When will women stop being told to be more careful?

Please note that this post discusses sexual violence, victim blaming and rape culture, and may be triggering.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about rape culture on the internet and in the media, especially in regards to the Steubenville rape case. You don’t have to look far to see some of the responses to this – both horrible, victim-blaming, rape-apologising responses, and some excellent ones too, looking at the pervasiveness of rape culture and the need for people to start blaming rapists and not victims.

All this resonates with me particularly at the moment, because over the past week there have been several accounts of men attacking women and trying to drag them into their cars in my suburb. And yet when these attacks are being reported, all that is being said is that ‘women should be more careful in these areas at night.’ The same sort of thing happened recently with the murder and rape of Jill Meagher and the group of men who abducted and raped a Sydney woman just recently.

I’m asking the same question that many people have been asking of late: why does the media seem to think that assault and rape is something that just ‘happens’ to women? Why are women being told that we need to be more careful? Why is no-one telling men* not to rape women?

There are several different issues at play here that aren’t being addressed, but they all link into the overall picture of rape culture.

First there’s the idea that rape and assault magically happen to women when they are walking down the street at night. I’m not even going to waste much breath on this one, because it’s ridiculous. Women can’t be raped unless someone rapes them. End of story.

But wait – what’s this ‘walking down the street at night’ business? Because if we believe the way rape is talked about and reported, it seems to be the most common way that women are raped or attacked. The idea that most acts of sexual violence occur by strangers who just happen to make you their target is pervasive, but completely inaccurate. According to one set of statistics, only around 4% of rapes are committed by strangers. That means that 96% of rapes are being committed by people the victim knows. In 46% of those cases, a victim is raped by someone they love; in 22% of cases by someone they knew well, in 9% of cases by a spouse, and in 19% of cases by someone who was an acquaintance. Those are scary statistics.

But rapists only come out at night, right? Why else would women still be constantly told that they need to be more careful when they’re out at night? That somehow, if they’re just careful enough, they can avoid ‘being raped?’

To be honest, the idea that I’m more likely to be raped inside my own home that outside it, by someone I know, is pretty scary. More scary than walking home late at night. 96% more scary.

So when the media talks about women taking preventative measures to stop rape, it’s actually not dealing with the issue at hand very well at all – it’s only taking a tiny percentage of rapes and assaults into consideration. It’s telling us that if we just act ‘more carefully,’ we can stop being raped. With the implication being that if we are attacked, well, we obviously weren’t being quite careful enough.

What does being careful mean, anyway? Does it mean that women should make sure they’re not drinking, they’re not walking alone at night, they’re not wearing anything that could be considered ‘provocative?’ Those are some of the most frequently advised ‘precautions’ again rape. We’ve already established that being out alone at night actually means you are less likely of being raped. Last time I checked, alcohol doesn’t mean you automatically consent to sexual activity, or that you somehow deserve to be attacked. As for clothing? Well, the idea that certain clothes cause rape (or make it more likely) is a complete and utter fallacy.

And here’s something people don’t seem to be taking into account when they make statements saying ‘women should be more careful and then they have less chance of being raped:’ we are careful. Because of the way our victim-blaming culture works, this message has been drummed into us over and over again, from primary school to university, by the magazines we read, but the news stories we see, by the people we talk to. And so we are careful. We make sure to keep our keys in our hands if we’re feeling threatened, we spend extra money on getting a cab home late at night instead of taking the bus. We text our friends as we’re walking home, we’re constantly scanning our location and making sure that no-one’s following us or approaching us. Because we’ve internalised the idea that if we’re just careful enough, we can avoid being raped.

And that’s a lie. Because the way we’re presented with us, it’s not actually possible to be careful enough. Not unless we hide under our beds, lock our doors and never go out or let anyone in.

So-called ‘rape prevention’ that puts all the burden of ‘not being raped’ on a woman or on a potential victim doesn’t work. If it did, we’d see less rape happening, less women being attacked. But you know what has been shown to work? Education and prevention aimed at perpetrators (or potential perpetrators).

We need to teach rapists not to rape. We need to teach people what rape is. Rape isn’t just stranger-on-the-street-at-night rape. Rape is date rape, marital rape, ‘having sex’ with someone who is asleep or too drunk to know what’s going on, pressuring someone into having sex even though they don’t want to. Rape is sexual activity without active, informed consent by both parties.

The success of the ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign in Canada shows that rape prevention aimed at rapists works. And it works a whole lot better than telling women to be careful. Why can’t we jump on board this train rather than the one that makes women responsible for not getting themselves raped? It’s about education and understanding consent and understanding when it isn’t there. The sort of changes that need to happen here to make women more safe from sexual violence are to social values that are systemic and deep-seated, and they can’t be fixed with surface treatment that says ‘well, men will be men, and some men will be rapists, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so all you women just need to be more careful.’

But make no mistake – they can be changed. Once we start teaching people not to rape.

*I realise that people of all genders can be rapists and can be victims of rape. However, statistics is Australia show percentages of male perpetrators at around 99%, and it is always women who are told to be more careful in the media. This is why this post will be focused on men who rape women.

