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Review of "Violence Against Women"

By Stanley G. French, Wanda Teays, and Laura M. Purdy (editors)
Cornell University Press, 1998
Review by Edward Kent, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001
Violence Against WomenThe editors of Violence Against Women teach philosophy respectively at Concordia University in Montreal, Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, and (Purdy) the University of Toronto and Wells College. Purdy also serves as bioethicist at several Canadian hospitals. They have drawn together here an excellent collection of 13 articles on violence against women under 5 headings: sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, pornography and prostitution, and policies and perspectives on violence.

The articles are succinct, well targeted, and the collection as a whole can serve either as an entree to this grim subject or as a solid introductory text.

Susan J. Brison, Dartmouth philosophy, has published extensively on her subject: "Surviving Sexual Violence: A Philosophical Perspective." On July 4, 1990, while her husband was at work on a manuscript and she was out for a leisurely stroll on a village road near Grenoble, France, she was was grabbed from behind, brutally assaulted sexually, and left for dead in a dark ravine. For some time Brison was too embarrassed to tell friends that she had been raped. This characteristic reluctance explains the fact that while the FBI reports that a rape officially takes place in the US on average each six minutes, this figure represents only 1 in 10 that are estimated to occur. She urges that we move beyond philosophic abstraction in our analysis of violence against women to the specifics of first person narratives such as her own so that we may properly empathize with the full effects of violence, which include post traumatic stress, anger, loss of time and money, and the caution voiced by one violence counselor: "You will never be the same. But you can be better."

Rape is an exception among violent crimes in that proof of consent by the victim can exonerate the perpetrator. Susan Kazan, who has done post doctoral research in political philosophy at Carlton University in Ottawa, rejects both purely attitudinal (focused on the agent's mental state) or performative (the agents' actions and utterances) accounts of consent in "Sexual Assault and the Problem of Consent" and proposes rather a composite model that requires at least: 1) an affirmative expression of a subject's willingness to participate in sexual relations, 2) more than a negative attitude towards the act of consent, and 3) a full examination of the context in which consent was granted. She argues that other than a mere threat of physical coercion may override consent.

"Rape, Genocide, and Women's Human Rights," by Catherine MacKinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, examines the brutal uses of group rape committed against Muslim women in the "ethnic cleansing" assaults in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. She argues that these should be elevated beyond mere human rights violations to the status of war crimes.

The second section of the collection directs attention to varieties of domestic violence. Wanda Teays examines "Standards of Perfection and Battered Women's Self-Defense." She notes that women who kill abusive husbands are likely to suffer greater penalties than men who kill their wives or companions under a common assumption that women who defend themselves against violence are somehow deviating from the traditional standards of restrained behavior assumed for women. "Violence in Bangladesh" by Roksana Nazneen, who was completing a Ph.D. at Concordia University and teaching sociology, deals with the abuse of brides in Bangladesh by in-law families, which induces violence up to and including murder. She, herself, escaped from such a confining context. Semra Asefa ("Female Genital Mutilation: Violence in the Name of Tradition, Religion, and Social Imperative," debunks the myth that this barbarity is somehow an authentic religious requirement. She proposes that it be challenged on the basis of universal human rights health standards.

The two articles in the third section explore emergent understandings of sexual harassment and medical abuses of women. Debra A. DeBruin, teaches philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle and has served as a consultant in various capacities. In "Identifying Sexual Harassment: The Reasonable Woman Standard" she argues that we must move beyond a single standard applying equally to men and women to identify harassment of women who are much more are more vulnerable to lasting effects of harassment and likely to suffer negative consequences of actions that men can lightly shrug off. She sketches a "reasonable woman" standard appropriate to this gender difference.

Abby L. Wilkerson, a philosopher, who teaches in the Department of English at St. Mary's College in Los Angeles points out that the medical profession too frequently tends to treat physical symptoms while ignoring the sometimes more harmful psychological injuries that afflict women. We must learn to treat women as whole persons and simply not simply pathologize them!

Pornography and prostitution are controversial moral areas which engage conflicting moral and human rights principles. Edith L. Pacillo ("Media Liability for Personal Injury Caused by Pornography") holds degrees in social work and law and was serving as a judicial law clerk in Idaho at the time of publication of this text. Clelia Smyth Anderson and Yolanda Estes, were respectively a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Kentucky and Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado (Boulder) when they jointly authored: "The Myth of the Happy Hooker: Kantian Moral Reflections on a Phenomenology of Prostitution." As their titles intimate, the authors would tip the balance in these domains away from blanket First Amendment safeguards and towards protection of women endangered and exploited by these practices.

The articles in the concluding section suggest broadened or revised perspectives on what constitutes violence and appropriate reactions to it. Arnold R. Eiser, Professor of Medicine and Chief, Section of General Internal Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, suggests ("Violence and Transcultural Values") that analogously to Lawrence Kohlberg's psychological theory of individual development, cultures, too progress through some six stages of evolution towards increasing protections of individual rights. He proposes that despite difference in levels, certain universals can be defended across cultural lines -- particularly health standards which would preclude such things as female genital mutilation.

Natalie Dandekar, currently working on a book on international justice, identifies abuses of women entangled by international development schemes, "International Development Paradigms and Violence against Women." And Nadya Burton, who was completing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Toronto, cautions that women must not fall into the trap of adopting a victim's stance when coping with violence ("Resistance to Prevention: Reconsidering Feminist Antiviolence Rhetoric"). As a counselor and educator in the antirape movement in Ontario, she teaches courses in self-defense and assault prevention.

This book is no light read, given its subject matters. I plan to use it for my courses, but with some apprehension regarding its resonance for at least some of my students, whom I know too well from experience, have themselves been victims of violence.

© 2001 Edward Kent

Edward Kent teaches social, political, and legal philosophy at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He has participated in the City University of New York faculty seminar on Balancing the Curriculum (gender, race, class, and sexual orientation), the ACLU Church-State Advisory Committee, and the Columbia University Faculty Seminar on Human Rights. He has published in the fields of human rights and philosophy of law. He served with his wife as a Mellon House Fellow at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he first became aware of and concerned about the hazards facing women. He considers himself to be a 'feminist' (with his much beloved daughters and wife) and contributes variously to Internet agencies supporting women's rights.