Monday 13 May 2013

Rape avoidance advice on Facebook just upholds rape culture

TW: rape and sexual assault, abduction, victim-blaming

Has anyone else seen this thing going around Facebook called ‘through a rapist’s eyes’?

It’s basically a list of so-called safety tips for women to ‘help’ us avoid getting raped – and as a result is a load of victim-blaming bullshit that is incredibly dangerous. 

I’m not going to re-produce the whole horrible mess here, as I think it would be irresponsible to do so. However, to give it a little bit of context, this viral document purports to report conversations from convicted rapists about the women they target and how, if you want to ‘avoid’ being raped, you should avoid the kind of behaviour they describe. To quote: 

"THROUGH A RAPIST'S EYES" (PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ THIS. It may save a life.) Click Share Button to share it on your Wall.


Through a rapist's eyes! A group of rapists and date rapists in prison were interviewed on what they look for in a potential victim and here are some interesting facts:

The rest of the article plays it pretty fast and loose with the word ‘facts’ in a way that is at best, naively irresponsible and, at worst, worryingly dangerous. 

You can see just how bad it is from one of the first pieces of ‘advice’ that informs women that attackers target women with long hair. Mind-bogglingly, the writer claims that ‘women with short hair are not common targets’. This is so offensive, so silencing and so blatantly stupid. It’s offensive to say that women should change their hair to avoid rape. And it’s wrong to suggest that short hair can somehow ‘protect’ you from being attacked. More, it is silencing of survivors and perpetuates the myth that only a certain type of woman is a victim or survivor of rape. 

The ‘facts’ continue – ranging from how women should dress and conduct themselves on the street (don’t look through your bag on the street – vulnerable!) to the dangerous and silencing suggestion that ‘most attackers’ will abduct women from grocery stores, parking lots and public toilets. 

There is of course no mention that the majority of women know their attackers. In fact – and this is a real fact by the way as opposed to a viral fact – 97% of callers to Rape Crisis knew their assailant prior to the attack. 2005 research by Kelly backs up the claim the majority of perpetrators are known to their victim. 

The advice in this viral is dangerous. It tells women that we can and must take action to reduce our risk of rape as if rape is some kind of natural hazard that just happens. It doesn't consider the truth that the only thing that causes rape is the rapist. This advice expects women to put our lives, our personalities and our freedom of movement on hold in order to not get raped. All the advice demands that women don’t do X, don’t do Y – none of it talks about the fact that rapists shouldn’t rape. 

It isn’t right to tell women not to go food shopping, not to answer our phone in the street, not to wear our hair in a certain way so we won’t get raped. Not just because instructing anyone to not live their lives because of fear isn’t ok, but because none of these things actually cause rape. Grocery stores and hairstyles don’t cause rape. There is nothing that women do or don’t do that causes rape. The only thing that causes rape is a man choosing to rape. 

The advice gets worse. It encourages women to put up a fight if we’re attacked, to convince rapists you’re – and I quote – ‘not worth the effort’.

This is perhaps, in a whole shitstorm of dangerous so-called advice, the most dangerous of all. Which is saying something.

The idea that women should fight back if they are attacked completely ignores how women – in fact all people – respond differently to threats. The first important point to emphasise is that fighting back might not be safe course of action. Physically fighting back might lead to an escalation of violence. 

The second important point is how it’s a common myth that when attacked, everyone will respond with ‘fight’. But many people respond with ‘freeze’ – and this is a completely valid and normal response to danger. To say that there is a correct way to behave – i.e. to fight – is to silence the experiences of women and, fundamentally, fuels a victim-blaming culture. 

The CWASU website explains it better than I can: 

"If women really want to, they can always say no"
Many women do indeed say no, but rapists do not listen. Some resist physically, try to get away - some of these women do manage to prevent further assault, others suffer greater injury. Other women are terrified and they freeze. Each of these responses should make it very clear to the man that the woman is not freely consenting to, or desiring sex. If a man is determined to have sex, and there is no easy way to escape, it is hard to imagine what difference saying no would make.

"To be raped is the worst thing that can happen - so you would resist to the utmost"

Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.

Telling women that there is only one correct way to respond to being attacked is to say that if women don’t respond that way, then they are somehow at fault. The insistence that women would and should always fight back can lead to women blaming themselves for not fighting hard enough. It also gives space for the patriarchal culture to then try and say that if the woman didn’t behave in a certain, ‘correct’ way then no rape happened – leading to a low conviction rate and a society which harasses alleged victims. I talk about this at length in my interview with screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo so I won’t rehash all of it here.  

This viral teaches women to live in fear – always looking over our shoulders. It is about policing women’s behaviour – telling women where we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t do. It has no respect for our bodily autonomy, our right to freedom of movement and our right to live free from fear and violence. And by creating a climate of fear, it silences the indisputable fact that most rapists aren’t bogeymen hiding in alleys. 

The advice on this viral Facebook list is victim-blaming. It tells women that we should police our own behaviour to ‘avoid’ rape and abduction. It then tells women a ‘correct’ way to respond to an attack – even though there is no correct way to respond. To say there is leads to women blaming ourselves for not ‘doing more’ to stop the attack. This victim-blaming is part of a rape culture that denies women justice and focuses all of the responsibility to end rape on to women. 

It is not up to women to stop rape. It’s horrible to understand that there is nothing we can do to stop rape. It’s comforting, in a strange way, to believe that if we cut our hair and never go grocery shopping we will somehow be safe. That if we just follow the rules, we’ll be ok. But it’s not true. A woman could follow every rule on this viral and still be attacked. She could fight back and still not see her attacker convicted. And part of the reason why that could happen is because of advice like this – advice that absolves the rapist, creates reasons to blame women and tells women that we have to take responsibility for the actions of men who choose to rape. 

Even if a woman never left her house and lived on her own and did everything this viral tells her to do, it won’t reduce the incidents of rape – simply because this advice won’t stop a rapist attacking someone else. So long as the advice, the guidance, and the hectoring, patronising, patriarchal tone focuses on women’s behaviour then it will never stop rape because it will never be directed at the cause of rape. And that cause is rapists, not women. 

The only person responsible for rape is the rapist. They are the ones who choose, consciously choose, to commit a violent crime. And one way to stop some men making that choice is to end rape culture, which is propped up by this viral.

I don’t know what motivates men (and it is men) to create these advice lists. In my kinder moments, I can believe they are doing it because they honestly, mistakenly and naively believe it will help keep women safe. But really, it’s so easy to tell women what to do and what not to do, it requires no effort to prop up a victim-blaming rape culture that doesn’t actually care about stopping rape. What would be really helpful, really radical and really make a difference would be to improve justice for rape survivors and stop rapists from raping. 

Telling women not to go grocery shopping will never achieve that. Talking and educating men and boys – as well as women and girls – about bodily autonomy, respect and consent – that might. 

The CWASU website is a really valuable resource on victim-blaming, rape culture and proper facts. /

Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999 

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