Edit: since I wrote this I’ve found some Australian statistics on sexual assault by strangers which puts the percentage at around 20%. Whether this is because of cultural differences or because of an issue in how sexual assault is reported, I’m not certain. I should also say that it’s not my intention to marginalise those who have been assaulted by a stranger at all. (25/3/13)

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12 thoughts on “When will women stop being told to be more careful?

  1. I agree.

    When people learn that I often travel alone, including in sparsely populated areas, they’re often shocked by my bravery. However, when I ask why they think I’m so brave, it turns out that they think the greatest danger to me is rape.

    Now, since Taiwan has rape culture, the chances of me being raped unfortunately are greater than 0%. However, I live alone, the majority of my co-workers are female (female-on-female rape is extremely rare), my few male co-workers are not in a position of authority over me, I don’t have a boyfriend/husband, and I don’t date. I am over the age of 22, and most rapists more likely to target girls 12 years old or younger than women my age. Finally, I am unexpected, and since rapists don’t expect people like me, they don’t target me (this is related to ‘rape magically happens’ rather than recognizing that rapists target victims). Statistically, I have never been at a lower risk of being raped in my life.

    Indeed, looking at statistics, I am much more likely to get severely injured by being hit by petroleum-powered vehicle, or even get myself injured though carelessness (real carelessness, not rape-culture-carelessness), than to get raped. Yet nobody seems to suggest that I am brave to travel so much because of those dangers (okay, once in a while somebody points out the risk of self-injury). I suspect it’s because those dangers apply regardless of gender, so if someone argues that I should restrict my movements due to these dangers, they would also have to suggest that men restrict their movements, and we’re not going to restrict men’s freedom, are we?

  2. “And here’s something people don’t seem to be taking into account when they make statements saying ‘women should be more careful and then they have less chance of being raped:’ we are careful. ”

    Excellent line!! We are incredibly careful. I never walk out to my car after work (in a fairly bad part of town) without my cell phone in my hand, ready to dial 911 at a moment’s notice. I walk out with people whenever possible. I leave work before my work is really done because I don’t want to be there alone at night. I carry my keys in a “ready to gouge your eyes out” manner. But…where was I raped??? In the bedroom of my boyfriend’s nice suburban home, where I didn’t feel the need to be careful at all.

    1. I thought the “we are careful” point was excellent too! And I’ve never seen it written down before. Thank you, Jo.

      1. You know, neither have I. There’s so much on how we shouldn’t HAVE to be careful… But no-one seems to be saying that we are already being careful. Glad you liked the post!

    2. Aimee, I’m so sorry that happened to you! It’s horrible how we think we can be safe in our own homes, but the statistics show otherwise. And how engrained violence against women is in our culture. *hugs* Thanks for sharing.

  3. Well, while I agree with your points, I think that it might actually help. For example, if a person feels safer when she is being careful, then other people can see that. Meaning she carries herself with more confidence. And I think that some rapists ( though not all of them ) would not want to take the risk of attacking a woman who might be capable of defending herself.
    That`s just a theory, and for some women it probably wouldn`t make a difference, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  4. Why can’t society both teach females to be careful when they do go out (to *try* and avoid being part of the 4% or 20%) and teach males that rape is not ok (i.e no means no)? This article makes the same mistake of the mass media that it is trying to debunk – the mistake that the solution is presented as being EITHER we teach females to be careful OR we teach males rape is not ok. The Jill M case is pertinent. She was out on her own late at night in an inner city suburb. Her friends could have easily walked her home, her husband could have picked her up, etc. The point being that there were quick and simple things that could have been done both by her and those that loved her that *could* have prevented her tragic rape and murder.

    It’s not about blaming the victim. It’s just about asking the obvious questions in addition to asking the questions related to rape culture and influences/motives of perpetrators. Because at the end of the day it’s just about answering two basic questions: “is my safety at risk?” and “what can I do to try and protect myself?” I’d hope that everyone, not just women, are trying to answer these two questions in every aspect of their lives.

  5. very Good point women are taught since they are young not be out late at night because something might happen to them. this creates fear in them and some don’t even want to go out at all. Instead of teaching woman to fear and be careful. We should be teaching men to also be careful because not only do women get raped so do men. I’ve been out late at night back when I was leaving in Los Angeles my mom Always told me, “you shouldn’t go out at night because if you do its like you are looking for something to happen to you.” When in reality all I wanted to do was go out on a bike ride late at night.

    Now I live with my uncles and when I had just moved in I was going to the library and the library would close really late like at 9 and it was dark. When I got home my uncle was yelling at me telling that by being out late at night meant that I was looking for trouble and that hopefully nothing bad happened to me and if it did happened that it would be my fault for being out late at night. Why would it be my fault when I didn’t do nothing wrong except walk home from the library. Even parents overprotect their daughters when they should be protecting there sons also. My uncle even told me if I were a guy it wouldn’t be a problem since I’ll be able to defend myself. Is he stating that women can’t defend themselves? I know women can defend themselves. society underestimate women thinking we are the weak ones. that is another problem everything is blamed on woman but what about these men can they find something productive to do instead of hurting others.

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