Thursday, June 22, 2006

On Rape and "Precautions"

This is something that has come up over and over again on the forum on Smith's Jolt, and while my stand on it still isn't completely clear, I feel like it's something I should blog about, because it's something that causes some factioning within the feminist community.*

The issue is rape. And what responsibility women should take for their actions or what precautions she should take. (The "rape threads" on the forum at the Jolt have become kind of dreaded because of this incessant, seemingly unresolvable argument.)

The argument usually goes something like this:
1. Someone posts something vaguely related to rape. (Most recently, it stemmed from a post on the recent WaPo article claiming that rape rates have drastically declined in the past few decades.)
2. Someone replies and brings up the problem with rape prevention based solely or mostly on "teaching women to avoid unsafe situations." (Ok, I'll admit, this time, it was me.)
3. Number 2 inevitably opens up the can of worms, with an equal number of people arguing either that taking precautions is simply logical or that creating a prevention strategy based on women's actions is victim-blaming.
4. The thread eventually devolves into what is pretty typical of the Jolt, with people arguing ineffectively and making no logical point whatsoever. It starts to become an O'Reilly-Factor-style argument, at which point the people seriously trying to argue the point just sit back and watch the stupidity take away their credibility.

It seems that I always get pulled into these arguments, because some of the things people say under the anonymity of the Jolt make me so angry that I can't just stay quiet (some say it's an endearing quality...but sometimes, I fear that I'm going to have a heart attack from the stress by the time I'm 27).
Thing is, I can never make my point eloquently or succinctly enough on the Jolt to make a difference, so I'm going to try to do so here.

What started all of this recently was this line in the article, attempting to explain the reason for the supposed 85% drop in rapes since the 1970s:
Another, more hopeful, explanation is that Americans have actually changed the way they think about sexual assault: Women have been taught to avoid unsafe situations, and both boys and girls have been drilled to understand the rules of consent. (emphasis mine)

The whole sentence is just a little inaccurate, and I could devote an entire blog post to that sentence. But the thing that bothered me the most was the bolded part of the sentence: "Women have been taught to avoid unsafe situations."

In a nutshell, my issue with this is as follows: It is not a woman's job to decrease sexual assaults perpetrated against her.

Now, of course, that is highly oversimplified, and needs expanding.

In theory (if one were to subscribe wholly to the rape culture ideology), it would make sense to not put yourself into a situation where a crime is "likely" to occur.
But that theory itself is inherently flawed, and has very few practical implications.

For one, the majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes, not stranger rapes. These "precautions" (not going out alone after dark and so on) are only even theoretically applicable in stranger-rape scenarios. Not going to help you if you're going out after dark with the person you're trusting to accompany you after dark to protect you from the man waiting in the bushes to rape you, the person who ends up being your rapist.
And then, of course, there's the issue of undue, burdensome limitations on women's mobility. If you can't go out alone, but you have nobody to accompany you, you just can't go out. So much for empowering women. "Ending" and "preventing" rape isn't really going to do much for women's upward mobility if women have to worry about who they're doing what with every second of the day (or, at least, every second of the night).

The argument that continually comes up is the analogy to a mugging. You don't go down a city street that you know to be prone to muggers with a wad of bills in plain sight. So, logically, you would not go into a bar by yourself, flash some guy, and expect not to get raped. Same thing, right?'s so not.
Mugging and rape are not comparable crimes.
That seems like such an obvious statement, but apparently, it's, um, not.

Even if you were to talk strictly about stranger rapes, these "precautions" that women are supposed to take are, I would argue, nothing more than victim-blaming techniques dressed up as "protecting women."
You can have the best intentions when telling a woman to make sure she doesn't walk home alone at night, but what are you going to say when that woman doesn't heed your well-intentioned advice and is raped as she's walking home alone? It is very straight logic to go from "You shouldn't walk home alone," to "Well, I told you to not to walk home alone."
The latter, of course, is telling the woman that she put herself in that situation, and is therefore at least partially accountable and responsible for the actions that resulted from her "allowing" that situation to arise.
a.k.a. Blaming the victim.

