Saturday, 13 April 2013

On Assault, and Why Your "Safety Tips For Women" Aren't Helping

There has been a lot of attention recently on rape, and assault, and what women can do to help keep themselves safe. Posts get shared on social media that claim to be tips gleaned from talking to convicted rapists (with no sources or citations, of course) about what they looked for in a victim. The top tip on one such post is that rapists look for long hair or a ponytail. The top tip is telling women how they should style their hair. Yesterday enough was enough and I flipped out over one such post, and I'd like to have the opportunity to explain, in full, why posts like those are not helpful and why I had such a strong emotional reaction to the post in question.

First things first, such tips are always written as ways women can avoid being raped by a stranger when outside the home. This normalises the idea that rape always means a stranger in an alley. When everyone is encouraged to believe that "rape" equates to "stranger in an alley" this makes it less believable when you report a different experience. It means that juries, police, your community and so on are less willing to accept that anything other than "dark alley rape" really was a rape. According to the National Health and Social Life Survey of 2011, conducted in the USA, stranger rape only accounts for 4% of rape. Rape Crisis UK highlight that only 9% of rapes are committed by strangers, and furthermore: 

          [...] that 28% of women who are victims of the most serious sexual offences never tell anyone about it,
          and we know from our experience within the Rape Crisis movement that only around 15% of women
          and girls who experience sexual violence ever report to the police.

          One reason women and girls tell us they are reluctant to talk about their experiences is a fear of not
          being believed, or of being blamed for what has happened to them, as well as feelings of shame or
          self-blame. (Source)

Reinforcing the concept that rape = stranger-in-alley just makes the situation worse for the victims of assault. It helps to reinforce the idea that anything else isn't "really" rape. There's also the dark potential that this public perception of rape might support abusers in their belief that what they're doing isn't rape at all. "I'm not a stranger in an alley, so therefore this isn't a rape". To refer again to Rape Crisis:

          Myth Men who rape or sexually assault are mentally ill or monsters.
          Fact Studies have indicated that as few as 5% of men are psychotic at the time of their crimes. Few
          convicted rapists are referred for psychiatric treatment. (Source - and yes, this refers to men only, but
                                                                                              women rape too.)

Rapists aren't monsters or "psychos"; they're people, who might want to abuse their power over someone, or feel they have power by committing a rape, or think that they're not raping at all. There are many and varied reasons why people rape and being mentally ill only counts for a tiny percentage of that.

Another problem is that these posts and messages are always aimed at women. The figures from the States report that 1 in 10 rape victims is male. In the UK in 2011, there were 69,000 female rape victims and 9,000 male rape victims. (Some sources for the cold hard statistical figures can be found here and also on this site for UK figures. For a comprehensive list of UK crime reports, visit Rape Crisis.) Men get raped too; sometimes by other men, sometimes by women. And yes, "dark alley rape" does sometimes occur - 4-9% of rapes are committed by strangers. So, if these posts are really aimed at making people safer, why aren't they written for men as well as women? Why are they gendered at all? Why is it only women who are told to modify their behaviour? Why is it only women who are taught to live in fear, change their clothes, follow certain rules, encouraged to view every man on the street as a potential rapist? Why not write these for men as well, if the intention is really to help keep us all safe?

These messages carry the implication that if you follow these rules, do X, avoid Y, you'll be safe from sexual assault. But that's a myth. Most rapists (about 85% in fact) are known to the victim. It's a friend, a relative, a date, a partner. Not wearing your hair in a ponytail won't stop your abusive spouse from raping you. There is the insidious implication that if/when you get sexually assaulted, it's your fault because you weren't careful enough. You didn't follow the rules. You were asking for it. It contributes to a culture of victim-blaming. As this post shows, rape carries way more victim-blame than robbery and also states that, by definition, rape is not under the victim's control. These "safety tips" suggest that there are things you can and should do to avoid being raped, ergo if you get raped it's due to a failing on your part. (Also please, please read this glorious post on how these Safety Tips For Women! are patronising at best, damaging at worst.)

My final issue with posts on how women should "keep themselves safe" is that they normalise the idea that only women get raped. I can barely even guess how awful that must be for the victims of rape and sexual assault who are not cis female. My best guess is that this must make the situation all the worse for them; how emasculating it must be for some, how it adds to the trauma for others, how it reduces the sympathy some might otherwise have received, how hard it must be to convince friends, relatives, the authorities, that what happened to you was really rape. It must make it easier for women and persons known to the victim to get away with rape, too, as all the focus is on strange male perpetrators.

