The 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
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
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