave. Because I, like all the other victims who speak out at Take Back The Night, am very brave. [13]

The danger is that the demand for ‘that special attention’, like all forms of dispower, can easily become addictive. One result, as Roiphe points out, is that a surprising number of these stories are inventions – fabrications either for personal attention-gathering, or for political purposes. [14] Other stories are wildly exaggerated, expanding a minor misgiving into a major assault which can be blamed in its entirety on ‘the other’. In the midst of this kind of chaos, it becomes almost impossible to tell what is real from what is not: all we do know is that the ‘rape crisis’ is, for the most part, an invention; and that in those all-too-real instances which are not invented, their quiet pleas for help – as Roiphe indicates [15] – are increasingly drowned out by the sound of over-inflated egos crying ‘rape’ about nothing.

Perhaps the extreme example would be that of Azalea Cooley and her partner Susan Soen. Cooley seemed to be that perfect example of a Spare Rib feminist: lesbian, black, wheelchair-bound – and victimised. For almost the entire of 1992, they “appeared to be the target of the longest string of hate crimes ever to take place in Portland, Oregon”. [16] Sadistic notes, hate-mail, a burning cross, acid spattered on the hood of the car – it went on and on. The feminist community rallied round the couple, protecting them; but still the hate continued. The police, responding to angry demands for action, staked out the house, and the attacks did stop – for a while, then restarted as soon as they left, as though the attacker had known they were there.

The tribulations of the pair became the entire focus of their community; the hate-campaign was taken as proof of the ‘backlash’ against all women; it was assumed that some ‘evil man’ was to blame, and that all men were implicated. On 1 November 1992 Cooley was the central speaker at an ‘anti-hate’ rally involving the whole city; and on the same day the police, still investigating the crimes, came across evidence that didn’t make sense. All of a sudden it did make sense: and the couple finally confessed. The ‘evil man’ had never existed: every single one of the ‘attacks’ was either a lie, or fabricated by Cooley and Soen themselves. Even Cooley’s ‘crippling illness’ was a sham: she was perfectly healthy – in body if not in mind – and had no need of a wheelchair at all. They’d made the whole thing up, to gain ‘that special attention’ from their community: and the more they invented, the more attention they got – “the worse her afflictions, the greater, she found, was her prestige” [17] – until it became an addiction that was out of control. The ‘perfect victim’ turned out to be a perfect fraud: and puellist activists, obsessed with the need for ‘proof’ of women’s victimization, fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

Naomi Wolf described much the same mistake being made in the rape crisis centre in which she worked as a volunteer for two years: a “deadening atmosphere” derived “not from the traumas themselves … but the way in which we pursued the fight against them. … Any attempt to lessen the physical sadness of the place was met with strong resistance as being somehow unfeminist, unworthy.” The ethos of the place was founded not on power, a celebration of recovery of self, but on the self-fulfilling doom of dispower, and created “a hierarchy of miserable saintliness”, wallowing in a glorification of victimhood at the hands of ‘the enemy’. “It was not the survivors who drained us”, commented Wolf, “their resilience was energizing. It was the volunteers themselves whose culture of hopelessness was so different from the quality with which the survivors brought themselves back to life.” [18] And the hopelessness – artificially constructed, artificially maintained, as a justification of the delusions of dispower – eventually took its toll: the centre closed, and the women who needed its services were left with nothing.

The centre failed simply and solely because it took the wrong approach: it focussed, almost exclusively, on dispower and blame. The approach that does work, as Wolf comments, is more challenging, yet, in a very real sense, truly empowering:

This must not be taken out of context, but there is no other way to say it: the rape crisis centre starved for lack of fun. We must be able to keep the two concepts in mind at once: Rape is hell, rape is trauma, rape is pain; and, the power we have to change the world is a source of joy. [19]

One example of a group which does take the latter approach is the hospice movement – in which, by definition, there are no survivors at all. Dying can be hellish, dying can be traumatic, dying can certainly be painful, yet there are no ‘victims’ in a hospice: instead, power is created, to allow death to become a dignified, often joyous, but above all honest conclusion to life. And there is no-one to blame, or certainly no point in blaming: ultimately, the cause of death is being born… though we do have choice – many, many choices, and the responsibility for those choices – along the way.

