It’s raining like the end-times are near, and I accidentally brought my only occasionally functional umbrella to work with me this morning. While I do enjoy challenging nature in order to test my stoicism at times, I find that wool pants are not the best outfit in which to rumble with the weather. Sitting in my office drenched and shivering, of course my thoughts turn to risk reduction!
Risk reduction is a public health term that refers to changing behavior to lessen the chance of being affected by some adverse experience. Risk reduction is a really powerful tool in a lot of public health contexts: keeping people from getting the flu, preventing heart disease by encouraging exercise, AIDS prevention. In fact, I’d argue that risk reduction is one of the most important aspects of healthy sex education - teaching young people how to prevent pregnancy, STI transmission, and so forth. In these arenas, risk reduction puts responsibility (usually) where it belongs - on the individual, to make healthy life choices for themselves.
The problems with risk reduction strategies come up when we try to apply them to things that aren’t preventable by an individual person making healthy life choices for themselves. Rape prevention is one of these areas where the world applies a lot of risk-reduction strategies (a lot of them Shira talked about in her previous post), especially to women, and they don’t apply.
Holly over at The Pervocracy, one of my favorite bloggers, has a nice takedown of a couple of the most prominent risk-reduction warnings we give to women about how to stop themselves from being assaulted or raped. She takes Cosmo down every month, by the way, and it’s awesome. It’s also incredible tiring and disappointing that, once again, we’re seeing “tips” and “strategies” like these promoted in an ostensibly female-friendly magazine.
So, here are the problems with risk reduction in the world of rape and sexual assault prevention: first, it doesn’t work. There is no length of skirt that will prevent a husband or intimate partner who is a perpetrator from perpetrating. Telling women to travel in packs to bars, to hold their keys in their hands like wolverine at night while walking to cars or apartments doesn’t do anything to prevent assault from people she may know.
Second, risk reduction strategies in rape prevention are almost always targeted to women - say no when you mean no, don’t drink, don’t go to places you don’t know, don’t spend time with strange men, don’t act like a human being. The double-standard is painful in its transparency here.
Third, they are heteronormative. Most risk reduction strategies I’ve seen have focused on techniques for women (in my experience, young college-aged women) to protect themselves from unknown male assailants. I never received any messages about how to protect myself from perpetrators, and especially not male perpetrators. Risk reduction rarely addressed the lives of gays and lesbians, and completely ignores the existence of the trans population.
But here’s my bigger beef with risk prevention as a strategy for reducing rape: it makes resisting rape an individual activity. This is the biggest flaw in using risk reduction in this work, and the one that would still be prominent even if somehow, we were able to make risk reduction language more inclusive and less gendered. All risk reduction training is, by its nature, individual - the ads on the bus about how to avoid getting H1N1 are focused on the individual person modifying their behavior to make catching the disease less likely.
Reducing or eliminating rape in our culture isn’t an individual task. Asking women to each, individually, fight off or take responsibility for managing the entirety of the male population is both unjust and impossible. Rape exists at the levels it does in our society because of rape culture. We know this. We have good research about how perpetrators operate in the world, and how much their operation relies on several overlapping levels of social camouflage. Rapists don’t rape because individual survivors aren’t vigilant enough about protecting their valuable bodily autonomy; they rape because we live in a culture that promotes it and they can get away with it.
We need to tackle rape and sexual assault as a social problem, one that requires community organizing and policy change to stop. When we look at social problems as individual problems, we completely miss the root cause of the issue and end up pressuring people to alter their lives and reduce their abilities to live fully and freely for no benefit. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon wrote a great post about this concept two years ago, that I think is directly relatable here:
If you want to gauge how much a social problem is determined by society to be a matter of individual morality more than a collective problem that can only be addressed by a collective solution, you could do worse than to ask, “Are individual women considered the gatekeepers/middle class white women the moral exemplars on this issue?” Rising obesity and nutrition-related health issues? If we considered it a social problem, we’d look to economic controls on corn syrup, restructuring our food distribution, building more opportunities for exercise into our city structures. But if we considered it a matter of morality, we’d simply demand that women show off their moral purity by having a race for the smallest waistline. STDs and unwanted pregnancy: If it were a social problem, we’d have sex education and free condoms for all. But instead we tell women to keep their legs shut and save for their husbands.
And, I think we can add rape and sexual assault: if we considered it a social problem, we would have stronger survivor supports in place (and actually test rape kits), a criminal justice system that doesn’t re-traumatize survivors, and strong media messages about consent and sexuality that make rapists conspicuous in the world. Instead, we treat it like an issue of personal behavior, and tell women (and it is women) that they need to never have sex with anyone, they need to carry mace, and they need to take responsibility for being victimized.
Reducing or eliminating rape requires a big overhaul of social messaging; it requires new ways of thinking about sex as an activity between partners; I think it also requires a real strong restructuring of masculinity as a concept.
This morning, I could have kept myself dry by bringing an umbrella that worked. It was pretty much my fault that I’m as wet as I am, and I should have known better; but rape is not rain. It is not forecast on the morning news, and we will never stop it if we keep treating it like weather.