This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.
Just how strong is this research? Well, look at the graph below. The first column shows the incidence of violence (toward children) in families with married biological parents; the highest one (over ten times higher) shows that for a single parent with a partner.
And there's this graph:
This time the graph shows domestic violence towards women. The two lowest lines, the ones which barely register, show levels of domestic violence for married couples. The highest one represents single mother with children families. It's difficult to tell exactly but it looks like the single mother rate of domestic violence is over 30 times that for married women.
The evidence seems irrefutable. Women are safest when married.
But that's not a conclusion that feminists are likely to want to draw. So what is a feminist to do?
Enter Australian feminist Clementine Ford. She remains undeterred and argues as follows:
The concept of male-bestowed ‘protection’ is one that harms rather than helps women. A society which operates along paternalistic lines is one which undermines the rights of women to exercise their own autonomy and protect themselves. Instead of advising women to tether themselves to a ‘decent’ man who’ll willingly marry them and protect them from the world’s villains, we should instead be enforcing a zero tolerance policy towards those people who abuse. Men are not the conservators of women, and it’s not their morally bestowed obligation to protect us. As human beings, it is the moral obligation of everybody to refrain from harming others.
Her logic goes something like this:
1. As a feminist and a liberal modernist she holds individual autonomy to be the key good in life
2. It is not autonomous for women to depend on men for their physical safety
3. Therefore, society must be remade so that women can protect themselves and not need help from men
4. This requires society to make sure that no man ever commits an act of violence against women
5. Therefore society had better make sure that no man ever commits an act of violence against women
The moral thing, thinks Clementine Ford, is for women to be autonomous, therefore we must insist that people act in ways that conform to this moral outlook.
Note that the primary concern of Clementine Ford is not to safeguard women and children from violence. It is to promote female independence from men. That is why she will never accept "male-bestowed protection" even if it is effective in terms of minimising the risk of women experiencing violence.
The problem with Clementine Ford's approach is a basic one, namely that she makes the good of autonomy the sole, overriding moral aim.
That can't end well. It's dangerous to think that there is one single good that society has to be forced to conform to. Better to recognise a range of goods that have to be ordered into a workable framework.