Denying responsibility is self-disempowering: this is perhaps the problem for feminism, and it’s one that we urgently need to dissuade men from repeating. And it’s also essential that we distinguish responsibility from blame: it’s important not to ‘blame the victim’, but it’s also important to help that person not be a ‘victim’ – literally, ‘a conquered one’ – at all, and instead to move not just from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’, but to chooser, acknowledging the personal choices that form part of every incident. Reclaiming responsibility, acknowledging responsibility, is the first stage in reclaiming power.

It’s easy to say this, of course, when looking at others’ experience: but in my case many of the experiences have been all too personal – and I’m well aware of just how hard it is. For example, about a year ago, I was sitting quietly talking with a friend at home when we heard two loud crashes as someone threw rocks through the front windows of the house. I ran outside, chased after the culprit, recognized him as the former boyfriend of a woman who used to live in my house, and yelled at him by name – at which point he turned round and attacked. He was quite a bit younger than me, quite a bit bigger, very angry, and very drunk: and he did quite a bit of damage before my friend came round the corner – through the usual crowd of bystanders doing precisely nothing – and told him to get off of me. Which he did: in fact he got up and just stood around, confused. He even followed us as my friend helped me back to the house, confused and concerned: he wanted to call an ambulance for me, and moved to go into the house, but my friend (not surprisingly) stopped him. I turned round and hugged him, saying “This isn’t the way to deal with it” – which probably looked pretty odd, as my face was a bloody mess and I was crying not from pain but from the sadness and stupidity of the whole incident.

In reality, I was pretty lucky: despite heavy bruising and some deep grazes, there was nothing broken, and my eye, which he’d tried to gouge out at one point, did recover over the following few weeks. And I was fortunate this was Australia, not the States, otherwise it would probably have been a gun rather than fists… Interesting times…

But I understood that there were two very different approaches I could take to the incident. First, I could take the ‘victim’ stance: I’m an innocent victim. Pig-in-the-middle in a squabble that should have been dealt with long since (their relationship ended almost a year earlier, and she’d moved out a few months later) and which had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It’s not fair. Why should this happen to me? Why does everyone take it out on me? I’m just a nice guy… Or am I? Am I wicked or something? Is this God’s punishment on me for something that I don’t know I’ve even done? And so on…

But ‘victim consciousness’, while it may get me a bit extra sympathy or ‘good guy points’, simply reinforces the idea that I’m ‘a conquered one’. And neither would it be truly honest – after all, I had chosen to chase after him, to challenge him. To be honest, I had to acknowledge my own responsibility too.

And doing so, paradoxically, brought me to a space where I acknowledged myself as more than just a ‘survivor’, but as ‘the unconquered one’. My assailant was the one who was powerless, not me – in fact I know this was true, because he’d seen his ex-girlfriend in a supermarket earlier in the day with another man (ironically, a homosexual friend), had worked himself into a frenzy brooding about it for the rest of the day, and had come looking for a way to export his powerlessness to someone else – to ‘make her pay for his pain’. Not for the first time, he dumped it on me. And, in a sense, took it. But grounded it: because I did not see myself as ‘victim’. So I didn’t have to go looking for someone else to unload it on…

Being ‘unconquered’, I understand and acknowledge his pain as much as I do mine: but I do not accept it as mine. (Neither do I accept his pain as an ‘excuse’ for violence – to me or anyone.) And there was no doubt at all that he was in very real emotional pain: yet this bewretched culture assumes that men don’t hurt. Sure, it’s a generalisation, but if a woman gets hit by jealousy, gets lost in a sense of abandonment, she gets help; whereas a man gets further abuse instead – with the result that most dare not admit that they’re hurt: “Yeah, sure, I’m OK, it doesn’t hurt…”. A deeply lonely young man, brooding, lost in jealousy, his only sense of power in his music – which had collapsed because he’d switched instruments, so his playing was predictably awful – his only companion in an empty bedsit a bottle of whisky, and no let-out at all: what else would we expect to happen? It’s only when we understand that men like that are lost in their powerlessness, with no help at all, that we can grasp the scale of the problem. Men (and women, for that matter) are dangerous when they are powerless, not when they’re powerful: truly powerful people – those who know Starhawk’s power-from-within – can afford to be gentle…

So, as I commented in an article about the incident for a ‘pro-feminist’ men’s magazine, we do have that choice – and the responsibility for the results of that choice:

Take your choice: play victim, sit and whinge, blame others, to keep the good ol’ cycles of violence rollin’ along; or look deeper, see oneself as part of a whole, a weaving with actions and blunders and chaotic ‘mis-takes’, and find the ‘power-from-within’ in every situation, no matter how ‘bad’. I choose the latter: what do you choose? And how do you live it in your every day, your every interaction with others in this crazy world of ours? [20]

What was interesting was the amount of abuse that I received from colleagues, from police and others, for not retaliating, for not hitting back, for not wanting revenge, for being in any way willing to see things from my attacker’s point of view. A few colleagues were angry, even aggressive, with me because I chose not to be angry: and eventually it became clear that what they really wanted was for me to emulate, and hence justify, their own reliance on dispower – not to challenge it by refusing to play the blame-game. They didn’t like my view that ‘things are the way they are because they got that way’, the idea that the incident was mostly an endpoint of the culture’s inherent confusion and chaos; and they especially did not like me acknowledging my own responsibility in the incident, because that brought them face-to-face with their own responsibility in incidents in their lives. They wanted someone to blame: and since I wasn’t willing to go along with that, they were perfectly willing to blame me instead.

The ‘Take Back The Night’ (or ‘Reclaim The Night’) march has gone much the same way. To be blunt, it’s now best described as an abuse of women by other women in order to justify their own refusal to be responsible for their own safety, their own behaviour, in an open community. The statement that “no woman is ever responsible for rape” is both unobservant and dishonest: we always have some choice, and hence some responsibility, in everything that happens to us. And we reclaim our power by acknowledging our responsibility, acknowledging our choices – including our unconscious choices, and the choices that we make by refusing to choose.

But it’s not easy to begin that real process of ‘reclaiming’, because we usually need help, or at least someone whom we know will listen without judging. Without that, we become self-silencing, bottling everything up, as the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard explains:

It’s very odd. I spent years and years longing to tell somebody about [the bullying at school], longing to say how awful it had been and to have someone say, “My goodness, yes, that was awful”. But there wasn’t really anyone to tell. I was afraid, I suppose, in case people said it must all be my fault. I didn’t feel I could tell my parents, I don’t know why. [21]

In my case I do know why I didn’t feel I could tell my parents about the bullying in my childhood: it was because they did say it was entirely my fault, when unquestionably it was not. At the same time, I also know that I’ve used that sense of ‘being victimized’ by them, by my sister, by so many others, as a way of self-justification – “they did it to me, it’s all their fault”. Yet it wasn’t ‘all their fault’ either: I know that. I was just as much responsible – mainly from my refusal to be responsible. ‘Reclaiming’ means facing my own paediarchy… I’d much rather not do that… And it’s bleakly amusing to see how much I still cling onto these grievances of the past – forty years ago! – as a means of refusing to face my own responsibilities now.

There’s a real danger, too, that arises from the childish notion of ‘all or nothing’: if we admit responsibility in any way, we’re deemed to be entirely responsible – so the usual way out is to play victim, and deny any responsibility at all. And yet we always know that we have some responsibility – which brings with it the fear that we are responsible for all of it. The dilemma is particularly severe in sexual assault, when the body may experience pleasure – as a purely mechanical result of sensation – that the mind does not want at all. [22] The sense of betrayal by our own body can lead to a devastating sense of self-hatred and self-loathing. A sense of guilt, in much the same way, leads to a tangled confusion of denial, and yet more suppressed self-hatred. And as Starhawk warns, “power-over takes shape within us as the self-hater” [23] – which also means that self-hatred tends to loop back as acts of dispowerful violence. Without awareness, without respect, without encouragement to find a real form of power, the ‘victim’ becomes the abuser.

It’s a pattern that repeats and repeats, time and time again. But we have the bizarre situation that an abused woman is given help, and if she abuses is also given help; whereas an abused man is given no help, on the grounds that he should ‘take it like a man’, and if he abuses in turn is put in jail to receive further abuse. (It’s interesting that we don’t have the expression ‘to take it like a woman’…) The NCVAW, for example, insists that all males involved in domestic violence should be jailed without bail – involvement is considered sufficient proof of guilt, because only men are violent, therefore must always be to blame. But in a week-long series on “The War Against Women” in the main newspaper here – most of which consisted of the same kind of circular argument as the NCVAW’s – there was an interesting report on an experiment with recurrent ‘domestic violence offenders’: someone had actually bothered to think the whole issue through.

