By Franki Harrogate
**Disclaimer: given that the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men, and that the majority of “safety tips” are directed at women, I’ve mostly utilized a gender binary in the following discussion.**
I’ve noticed something funny about the majority of the “safety tips” directed at women: besides being very obvious advice that the majority of women already follow, they are usually attempts to control women’s behaviour. Example: “Don’t walk through/go into alleys.” This was a (paraphrased) statement from the Edmonton Police Service after a number of sexual assaults in the south side of the city. And here’s why it’s so problematic:
It ignores the fact that women have a right – an unconditional, 100%, fundamental right – to be in public space, regardless of where that space is or their reasons for being there.
It ignores the fact that, right now, it’s winter (and when the ‘advice’ was issued, it was bloody cold out) and going through an alley may be the quickest way to get to one’s destination.
It puts the onus on women to prevent being attacked. There is no mention here of the perpetrator, or of the fact that attacking women and sexually assaulting them is wrong. It assumes that sexual assaults WILL happen, and that it is the responsibility of women to ensure it doesn’t happen to them.
Further, such “advice” actively ignores the statistics that show that ~80% of sexual assaults are committed by an individual known to the victim. I shouldn’t have to clarify that, but unfortunately, the fact that police services are still issuing “safety tips” that masquerade as legitimate solutions, but that actually demand that women change their behaviour and ignore the responsibility of men in committing sexual assault means that I must. So let’s discuss the reality of “safety tips” and why they’re generally problematic:
“Take a martial art/self defence course so that you know how to fight back”. Let me be the first to say that if you are able to, and wish to, take martial arts or a self-defence class, by all means, do so. Just – please, don’t take one on the assumption that doing so equals becoming rape-proof. As I stated above, statistics show that most victims know their attacker. Given that armies spend an inordinate amount of time teaching recruits how to kill, how easy do you think it’s going to be to break the arm or gouge out the eyes of someone you know and may care about? And that’s if you’re even physically able to take a self-defence class in the first place.
Statistics also show that people with disabilities – i.e., those in long-term care, assisted living, etc. – are more vulnerable to sexual assault. That’s not a problem that can be resolved by self-defence courses. As well, not all self-defence or martial arts classes are created equal. There is no regulatory body that prevents Joe/Jane Schmoe from taking people’s money and teaching whatever they themselves feel are self-defence skills. And how does one access classes when money is an issue? If you’re trying to decide between paying bills and putting food on the table, where does the money for a class come from? Not to mention child care and/or transportation as barriers to being able to actually attend classes. And hey, fun fact: if someone roofies your drink, it doesn’t matter how big of a badass you are when you’re sober/conscious, or how many martial arts you know. Unconscious is unconscious and, despite what the movies and tv shows depict, no one is going to suddenly overcome drugs in their system to effectively fight off a sexual assault.
What it comes down to is this: my issue with being told to “take self-defense classes” as a way to prevent sexual assault is that it ignores the real problem: people who commit sexual assault.
“Don’t drink/get drunk/drink too much/drink when you’re out”.
Why shouldn’t women be able to drink if they desire to do so? The message never given: “Men, don’t drink because you could become a belligerent asshole who starts fights.” It’s okay for men to drink – it’s not okay for women, as the threat of sexual assault is held up as a punishment for disobeying. Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not an expert in everything, but if men have the right to go out, drink, and have a good time, why don’t women have the same right? Why is this a social activity that’s reserved entirely for men? Telling women not to drink (or how much they may drink) has absolutely nothing to do with preventing sexual assault and everything to do with controlling women’s behaviour. Once again: this “advice” completely ignores the actual problem – people who commit sexual assault.
