TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses male-against-female rape and victim blaming.
'Telling women how to best protect themselves from rape isn't victim blaming! It's common sense. Don't you want to protect your children?'—that's the argument that has been spouted by Mia Freedman, Susie O'Brien et al this past week. But this 'advice' is not common sense, it is a common ignorance.
All this talk of alcohol, and ways that women can protect themselves or minimise the risk of rape, is a misdirection. That’s a term mostly used in stage magic, it means getting an audience to focus on one thing in order to distract from another.
That’s what this ‘common sense’ does. In focusing on all the ways women should protect themselves—not drinking to excess, not walking home at night/alone, taking taxis, staying with friends—we make ourselves blind to the awful reality of entrenched societal, gendered abuse.
The only way a woman or girl can completely ‘protect herself’ from rape is to cut herself off from society all together.
Don’t drink to excess? Rape happens even when a woman is sober.
Take a taxi home? Women are regularly raped or assaulted by taxi drivers.
Women are in more danger staying at home with their partner than they are out at a party. Statistically, intimate partner violence (commonly referred to as ‘domestic violence’) ‘is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than any other of the well-known preventable risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.’
If we are so concerned about telling girls and women how to protect themselves, and so many of us are happy to tell them not to drink to excess, why aren’t we telling them not to get into relationships?
This is because if we start focusing on the real cause of rape—the rapists—we have to face the fact that it’s not a stranger at a party who preys on drunk girls that we most need to fear. It is most often the people we know. The people we trust. It can be the men in our homes, in our peer groups, sometimes in our own families. It can be men who seem like nice guys, who even seem pretty feminist when they need to! It can be trusted and well-liked community leaders. But that’s too confronting. The reality of societal, gendered abuse is confronting. So we tell women they could have stopped it.
Telling women all the ways they should protect themselves is disingenuous, to say the least. Women can’t protect themselves when rapists benefit from a society that protects them by shaming their victims. This culture of shame, doubt and victim blaming means most rapes are never reported (‘I won’t be believed’, ‘it was my fault’), and the ones that make it to court can traumatise victims further.
Teaching everyone about the dangers of alcohol is a given. (Hell, it causes cancer.) But we don’t teach it to everyone. The message, from Mia Freedman and Susie O’Brien and our society as a whole, is that women need to take precaution.
Women and girls do take precautions against rape, anyway. We’re not idiots. We do it every day, all the time, because it’s been drummed into us since we were girls that the world isn’t a safe place for us, and that fixing the problem is too hard and too scary, so it’s on us to not ‘let ourselves’ become victims. But we still get raped.
This belief, that women can stop their own abuse, takes the focus away from the fact that we have a deep societal problem than can’t be solved by women staying sober or only walking around during the day.
If all the women stay sober, and rape still happens, then what do we tell our girls?