Safer strolls: A new, progressive way to blame the victim?

You want to talk victim-blaming? Ok. Let’s talk victim blaming.

The Toronto Sun published an article on March 11th entitled: “Helping Hookers Stay Safe” which looked at a project called the safer stroll project. According to the article, this project is an “innovative mentorship program…designed to educate sex workers to deal with high-risk and violent situations.”

The reporter interviews one sex worker for the piece, who describes various horrific situations within which she was subjected to violence at the hands of johns. This violence, it is fair to assume, is not limited to one individual but is something many women and, particularly, many prostituted women are at risk for. But rather than addressing this violence in the most obvious way, that is to go to the root, this particular article would lead us to believe that the solution is to teach women proper skills for avoiding violence to the best of their ability.

Feminism today is very much enmeshed in discourse, work and action aimed at putting an end to victim blaming. This work is extremely important – one of the number one rules we learn as feminists is that women are not responsible for their own rapes, their own assaults, and their own abuse. Men are accountable for their own behaviour and there is no particular skill set women can or should develop in order for them to avoid violence. Obviously.

Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not. Apparently not when in comes to prostitution.

Apparently, within the newly popular harm reduction discourse, the very best we can do to  “keep women safe” is to teach them the proper skills to avoid being attacked, abused, and murdered. And no, this isn’t some deluded fantasy of the right wherein we are made to imagine that, if only women would behave themselves, men wouldn’t be forced to abuse them. No. This is what progressives are encouraged to support! That being harm reduction. Otherwise known as “the best we can come up with.” Otherwise known as “we accept that misogyny is inevitable so let’s teach women how best to cope with that reality.”

Hey! Here’s a newfangled idea! How about we, FOR ONCE, put the onus on the violent men. How about we even go so far as to blame men for the violent acts they commit rather than blaming the victim for “dealing with” violent men in the “wrong way”. How about, instead of learning how to be nicer to johns, so as to avoid being attacked by them, we teach johns that they won’t get away with being violent? What’s that? Criminalize the johns? Oh no. That’s crazy-talk. All women need is more “skills.” Skills will stop male violence, right?

In what universe is this rhetoric even close to feminist?

Why is it so easy for progressives to understand that victim-blaming is wrong, but blindly accept the idea that it is somehow the responsibility of women to control men’s behaviour if they are engaged in sex work?  Are we all expected to rally behind Slutwalk, which claims to fight victim-blaming and then close our eyes when reporters start talking about “safety strategies” for prostituted women? How would the Slutwalk fanatics react if someone wrote an article claiming that that young women should develop “safety strategies” for going to parties or, you know, going to work or going on dates or getting married or waking up in the morning or getting on the bus or engaging in any of those activities or going to any of those places women go wherein, sometimes, women are assaulted or raped or harassed or abused by men? Make sure you develop strategies for avoiding being abused by your partners, women! Be sure to be as polite as possible! Because, of course, polite women don’t get abused or raped. Never. Those arguments would never be accepted among self-identified feminists.

And yet harm reduction is the new progressive mantra. “Developing safety strategies” is now framed as potentially empowering for women.

Well excuse me while I stare awkwardly at this big, huge, gaping hole in feminist discourse.

If we are to understand that victim blaming – the new favorite catchword for third wave feminists – is unacceptable (and, without a doubt, it is unacceptable) and if we can all, supposedly, agree on the relatively simple idea that we don’t blame the victim of violence, that, rather, we blame the perpetrator, then how about this – JOHNS ARE NO EXCEPTION. Women don’t need to develop “safety strategies” – men need to stop being violent, horrible, entitled assholes. We need to stop protecting these men. Because so long as we keep protecting them, making excuses for them, and continuing to make violence against women the responsibility of women, men will continue to be violent.

“Harm reduction” and “safety strategies” for prostituted women effectively removes blame from male perpetrators of violence and does nothing to address the root of the problem. Does that sound progressive to you?


Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.