“Have friends walk you home” – This works in theory, but remember that pesky statistic of ~80% of victims knowing their attacker? Your rapist could be that friend walking you home. You can’t tell someone is a rapist just by looking at them. People who commit sexual assault don’t wear signs saying “RAPIST.” They don’t wear black hats and have pointy mustaches that they twirl while narrating about their evil plots. Telling women that they need someone to walk them home:
a) implies that women need a protector (because they certainly can’t take care of themselves!);
b) assumes that whoever is enlisted to provide safety doesn’t turn out to be a predator themselves.
So I think it comes down this: what IS the “safety advice” that’s being disseminated? Does any of it focus on changing the real problem: people who feel entitled to sexually assault? Or is it predicated upon controlling women’s behaviour? Does it actually have the potential to remove all likelihood of rape, instead of merely turning a potential attacker on to another target?
If someone wants to take martial arts with the idea that s/he wants to be better prepared to defend herself if need be, great. I honestly think that everyone should learn to defend themselves to the best of their abilities. What frosts my cookies with respect to safety tips is when they’re presented as a panacea of rape prevention – “do this, and presto! No rape, ever!” when we know full well that’s not how it works. Plus, there’s the whole mess of safety tips being used against rape victims in court: “You didn’t do X, therefore you asked for it; everyone *knows* that if you don’t want to get raped, you do X.”
Here are some safety tips that can assist with reducing the likelihood of sexual assaults: If the cops know that a predator is repeatedly assaulting in a particular area, step up the number of patrols in that area. Get some foot patrols happening. Tell the residents what the suspect looks like, the times of the assaults, and the exact areas that the assaults were committed in. Give people the chance to decide, for themselves, how to best protect themselves. Work with the neighbourhood to “take back the alleys” by improving lighting, by encouraging foot traffic (more people means more eyes, which means more witnesses and less likelihood of a crime – any crime – occurring), and by encouraging reporting of suspicious behaviour.
Encourage talking about consent. Enthusiastic, ongoing, consent. Not just “no means no” – but that “Only yes means yes.” Tell men that they don’t have the right to women’s bodies, in any way, in any situation, in any circumstance. The “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign by SAVE that was later adopted by other agencies throughout the country sparked a reduction in sexual assaults. That’s a clear indication that education can have an effect.
Bystander interventions are another great option. And by that, I mean on-the-ground work. Stop victim-blaming. Don’t tell rape jokes, and don’t put up with others doing so. When you see people in an iffy situation, keep your eyes on it and watch to see what’s going on. Call the police, or a bouncer, or a security guard to intervene if you’re unsure or don’t have the ability to become involved yourself. Sometimes even just going over and asking the person who’s causing the problem the time, or if they know how to get to ______ place, can provide enough of a distraction for whoever they’re troubling to disengage and leave the situation. If you know that someone in your circle of friends has a history of inappropriate behaviour, refuse to invite that person to parties/events. Rapists can only operate in a group if the group ignores or bypasses their behaviour.
Finally – and, in my opinion, most importantly – when someone says that they have been assaulted, believe them. Ask “How can I support you?” instead of “What were you wearing?” Familiarize yourself with the local resources and groups that assist survivors of sexual assault. Never, ever ask “Why didn’t you _____?” or “Shouldn’t you have ____?” Placing the blame on the victim of an assault removes the perpetrator from the equation completely. And let’s be honest here: the only thing that sexual assault survivors have in common is that they were in the presence of someone who decided to commit an assault.
If there is something that you, yourself, do in order to make yourself feel safer, by all means, do it. Whether it’s taking martial arts, or taking your drink with you when you go to the bathroom, or whatever – if you feel empowered by what you are doing, that’s great. But please don’t tell others that they “must do XYZ in order to avoid rape” because that’s not how it works.
What that does is perpetuate the message that sexual assaults are a given, so the only way to make sure it doesn’t happen to you is to obey the rules – so that it can happen to someone else. The only 100%, surefire way to avoid being sexually assaulted is to never be around someone who would commit an assault – and as I pointed out above, they don’t wear signs. Let’s stop making the conversation about “How to avoid getting raped” and turn it to “Stop raping!” instead.