Mayim Bialik Is Right, Modesty Is Prudent

Mayim Bialik at the 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards in Los Angeles (Reuters photo: Danny Moloshok)
There is nothing wrong with advising women to protect themselves.

Last month my wife and I visited our oldest daughter in college. Late that Saturday night, she said she wanted to walk from her dorm to the hotel to hang out with us a bit longer. How should a good parent respond?

Should I ask if the route from the dorm to the hotel is safe and offer to pick her up if there’s any unusual danger?

Or, should I simply say, “We shouldn’t live in a world where a young woman is afraid to walk alone late at night,” ask her to stroll on over, and then hashtag #TakeBacktheNight on Twitter?

Let’s discuss another real-world scenario. We know that the vast majority of college men aren’t sexual predators, but some are. We also know that excessive alcohol use can impair good judgment and cause people to make choices they later regret. If your daughter is old enough to drink, what advice should a good parent give?

Should you warn her not to lose control, to be aware of her surroundings, and to be very careful about her alcohol consumption?

Or should you believe “We shouldn’t live in a world where young women are exploited at parties,” respond that she should “have fun and be sure to hydrate,” and then go sign a petition demanding her school adopt a “yes means yes” consent rule?

Normal, prudent people understand that there are evil men in this world, that some situations and places are more dangerous than others, and that it’s worth taking measures to protect yourself. Normal, prudent people know that activism doesn’t result in immediate change and that you can’t protect yourself in the moment through petitions, marches, tweets, or lawsuits. Normal, prudent people also understand that taking protective measures in no way justifies or excuses crime, and that crime victims are not in any way responsible for their fate, even if they make decisions that render themselves more vulnerable.

But we don’t live in normal, prudent times, and it can feel as if normal, prudent people are in short supply — especially in America’s activist class. How else to explain the public firestorm around Big Bang Theory actress Mayim Bialik’s op-ed in the New York Times? In the midst of a piece describing her own experiences in Hollywood and decrying the entertainment industry’s obsession with appearance, she said this:

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.

Lest anyone think she was somehow excusing sexual assault, she followed up with a crystal-clear statement:

In a perfect world, women should be free to act however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women. But we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.

She wasn’t promising that modesty would make women invulnerable. She wasn’t blaming women for dressing differently. She was suggesting measures that in her experience have made it less likely that she’d face harassment. Her statement is nothing more and nothing less than the sexual-harassment equivalent of saying, “Don’t walk alone down that dark alley,” or “You should lock your doors when you leave your house.” There’s the world we want, and there’s the world that exists. Until we achieve the world we want (if we ever can), we have to live in the world that exists. Therefore, it’s worth exploring whether there are steps women can take to make their world just a bit safer.

The response to Bialik, however, was so furious that she soon issued an apology:

It’s deeply unfortunate that she felt the need to apologize. I’m reminded a bit of the firestorm that descended on Emily Yoffe when she published a sensible column in Slate warning college women that “when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.” Does anyone doubt the truth of that statement? Does any rational person doubt that drunk women are more vulnerable than their sober peers?

I’m very aware that there is no foolproof protection against sexual assault. In fact, no protection is close to foolproof. I’m very aware that you can do everything “right” and things can still go very, very wrong. But that’s not an argument for disregarding as “victim-blaming” good-faith advice as to how women can navigate a world where evil men exist, some of their habits and tendencies are known, and there may be steps that can deter or prevent their predation.

Finally, in the face of deep-seated and damaging cultural problems, why can’t there be a measure of grace directed toward those who are trying to find solutions? It’s fairly clear at this point that humanity has yet to devise a system or create a culture that cleanses public and private spheres of sexual assault, harassment, or exploitation. Given this reality, shouldn’t we approach the debate with a measure of humility and openness? But no, committed ideologues all too often demonstrate no such grace. When a person agrees with their goals and perhaps agrees with “only” 80 percent of their methods, they quickly become 100 percent their enemy. It’s ideological uniformity or aggressive enmity. There is no middle ground.

Bialik’s advice is worth considering. She was right and brave to offer it. She wasn’t victim-blaming but was instead trying to prevent victimization. It’s a sad sign of our times that some folks believe modesty can’t even be part of our public debate.


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