I received an e-mail the other day telling me how to avoid being raped. At first, I found this to be a bit ironic, as my work involves raising awareness about primary prevention of sexual violence every day. But then I thought about what is at stake in circulating “tips” for “rape prevention.” If those reading believe the tips are helpful and actually apply them, what is the impact of that message? To answer that question, I wrote this post.
First, what is the definition of prevention? According to Dictionary.com it is the ‘act of preventing.’ Thank you, Dictionary.com, for using the word I am trying to define in the definition! Isn’t that the first thing children learn not to do when defining words? Redundancy aside, another definition I found for “prevent” is ‘to keep from occurring; avert; hinder.’ According to this definition, the tips emailed to me should keep rape from occurring. That leads me to the conclusion that if we follow these directives correctly, we won’t be subjected to rape or sexual assault.
Here are some of the most popular tips I’ve seen in high schools, colleges, in bar bathrooms, on police websites, on flyers, and in e-mail format:
- Don’t walk by yourself at night and stay away from isolated areas at all hours.
- Walk confidently and with a steady pace. A rapist often looks for someone who appears vulnerable.
- Avoid carrying objects requiring use of both arms.
- Install effective locks on all doors and windows. Never leave your door unlocked, even for a moment.
- Install a peephole viewer in your door and never open your door without knowing who is on the other side.
- Don’t accept drinks from other people, except someone you trust.
- Stay sober while on a date. Remember, alcohol impairs judgment and memory.
- Be aware of locations and situations where rape might occur and avoid them.
- Avoid putting music headphones in both ears, especially if you are walking alone.
Obviously this list could carry on forever, but I am sure that many of you have read these tips before and I don’t need to write each one.
These tips, while not mentioning any specific genders, are certainly focused around male perpetrators and female survivors. They also mainly focus on a 18-30 age demographic. Target audiences are blatantly evidenced by where these tip lists are posted (female bathrooms), the subject lines they are given in e-mails, and when they crop up (after a female has been attacked). Therefore their use is already excluding a large percentage of other people who experience sexual violence: children, the elderly, trans* folk, and men.
These tips also focus solely on the actions of those who are at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted, rather than the actions of the community or of those who will assault. Therefore survivors and society are getting the message that the responsibility for the crime is with the survivor; she needs to engage in certain proper behaviors to avoid being raped, and if she doesn’t, then it is partly her fault for not being careful enough. Instead, the message we should be sending is that a survivor is never to blame, and that both the community and the perpetrator are responsible for the behaviors.
These tips also focus almost exclusively on incidents of stranger rape. Many admonish women to never be alone and advise them to take appropriate safety precautions when around strangers. Stranger rape only accounts for approximately 20-25% of rape and sexual assault. So why do so many of these tips focus on how to watch out for that ‘man behind the bushes’ or the one who is trying to break into your house? In fact, many survivors who take the usual prescribed safety precautions are still assaulted because of the perpetrator was a friend, family member, or other trusted individual. Where are the tips for how to watch out for an impending attack from an acquaintance, friend, or family member that represent the other 75% of incidents? For many it is easier to talk about stranger assaults. For us to confront the fact that survivors most likely know their perpetrators is to also confront the fact that sexual violence and those who perpetrate it are people we know as well and operate within our communities. Children or people with disabilities are at even greater risk of being raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know, thanks to their social vulnerability and dependence on others. Most people are taught stranger-danger from a young age--it is certainly an important lesson. Yet it is also important to note that it does not apply to the overwhelming numbers of people who are raped or sexually assaulted by people they know.
The tips about alcohol are also problematic. One specifies to only take drinks from people you know and trust, again focusing on how strangers will ply you with alcohol in order to commit rape or sexual assault. While alcohol is a factor in many incidents of rape and sexual assault, these incidents are still typically occurring in settings where the perpetrator is known to the survivor. These tips also specify that alcohol will impair judgment and memory, which is a thinly-veiled attempt at victim-blaming. On the contrary, we know that alcohol is used as a tool to facilitate sexual violence. Perpetrators are aware that a survivor who had been drinking is less likely to be believed, whether by law enforcement, courts, or other powers that be, and therefore purposefully use it as a way to make a person more vulnerable and to make the crime more difficult to report.
I think my personal favorite is ‘be aware of places where rape may occur and avoid them.’ Seriously?! Is there a special feature on Google Maps where I can pinpoint all of these dangerous locations? Is there an app for that? It would be awesome if you could plan a route with no tolls and no rape areas, especially if you were travelling alone. All sarcasm aside, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults (2/3) occur in the home of the survivor or in the home of a friend or family member. Are people really expected to avoid their homes and the homes of those they love?
I think it’s safe to say that these tips are not actually preventative in nature. I think that they could be called risk reduction techniques but only insofar as stranger rape is concerned. It is time that these tips are replaced with information that correlates to the actual statistics and incident rates of rape and sexual assault. Further, it is crucial that this information focus less on the behavior of the potential survivor but rather the behavior of the perpetrator or even the societal norms that encourage rape culture.
What do you think could be included on future lists or tips that focus on prevention?