CONTENT WARNING: sexual assault, rape, victim blaming (some links include images and screen caps)
Whenever there is a report on rape perpetrated by someone unknown to the victim (the least common type of rape), the hysteria and fear mongering ramps up a notch in the media (both mainstream and social), and we can usually expect a quote from a member of the police force that tells women how to prevent becoming a victim of a similar crime. Whilst some of the advice may be sound (yes, walking with a group can prevent you from being the woman with the sheer bad luck that night), a lot of it is not. The now infamous comment from the Toronto-based police officer that prompted a global movement in SlutWalk comes to mind. Telling women not to ‘dress like sluts to avoid being victimised’ is not sound advice, and however well-intentioned it may have been, it perpetuates rape myths (that what you are wearing matters to a rapist) and shames women who wear mini skirts (or stilettos or red lipstick or whatever the made up slut uniform in your mind looks like). It also runs the risk of making women too scared to report rape or sexual assault because they didn’t follow these ‘rules’ to prevent being raped or assaulted.
Over the past few months, I had the displeasure of seeing several people in my social media networks sharing a chain-letteresque list of ‘rape prevention tips’, purportedly from a martial arts instructor who had chatted with a bunch of rapists, or some nonsense. When women have pointed out that these tips rely on misguided information that is at best pointless, and at worst may in fact place you in greater danger, they are routinely shouted down. They are told that even if that is the case, something is better than nothing; that there is good advice in there to heed; that women need to know what to do when they are confronted by a rapist! Look, there is usually a scrap or two of reasonable advice in these sorts of lists, and generally being aware of your surroundings is a good thing, but it doesn’t discount the really bizarre advice about not wearing your hair in a ponytail (gives rapists something to hold on to, apparently) and always fighting them off loudly and aggressively (rapists all get bored after a couple of minutes of this, apparently).
This sort of advice is shit. At some point, that it is well-intentioned stops mattering, because it is still shitty advice being shared around and taken by many as gospel. When we take this advice as gospel, it is only a very small step to pointing the finger at women who don’t follow it; telling them they are asking for it and chastising them with rhetorical questions like ‘what did you expect’ if they have the misfortune of being raped or sexually assaulted. It shames women and polices their behaviour, dress and sexuality in a way that men don’t tend to experience. Because men don’t experience it, it makes it particularly galling to hear this shitty advice coming from men, because with few exceptions, what we actually get is paternalistic concern for the women folk and contempt for those who don’t follow the rules.
Yet, so often it is men in positions of power who get quoted in the media, telling women how to prevent being raped or assaulted. Just recently, Superintendent Mark Walton of the NSW Police Force was quoted in a slightly hysterical tabloid piece from The Daily Telegraph, talking about how he is kept up at night, thinking about how vulnerable drunk women are to sexual assault. He also claims that drunk women are more likely to be preyed on; he states that this is a fact. The Superintendent might want to recheck these so-called ‘facts’, though, after Jane Gilmore did a great job uncovering the truth of the matter over at The King’s Tribune last week. Turns out, these facts are bunk and you are statistically just as likely to be sexually assaulted whilst sober as you are whilst drunk.
Telling women they can prevent rape and assault by refraining from getting drunk is basically telling women that if they get drunk and don’t prevent rape or assault happening to them, it was their own fault for not staying sober. Perhaps that isn’t how you mean it to come across, but that is often how it does. So just to reiterate, when you are drunk and female, being raped is never your fault. It is the fault of the person who raped you. Take, for example, the recent case of Jane Doe, the sixteen year old victim at the centre of the Steubenville rape trial, who at the time of the assault was drunk to the point of passing out. When two popular footballers then dragged her from party to party, raping and degrading her, that was not her fault. It was the fault of those two footballers who felt entitled to her person, who no doubt believed that the absence of a ‘no’ was akin to a ‘yes’, and probably didn’t care whether she would have wanted to take part in any of those activities anyway.
We fail to teach young people about consent and fail to teach young men that women are their equals and need to be treated as humans, not objects. We make problematic exceptions for bad behaviour from boys and men involved in sports, and then we expect that women will carry this on their shoulders and adjust their behaviour because ‘that’s just the world we live in’. Then, unless they are the picture of chastity and virtue, we tear them down when they get assaulted. Facebook and Twitter have provided the platform for some bone-chilling victim-blaming from people young and old, who hold Jane Doe complicit in her assault because she was a drunk sixteen year old. One of the saddest things is, this wasn’t the first time and it probably won’t be the last.
When Jill Meagher was raped and murdered during that short walk home along Sydney Road last year (a path I travelled, almost identically,on many occasions whilst living in Brunswick), I lost track of the number of times that people chastised her for walking home alone. “She should have had a male friend escort her home,” they said. “She should have gotten a cab,” they said. But where is the concern for the male who might be faced with a random attack himself (because after all, men are vulnerable to random street violence too) and where is the acknowledgement that being in a taxi does not guarantee your safety (because it may just be the driver who assaults you)?
Sarrah Le Marquand, a day after Gilmore’s piece was published, added an article titled ‘Advocating Risk Management is not “victim blaming”‘ to the conversation. She argues that a distinction needs to be made between risk management and victim blaming. On the face of it, that makes total sense; I’m all for risk management and arming people with the ability to make an educated decision for themselves, no matter what we are talking about. Problem is, Le Marquand quotes the superintendent and points to his comment as expert insight into women and sexual assault. She warns against denying women factual information that might be of help. She then fails to offer any statistics with which women might arm themselves. She also fails to investigate the comment from the superintendent to see what the actual risk is so that women can be armed with the proper statistical facts. Basically, she pays a lot of lip service to this idea that risk management is important but fails to provide the factual information she believes women are entitled to. It seems like this is often the case; vague statements about not getting drunk, not being alone at night, not going home with a strange man without anything to back it up. Let me know what the actual risk is so I can make this educated decision.
Further, I know that I am more likely to be raped by someone I know than someone I don’t.. so surely I am safest in the company of strangers, whilst outside of my home, right? Seriously, why don’t we hear the media or police representatives telling women to reconsider marriage because some husbands are known to rape their wives? Why don’t we hear them warning women off attending university or college, given how prevalent rape is in those institutions? Why don’t we hear men being told to walk in groups and get cabs to avoid being a victim of violent assault? And where is the acknowledgement that women already live in fear of sexual assault in the public sphere and take actions to be safe? Why do we keep spreading fear about the danger of stranger-rape instead of having real talk about the probability of acquaintance-rape?
I can only assume that the rape prevention tips that women hear over and over again are less about stopping women from being raped or sexually assaulted, and more about controlling women’s freedoms and preventing them from having the same liberties in the public sphere that men have long enjoyed. It furthers the madonna/whore dichotomy that encourages girls to be good and chaste, because only the bad girls get raped. It sees well-intentioned people parroting this advice over and over until it seems reasonable and sensible and not sexist or nonsensical.
Even when we have proof that teaching men not to rape is working, we keep telling women to take responsibility and not put themselves into a position where they might be raped or sexually assaulted. It’s fucking ludicrous, and the instant-popularity of my mate Hilary’s #safetytipsforladies hashtag on Twitter is testament to this. Speaking of, the hashtag is still going crazy with sad, funny and darkly satirical suggestions for how ladies can be safer from rape and assault. Some of them punch you in the gut and some of them have been beautifully absurd, but I think most demonstrate that women don’t really need y’all to keep telling us how to stop being victimised, we know all about well-lit streets and keys splayed in our fingers, we got the memo in primary school. Let’s shift the focus on to the ones doing the raping instead, shall we?