When people (men and women) get defensive about these "safety tip" posts, these messages, these attitudes, it makes it even worse. You find yourself apologising for the fact you were so sickened by something that you had to speak out. You find yourself less willing to speak out in future - which further contributes to the rape culture we live in. And we do live in a rape culture. Of the estimated 60,000 to 95,000 rapes in England and Wales, only 15,670 became police recorded crimes and of those a minuscule 1,070 persons were convicted of rape (again see here). That's not even 10% of the lowest estimate. Hell, that's not even 10% of the recorded crimes. A conviction rate of less than 10%. What a strong, clear message that sends to abusers and rapists - that it's okay to rape, you'll get away with it. Women are objects, assault us all you want, and if we try to report it you probably won't be charged with anything, because, well, we weren't careful enough to avoid a rape, were we? We didn't follow your tips. We were asking for it. And if you do get convicted, don't worry! The media will probably be on your side anyway (see the hideous and awful reporting on the Steubenville rape case). 

If there's a half-naked character in film, TV, a comic, a game, chances are that character is cis female. If there's a character with a back-story of rape and abuse, chances are that character is cis female. We encourage sayings like "look at the tits on that", like women aren't even people, aren't even human. Men in bars and clubs and on trains and in the street seem to think it's okay to grab our breasts, our bottoms, to yell graphic sexual slurs and suggestions. Whilst everyone gets abuse on the internet, women get threats of rape and sexual assault thrown in for good measure. Women in posters and adverts are shown in objectified ways so frequently that viewers now see women in lingerie as actual objects whilst the same isn't true for men in underwear (two scientific studies found this, shown here). 

I don't even want to get started on how many magazine articles and radio shows focus on stories of men who were falsely accused of rape. It breaks my heart and sends my blood pressure sky-rocketing to think that, of the less than 10% of convictions for rape, the media want us to focus on the stories of false accusation. Although I'm sure false accusations do happen, it is nearly impossible to accurately judge the percentage of false accusations and emphasising such cases is damaging to all victims of sexual assault who try to speak out. It further pushes the perception that "dark alley rape" is the only "real" rape and that if you know your attacker well enough to name them then they can't "really" be a rapist at all.

I know you mean well. I know you're trying to help, that the thinking is "if even one women is saved from rape by a stranger, then surely that's a good thing". But at best, your tips are only relevant in 4-9% of cases. At best, you're helping around 7020 people reduce the chances of their being raped and making 70,980 people feel they were to blame for their attack or that their rape wasn't a rape at all. At worst, you're making it harder for 70,980 people to bring their attacker to justice or even be believed by their own community. Instead of teaching women they need to conform to set rules or be punished, why don't we put all this effort and focus into changing our rape culture? Why don't we ask the police to change their behaviour, to take all reports of assault seriously? Why don't we argue that what a victim was wearing and what their sexual history is has no bearing and no relevance in a report of rape or sexual assault? Why don't we teach that groping a stranger, coercing a reluctant partner, having sexual contact with someone too drunk or high to resist counts as rape? 

You may argue that it's pointless trying to teach rapists not to rape - but you're wrong. Read a little something about how rape prevention messages aimed at men actually work. As Zerlina Maxwell so brilliantly said on Fox News:

       “I think that the entire conversation is wrong. I don’t want anybody to be telling women anything. I don’t
        want men to be telling me what to wear and how to act, not to drink. And I don’t, honestly, want you
        to tell me that I needed a gun in order to prevent my rape. … I think we should be telling men not to
        rape women and start the conversation there with prevention.” (Video and transcript here)

You may want to argue we don't live in a rape culture, that rape will be a threat regardless of how our society works. But consider this: 

          “Rape-free societies were characterized by sexual equality in which both genders shared power
           and were deemed to make important contributions, albeit in different ways, to the welfare of the
           society” (Rathus, Nevid, and Fichner-Rathus, 573).
           - “The more egalitarian and integrated the society, the less rape” (Schwartz and Rutter, 69).

If social pressures and social attitudes had no bearing, then rape statistics would be consistent across different societies and would be the same for different economic and racial groups. But they aren't. We need to take the focus off the victims and put it on the the attackers and the police and the judges and the juries. We need to stop telling women to live in fear and start telling society that rape is not okay.

Yes, it's smart to take precautions in life - lock your front door, keep valuables out of sight in your car, don't walk alone in dangerous parts of town - but no, we shouldn't be telling women, and women alone, that they need to go as far as changing their damn hairstyle in order to try to avoid being victims of rape. Because again, to drive the point home. These tips are no guarantee of protection from "dark alley rape". These tips are useless for avoiding most situations where sexual assault is likely to occur. And sharing these tips encourages a community that believes victims of rape deserve it because they weren't careful enough.

You do not deserve to be raped.

It is not your fault if you are raped or assaulted.

Only the rapist can be blamed for your rape.

We can teach rapists not to rape, and it makes a positive difference.

That's the message I wish we shared on social media. That's the message we should be sending out. That's the change I want us to start making.