There was a higher than average number of comments on my last blog post critiquing the safety advice given out by police in the wake of a serious sexual assault in Bristol. Because many of the same responses to the post kept coming up, I thought I’d write a follow-up post to try and refute some of the recurring arguments.
Response One: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked
I’ve written it on my blog a hell of a lot of times, but let’s reiterate it again. Women are not cars. We are not wallets. We are not windows, or mobile phones. We do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ or ‘open’ by walking home on our own after dark.
As well as being quite simply rude, this response I believe feeds into a culture where women are objectified. Our humanity, our right to live free from violence and attack, is diminished. We become the equivalent of a carelessly parked car.
What this response comes down to is the idea of ‘sensible precautions’. We should take sensible precautions to reduce our vulnerability to crime. Therefore we lock our car doors, we keep our valuables hidden and we close our windows. They are all sensible precautions and they are precautions I take too.
But not living your life freely is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling a woman like me, who often works late, that I should not walk home after dark is not telling me to take a sensible precaution. It’s telling me to restrict my freedoms and to change my way of life because of the actions of one or more men. That’s not the same as locking your car door.
This argument presents the idea that simply by living their lives, women are ‘making themselves vulnerable’. And that is not ok.
Response Two: You’re telling women to put themselves at risk
No. I’m not. I’m really not.
There’s some confusion around safety advice, that when you criticise it you are somehow saying everyone can just behave however they like and damn the consequences. It’s not the case. We all have a responsibility to ourselves. We shouldn’t throw ourselves in front of cars or get so drunk we fall off a roof. We need to look after ourselves and – as friends or family members – we need to look out for our loved ones.
My criticism of this specific safety advice is that – again – it’s presenting the idea that women’s presence in public space is enough to put her at risk. That by walking home alone, she has put herself at risk.
This kind of advice presents rape and sexual assault as some kind of natural hazard that women can take action to avoid. If you just walk in daylight. If you just say sober. If you just tell people where you are. Then you’ll avoid rape. Then you’ll be safe.
But as I say over and over again, the only cause of rape and sexual assault is the man that chooses rape and sexual assault. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to adjust her lifestyle to avoid rape. It’s up to men who choose to rape, not raping.
Regardless of what the safety advice says, women still have strategies to ‘stay safe’. Whether it’s walking the long way home to avoid a dodgy area, or leaving early to get a bus, or fake talking on the phone or carrying keys. We all take action to ‘keep ourselves safe’. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we are attacked, it is solely the fault of the attacker. And walking home with a friend isn’t going to help if that friend attacks you. Especially when the vast majority of attacks against women come from someone the woman knows.
Response Three: the advice isn’t gendered. Men have to be vigilant too.
The advice is gendered. How anyone can miss that is beyond me.
Look at it this way. There are two facts that are incontrovertible about violence. Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know – at home but also at work, college, school. Men are most likely to be attacked by a stranger on the street.
But when a man is the victim of a violent attack on the streets, the response is not to tell men to avoid walking home on their own. It’s not to tell men to understand that alcohol leaves them vulnerable. We do not expect men to modify their behaviour or not live their lives because of the actions of other violent men.
There’s also a difference between being ‘vigilant’ and telling women to restrict their freedoms. Being vigilant is – as in point two – about self care, caring for one another, being aware. Not living your life free from the fear of violence is not being vigilant.
Response Four: the police response.
Operation Bluestone is committed to the idea that the only thing that can stop rape and sexual assault is to ensure men don’t have sex with someone who cannot or does not consent. I must reiterate that Operation Bluestone has done so much good work tackling rape myths and victim blaming culture, and they should be recognised for that.
I think it’s really important to acknowledge the stand the police are taking and thank them for their action in tackling male violence against women.
So these are my responses to the responses to my blog. In short, women are not wallets. We do not leave ourselves open. Not living our life free from the fear of violence is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling women we have the right to live free from violence is not putting women at risk. This advice is gendered. And thank you Operation Bluestone for your positive response.
One last thing. In my post I did something I rarely do – disclose an incident I have experienced. In that incident, I had followed all the ‘rules’. No one commented on that. Had I put myself at risk for being in a public space? Did I deserve that assault? Should I have stopped getting buses? Of course not. The problem with this advice is it is unrealistic because sexual assaults happen anywhere and everywhere. The sad and scary thing is that whilst this crime is so common, there are no sensible precautions women can take. The only thing that can make a change is by some men choosing not to attack women.