Unfailingly, the pro-"precaution" crowd then argues that of course the man is culpable...but (and here comes the victim-blaming) she should have been more careful.
Or, even better, "Well, now you know not to walk home alone." Or "Bet you won't get that drunk in mixed company again, eh?"
The latter two are very thinly veiled examples of the victim-blaming, but they are all cut from the same cloth. All rely on using the victim's lack of "precautions" to not only blame the victim (non-maliciously, for the most part) but to make themselves feel better about their own actions; specifically, to make themselves feel safer, like they do enough to make sure they won't "get themselves raped" like Susie over there.

And going back to the mugging example...rape, given the reliance on it to uphold the patriarchal culture and the gender/power element, is simply an inherently different crime. Mugging undoubtedly has socio-economic undertones, but rape has centuries and centuries of gender oppression built into it. So much so that people don't even question the basis of it anymore, which is where the biggest problem with this "precaution" prevention line of reasoning comes in.

Saying that women should take precautions because of the hostile, dangerous environment does nothing to question or undermine that hostile, dangerous environment in the first place.
And rape is not going to end until said hostile, dangerous environment is obliterated.
The man's responsibility and motive - especially their motive - is almost never questioned. Rape, for men (as perpetrators), is highly eroticized -- obviously, they're doing it to get their rocks off. Or something like that. The question of power or motive is never addressed. This assumed motive -- that they're doing it because they "can't help it," because they need the sexual release -- simply plays into the perpetuation of the threat and culture of rape. If you assume that men do it because they have to, then rape is inevitable, and nothing but women taking (often ineffective) immobilizing precautions even has a chance of decreasing the numbers.

So yes, in theory, given the current dominant ideology, telling women to limit their lives according to precautions will decrease the rape rates.

But how is anything going to change if you base all of your theories on the current
dominant ideology?

*NOTE: This piece deals specifically with male-perpetrator female-victim rapes. Of course, there are instances where women rape other women, men rape other men, women rape men, and everything in between and above and beyond. The most prevalent, however, is male-perpetrator female-victim rapes, and the gender dynamics and social implications of other instances of rapes are far too complex to delve into here.


witchy-woo said...

Eloquently argued.

And what really bugs me about all those 'women should modify their behaviour and take precautions to make themselves safer' pronouncements is the total disregard of the fact that most women are raped in their own homes! We're actually often in less danger taking our chances out in the street.

And, yes, all that focus on what women do and blaming the victim (the "...but" is a dead giveaway) serves very nicely to divert everyone's attention away from the men who rape.

Only men can stop rape because it's something men do.

catswym said...

agreed. the whole "women should take precautions" argument is predicated on the idea that rape happens to certain "types of women" in certain types of situations.

it dismisses the fact that rape happens to every kind of woman in every kind of situation.

silverside said...

I agree. I don't like victim blaming. But as I am no longer a young woman, and as my daughter blossoms into an attractive teenager, I feel I have to say something to her.

And a lecture on patriarchy and "only men can stop rape" alone isn't goint to do it. I don't want her to be a prisoner and not engage with life. But, damn it, there must be some steps she can take to proactively protect her own life. Otherwise, she should just be passive and ignorant as to the dangers out there? At minimum, I tell her about the danger of drug and alcohol use, how being "compromised" can make you vulnerable to assault, date rape, and worse. Not that she needs to be a teetotaler for life. But should I tell her nothing? Have her pass out at a party, get gang raped, and then tell me at the hospital that she had no idea that chugging half a bottle of booze could have had this effect? Not that I would blame her if it did happen, not at all. But damn, as a parent, I think we do need to put the information out there.

It IS a dangerous world. There is no evidence that men intend to stop raping. And we need to identify useful ways to protect the safety of ourselves and our daughters without letting men off the hook, compromising our own life or mobility, or degenerate into victim blaming.