Most of the men involved had been brought up by mothers who did everything for them – the ‘Little Prince’ syndrome [24] – in fact had actively prevented them from learning how to look after themselves. As a result, they were utterly dependent on women, but were terrified to admit it: so they either had to entrap a woman as a servant, or be looked after in a rather different way in jail. Simply by teaching these men how to become self-reliant – how to cook, to clean, to do their own laundry – and showing them that to do so was a true form of power rather than a ‘punishment’, they ceased to be violent – because their violence had arisen as a means of survival. They simply had not known that it was possible to survive on their own – and they certainly did not know how. Punishment of ‘the other’ may be more satisfying for the paediarchal mindset, but it only makes things worse: what’s needed is understanding coupled with practical action – and many of the solutions turn out to be surprisingly simple when we do this.

In most cases, people are violent because they’re frightened. The fear may be on the surface and immediate, or it may be deep down and denied – as it often is with men – but the source of the violence is still the same. People in fear often try to export their fear to others: those who are fearful can be very dangerous indeed, as anyone who’s tried to help a panicking swimmer will know. The behaviour is not the problem: it’s the fear that is the real problem. So people like the organisers of ‘Take Back The Night’, which manufactures fear, are inevitably making things worse: as Katie Roiphe says, they defeat their own political purpose – assuming, of course, that their political purpose is to reduce women’s fears, rather than to abuse other women.

Many fears are innate: but many others are learnt. One psychologist commented that “if parents taught their children that they were victims, they took away the child’s initiative, creativity, sense of confidence and the children saw the world as frightening”. [25] These artificial – or at least artificially-magnified – fears are not only unnecessary, but increase the likelihood of violence: “an outbreak of violence is often precipitated by an exaggerated perception of threat”, commented Professor Di Bretherton, another psychologist. “If a drink was bumped, for example, children who had been brought up fearful of a hostile world could construe the action as provocative rather than an accident and so be more likely to hit out”. [26] It’s easy to see how this comes out all too easily as stereotypical male aggression… and in so many other, more recent forms of female violence too.

If someone is in a state of fear, and they’re dangerous in that state, it’s obviously in everyone’s interest to help them move out of it – not induce them to go further and further into the mire. Exaggerating the danger, and confusing belief with fact – which is about all the ‘Take Back The Night’ march manages to do – is not going to help anyone. Neither is blaming or deriding someone who’s in fear, which is the standard tactic of puellists like Marilyn French or Rosalind Miles: it may be ‘politically correct’ to denounce homophobia, for example, but that won’t help that person work their way past the fear that underlies – or rather is – the phobia. Instead, we serve them – and ourselves – best by empowering them to find a way out.

The only way out of fear is to face it: the more we deny it, the larger it grows, but the more we face it, the more it shrinks – although we never do truly ‘get rid of’ any fear. Fear – especially the artificial fears created by the ‘woman as victim’ stance of puellism – can be highly addictive: so the first stage of facing fear is to acknowledge just that and, like an alcoholic or any other addict, take responsibility – which also, unlike the ‘victim’ stance, means reclaiming power. And no-one else can do it for us: we can be responsible about others’ fears, respectful of them, but we cannot be responsible for them – it’s not that we won’t, but that we can’t. Our fear is, ultimately, always our own: it’s up to us to deal with it – and, especially, not run away from that responsibility by trying ‘export’ it to others.

Power cannot be taken: but it can be given. Yet it’s up to us to be responsible about that power, about how we use that power, and how and to whom we assign it and share it. Feminists rightly fear that some men simply don’t understand power – that, given power, they’ll always drop back to dispower. That’s true of some men; it’s also true of some women – including, unquestionably, some well-known self-styled ‘feminists’. We have to learn to tell the difference… above all, to reclaim wisdom as well as power…

But most of all, we need to reclaim a word that’s all but vanished from the vocabulary: trust. The whole ‘gender war’ has developed out of lack of trust; it feeds on lack of trust; it escalates a lack of trust. Puellism declares that men are guilty until proven innocent – and there is no way that anyone can ever be proven innocent. Some men declare, in turn, that no woman can or should be trusted – which takes us straight back to the bleak days of our old Mr Wright, who insisted that women could be trusted only with “the domestic affairs for which Nature designed them”. We will get nowhere unless we learn again to trust: and that trust has to come from ourselves.

