Picture credit: Peter Boghossian
Artillery Row

Realism is not the same as self-pity

There is a limit to how much women can physically protect themselves from men

Philosophical renegade Peter Boghossian knows how we women should respond to would-be rapists: shoot them! And those of us in countries where gun ownership is frowned upon can always learn to kung-fu their predatory asses. This was the upshot of a revealing interview between the famous street epistemologist and radical feminist lawyer Kara Dansky.

Over 72 minutes, Dansky, head of the Women’s Declaration International USA, attempted to explain to him why paying to use a surrogate was not comparable to hiring labourers, that pornography is harmful, and that radical feminists have always been clear that women are adult human females. To be fair, Boghossian listened with the good grace one might expect of a thinker who prides himself on being open-minded. Until the end.

Dansky was explaining the perennial threat that women live with, and her personal experience of being confronted with a trans-identified man in a women’s lavatory in a restaurant.

This was too much for Boghossian to resist. Why, he wanted to know, if Dansky thought male violence was so endemic, had she not trained herself to take on a potential attacker? Why had she simply walked out and told the manager? Why don’t women fight back?

“You strike me as a woman who doesn’t take shit. You’re tenacious. Outspoken,” he told her. He had his gotcha and was not dropping it. “How many self-defence classes have you taken?” he asked the middle-aged, 5’1” lawyer. “Have you got pepper spray?”

Somewhat nonplussed, Dansky replied that she couldn’t remember how many classes she’d taken, that she hadn’t got round to buying pepper spray, but that she was always aware of the risk of male violence.

After a back and forth about gun ownership and self-defence, Dansky told Boghossian: “It’s just life for a small woman. I don’t know what to tell you.” She then wound the conversation down by saying she hadn’t taken steps because of “laziness”.

Having spent the best part of a decade railing against whingers who champion “lived experience”, I felt slightly grubby about my instinctive response to the exchange. It left me reflecting that Boghossian had displayed a typically smug knobjective world view, and that he now needs to pull his head out of his macho all-American ass and though I hesitate to say it check his privilege.

Instead Boghossian doubled down, stating on X: “My favorite way to falsify the collective lived experience of radical feminists is to see well trained women at a gun range.”

This displays a stunning lack of curiosity about the different ways women and men move through the world. It goes without saying that most women are not attacked by strangers. When women are raped, beaten or murdered it will generally be at the hands of their male partner. And while statistically the threat might be less outside the home, the entirely logical fear of male violence still shapes the behaviour of women and girls.

To grow up female is to learn how to gently defuse tense situations with dangerous men to avoid either sexual or physical violence. Instinctive responses to threat are not limited to fight-or-flight trauma experts now recognise that people also freeze and fawn. Either shutting down physically (freezing) or attempting to keep a potential assailant happy (fawning) are widely understood to be normal reactions.

The “why didn’t she fight back?” question is responsible for many failed rape prosecutions. The fact is, when you know your attacker can kill or injure you with their bare hands, and when you know they can in all probability run faster than you, fight or flight aren’t sensible options.

This is not to pick on Boghossian or to accuse him of deliberately perpetuating rape myths. He is one of many public intellectuals late to the trans debate who apparently understand what women might risk in the sporting arena without grasping what is at stake in our everyday lives. Yet ultimately, telling women to do self-defence training is in the same league of stupidity as suggesting the female swimmers competing against Lia Thomas simply train harder. If I sound angry about this, that’s because I am.

I don’t like having to justify my points with personal experience. But sometimes, that cheesy feminist adage “the personal is political” is apt. I’m fit, unusually strong and not scared of a graze or two. But at 4’7”, and without the advantage of male muscle mass, bone structure or lung capacity, I move through the world knowing that civilisation is fragile.

I know he would’ve broken my jaw before I’d thought to reach into my bag or curled up a fist

I used to be quite bolshy about holding my own when walking on pavements as I’m frequently barged out of the way, often more by accident than deliberate disrespect. But after one fleeting experience I’ve become more cautious about holding my own. It was a weekday afternoon and I was walking down the street in central London. A large, redfaced man stumbled into my path nearly knocking me over. When I shouted at him to watch his step he leaned down and screamed obscenities into my face with such venom I thought he would hit me. I looked down and scurried away. Perhaps sensibly, not one passerby stopped to intervene.

In Peter Boghossian’s fantasy world I might have maced him or punched him in the nuts. I’ll admit, that’s what I’d have liked to do. But because of my — and I shudder to say it — “lived experience” I know he would’ve broken my jaw before I’d thought to reach into my bag or curled up a fist. And thanks to that encounter, now when I’m jostled off the pavement or barged into, I’m more likely to move aside and keep mute.

I know as a woman the only chance I will ever have of landing a punishing blow on a man is in an article like this. Like Dansky, I’m no coward. But I am also not delusional. Ultimately, there is no way to determine the men who pose a threat from those who don’t. Recognising that women can’t always fight back is not wallowing in faux victimhood. It is not the indulgence of identity politics. It is simply reality.

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