On Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris took to Twitter to reiterate her perspective on Neomi Rao, who had a confirmation hearing to fill Brett Kavanaugh’s vacant seat on the D.C. District Court. At issue were articles Rao wrote as a Yale University student in the early 1990s, where she dared to write that women ought to watch out for themselves around those who might be sexual predators.
The concern is that if women believe they should try to have some self-awareness about the risks they take, then it is a clean jump to blaming them for their rape, and lets sexual predators off the hook for their behavior. Instead, it does none of those things, but gives women power and strength to approach society from a place of equality as opposed to oppression.
In so tweeting, Harris perpetrates the idea that women are helpless victims who need to be protected by every stranger they encounter, for their own good. It’s confusing that on the one hand women are supposed to be fully functional equals in society, yet on the other hand they need to be protected from all the horrible men out there. Rao has since disavowed much of her earlier writing, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong.
Should Women Expect Other People to Take Care of Them?
When women talk about women’s relationship to sexual violence, they are often of two minds, and the hearing conversation between Rao and Harris exemplifies this perfectly:
Harris: You said when having a conversation with Sen. Ernst, ‘Women should take certain steps to avoid becoming a victim.’ What steps do you have in mind that women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?
Rao: Senator, it’s just sort of a common sense idea about for instance excessive drinking, y’know that was advice that was given to by my mother.
Harris: So that’s one step that you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?
Rao: It is just a way to make it less likely, it’s not to blame the victim, rape and sexual assault are horrible crimes, but we’re talking about what can you do to keep yourself safe.
Harris: Are there other steps that you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?
Rao: That is one of the issues I discussed, I’m not sure if there are others.
Harris: So do you believe that if women do not take those steps that she is at fault or partially at fault for what happens to her?
Rao: Uh, no.
Harris: So what is the significance of taking those steps?
Rao: Well it’s just the significance of trying to avoid becoming a victim of any crime. We take different steps to protect ourselves from horrible crime, such as rape. And I think what we want is for women to not be victims.
Harris says these responses from Rao are “unacceptable” and “deeply troubling,” but why? Does she believe women should be able to walk into society, behave recklessly, and not risk suffering horrifying consequences? Should women expect that they can walk into a dangerous world and that everyone out there will look out for them? Why?
The world is not like that. Our peers on this earth are not out there looking out for each other all the time, never mind women, who are so often objectified and victimized. Are women really supposed to trust themselves and their lives to a society that so often devalues them and their contribution? Why? Just because Harris and others of her mindset want it to be so? Why should women approach the world through the lens of how it could be if all sexual predation were removed from it as opposed to meet it where it is, sexual predators and all?
Women Caution Each Other Out of Prudence and Love
My mother had a similar perspective to Rao’s. When I was going off to college, she spoke to me about drug use (this is one of those conversations my mom now denies having, but I take it as gospel). She said not to take drugs, but that if I was going to, not to take drugs with people I didn’t trust with my life.
She didn’t say that because taking drugs would make suffering a sexual assault my fault, but because she believed that I should not put myself unnecessarily in harm’s way. Of course, one may find one’s self unavoidably in harm’s way, and it happens all the time. Either way, being sexually assaulted is not the fault of the person assaulted.
That women aren’t at fault for being victimized, and that sexual predators will take what they want if they are so able, does not mean that women shouldn’t approach the world with an awareness and, when necessary, a heightened sense of precaution. That doesn’t mean this behavior will either make it possible to avoid sexual assault by a perpetrator who will not be deterred, or if sexual assault is perpetrated that the woman is at fault. Of course it doesn’t.
But there must be a way for both things to be true: women can have some tools in their belt and know that, if these tools are either not available or not effective, that doesn’t mean they are at fault for being attacked. Self preservation has to be part of the feminist agenda.
We Shouldn’t Prioritize Safety Above Equality
The fight for women’s equality with men is ongoing, but even at the point where success is achieved, women will not have realized total safety in the presence of those men who would abuse them. Nor should women pursue the goal of safety above the goal of equality. The condition of safety is in stark contrast to the condition of equality. In fact, the two conditions cannot be simultaneously pursued, because they are anathema to each other.
If we wish to be safe, we wish to be protected, and if we wish to be protected, then we are not particularly equal to those we seek protection from. Additionally, what would this protection look like? Would it mean curfews for women? Women-only entrances at bars? Keeping women off the street, and home where they’ll be safe? Convent schools? We’ve seen that none of these protections will keep women safe from those who want to do them harm, so why does the left continue to double down on this idea that telling women to be careful with themselves is sexist?
To be in a condition of safety is to be in state of protection. When one is protected, one does not have options about what she will be protected from. For an individual to enter situations that are unknown and potentially volatile with the idea that she is not putting herself at risk is a falsehood. The protection women should seek is their own, and that of trusted individuals in their lives (and yes, sometimes this trust is misplaced, and that trusted individual crosses a line toward sexual assault, and even then, it is not a woman’s fault that she is assaulted).
What True Equality Means
Equality does not mean equal in ability in all cases, it means equal under the law, equal in the right to self-determination, agency over one’s own choices, and willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of those choices.
That does not mean a woman is responsible for her victimization. Equality means having the freedom to risk rape. That doesn’t mean the rape is a woman’s fault, or that its prosecution should not be seriously undertaken, but that the cost of freedom is risk of harm, and we need to pursue and accept freedom anyway. Both things can be true.
The world is never going to be purged of those who would commit sexual assault, murder, or theft, or of child abusers, adulterers, or horrible mean people. The world will always have a population of those who would harm others, whether to appease some pain in their own hearts, or silence their mind, or because they have poor self-control, or simply because they prefer to harm than to help.
Humanity will never be free of the scourge of itself. And how could it be? As long as we walk the earth, we will commit violence against one another. Let’s not back ourselves into a corner of whimsy where we believe, for some odd, wishful reason, that women ought not take precautions for their own safety, or that doing so furthers their victimization. It doesn’t.