After the hell of the last three decades, that won’t be easy: it will take courage. But I like to think of ‘courage’ in its original French sense of ‘coeur-rage’ – literally ‘the madness of the heart’ – which is, again, to trust. We accept that sometimes trust breaks down: but we make a point of noticing when it doesn’t. We accept that some men, and some women, lost in the delusions of dispower, will often be violent; but we make a point of noticing that most aren’t – and try very hard not to be so. We acknowledge, even celebrate, our own power; and we take the courage not just to share it with immediate others, or only with those of our own gender, but with everyone. And we need to find the courage to challenge paediarchy wherever we see it: not only in others but, even more, in ourselves.

Challenging paediarchy, we challenge the delusions of dispower: we strive for the power-from-within that can create a ‘win-win’ in every situation. That’s our responsibility. Taking that responsibility to the full, we accept – understand – that there are no ‘victims’, there are no ‘survivors’: only ‘choosers’, each working to use the choices they have in each moment. For some, there may not be much choice: but there always is a choice. It’s up to us to make the best use of those choices that we have – to use our power of choice truly and wisely for all. People who rely on dispower have no choice – or believe that they have no choice – but to be violent; yet truly powerful people – those whose power really is ‘power-from-within’ – can afford to be gentle, with themselves, and with the world at large. And to acknowledge our fears, yet to dance with them, can become our greatest source of power.

It seems, to me at least, to be a wiser way to go. As for you… well, only you have that power to decide?

[1] Adapted from a pamphlet issued by the National Committee on Violence Against Women, Canberra [Australia], May 1991.

[2] Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, pp.47-8; she comments that only two rapes were reported in Princeton University in a decade (1983-1992), whereas in a single year (1992), men were assaulted nearly three times as often as women (21 to 8), and threatened or assaulted with a deadly weapon more than five times as often (16 to 3) – in that sense, women at the university are already far safer than men.

[3] Jenni Manners, quoted in David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.213.

[4] A miner, quoting the ‘Prison Letters’ of the (fictitious) philosopher Odo, in Ursula Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed”, p.288.

[5] For one fictional example of an averted lesbian rape, see k.d. lang’s film “Salmonberries”.

[6] Findings from a survey by Professor Nathaniel McConaghy, School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, published in “Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry”, 1994, quoted in ‘Men coerced into sex, study finds’, in “The Sunday Age” [Melbourne], 23 Jan 1994; the findings were based on two surveys, of 120 and 200 students in successive years; the unnamed US study involved “nearly 4000” students.

[7] Lord Justice Harman, ruling in the case of Willan vs. Willan, 1960, quoted in David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.215.

[8] Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, p.139.

[9] Brendan McNutt, ‘A safari holds more hope than jail’, in “The Independent” [London], 30 Dec 93.

[10] For examples, see chapter 7, ‘Songs of childhood’, in Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”.

[11] Brendan McNutt, (op. cit.).

[12] Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, pp.43-44.

[13] An unnamed student quoted in Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, p.37.

[14] For two examples discussed in detail – ‘Mindy’ and ‘Mariam’ – see Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, pp.39-42.

[15] See, for example, Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, p.43: “once, over a cup of coffee, a friend told me she had been raped by a stranger with a knife… after she had finished, she quickly resumed her competent, business-as-usual attitude, her toughness, but I could tell how hard it had been for her to tell me”.

[16] Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”, p.216.

[17] Naomi Wolf (ibid.), p.217.

[18] Naomi Wolf, (ibid.), pp.164-9.

[19] Naomi Wolf, (ibid.), pp.168-9 (italics in the original).

[20] Tom Graves, ‘Unconquered’, in “XY” magazine [Canberra, Australia], ISSN 1036-7209, Vol.3 No.2, Winter 1993, pp.28-29.

[21] ‘Days of enchantment, days of despair’: Elizabeth Jane Howard talking to Nicholas Roe, in “The Independent” [London], 19 Nov 93.

[22] This is an acknowledged problem for rape victims, affecting not only women but men too: see, for example, Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, p.138

[23] Starhawk, “Truth Or Dare”, p.117.

[24] See Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, especially the description by the probation officer ‘M’ of the mother’s active involvement in this syndrome, pp.119-120.

[25] Evelyn Field, quoted in ‘How parents’ fears may damage their children’, in “The Age” [Melbourne], 31 January 1994.

[26] Professor Di Bretherton, of the Conflict Resolution Centre, Melbourne University, quoted in (ibid.).

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