Monday, 17 December 2012

On how women are not wallets, and why media feminists must not parrot rape myths

Trigger warning: discussion of rape and domestic abuse, and rape myths

[I just want to emphasise this post isn't an attack on Caitlin Moran, as some comments on other blogs about this issue have suggested. It's using the comments in her interview to talk about tackling rape myths and victim blaming, and challenging those rape myths. Because we should always challenge rape myths - whether repeated or spoken by an ally or a feminist, or someone we don't like.]

The following is quoted from an interview between Caitlin Moran and an Australian blogger, Mia Freedman: 

[MF] And of course it should never be about victim blaming but I worry about the idea of saying to women "don't change your behaviour, this is not your problem!". I feel like that's saying, "You should be able to leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, or leave your front door unlocked, and expect nobody to burgle you."

[CM] Yes. It's on that basis that I don't wear high heels - other than I can't walk in them - because when I'm lying in bed at night with my husband, I know there's a woman coming who I could rape and murder, because I can hear her coming up the street in high heels, clack-clack-clack. And I can hear she's on her own, I can hear what speed she's coming at, I could plan where to stand to grab her or an ambush. And every time I hear her I think, "Fuck, you're just alerting every fucking nutter to where you are now. And [that it's a concern] that's not right.
Society should be different. But while we're waiting for society to change, there's just certain things you have to do. But again the thing is, so many things you could do instead are predicated on having money. She could come out of a nightclub and get into a taxi, that would be the right thing to do.

Caitlin Moran then goes on to talk about how a lot of this is to do with class – mind bogglingly stating that billionaire heiresses don’t get kidnapped, raped and murdered because they have taxis and chauffeurs. 

No billionaire heiresses are ever abducted and raped and murdered, because they are just being put into a taxi or have their driver waiting around a corner for them. Again, it’s not just a feminist thing, it’s a class thing. It’s a money thing. It’s a problem of capitalist society. 

This interview really has left me with my head in my hands. It makes me feel total despair that the woman who is potentially the most famous UK feminist around at the moment, the woman who is doing so much to attract young women to feminism, is quoting a load of victim blaming, equality damaging, rape myths. 

Firstly, some facts. According to a range of studies, the vast majority of women experience violence from someone they know, such as a partner. Research quoted by CWASU  suggests it’s around 90% and most other research I’ve seen on the subject correlates with this. Women are comparatively safe click-clacking down the street in their heels. Men are far more likely to be attacked by a stranger in the dark. Women are far more likely to be attacked by the man in their home. 

I don’t know if research exists on the number of rapes committed in taxis but we know that it happens. After all, one of the most dangerous serial rapists in recent times was a cab driver. 

And you know what? The reason he got away with raping women for so long was because of the rape myths repeated in this interview. Because the police didn’t believe women who told them they’d been raped by a cab driver. Because rape myths tell us that taxis are safe, that rapes happen by strangers on the street. The women he raped did what Caitlin says are ‘just certain things you have to do’, the thing she says is the ‘right thing to do’. The police heard this message and didn’t listen to the women. After all, they’re just women. 

I can just hear some of the commenters on my blogposts about anti-rape campaigns rubbing their hands with glee at this exchange. You know, the ones who say that women should take sensible precautions when they’re out because you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked, you wouldn’t leave your wallet on the table. Look! They’ll say. One of your feminists is saying what we’ve been saying all along! 

I’ve said it before, but women are not cars, we’re not wallets. We are people. We don’t leave ourselves open or unlocked by walking around in public spaces. Not going outside is not a ‘sensible’ precaution to take whilst waiting for society to change. Not living our lives freely and independently is not a ‘sensible’ precaution. Telling women where they can and cannot be present in order to ‘avoid’ violence is not helpful. It does nothing to tackle male violence; it does nothing to stop rape. It just re-enforces the idea that rape is caused by women’s behaviour, and if we just stopped insisting on going outside then we might all be ok. 

It’s so dehumanising to compare women to material objects. And it’s so dangerous to tell women that they just need to follow some rules to be safe. As if rape is a natural hazard, and not a violent crime deliberately committed by another person. 

It is hugely problematic that one of the most famous and influential media feminists in the country is repeating these rape myths. I know that feminism is a broad church, and I know that feminists disagree with each other on a LOT of issues. But surely one thing we can all agree on is that women’s behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with whether a woman is raped or not? Surely that is just Feminism 101. Rape is caused by rapists. That rapist might be a stranger on the street or he might be your husband. Rape is not caused by women not taking sensible precautions. Rape, abduction and murder do not happen because women advertise their presence on the street by wearing high heels. Rapists choose to rape. 

What’s more, rape, abduction and murder happen to women across social class. Patti Hearst springs to mind in history. But we all know of famous, rich celebrity women in violent relationships, we all know rich women, middle class women, working class women who have been raped or who have experienced domestic abuse. Male violence is not a respecter of class or social status. The statement that billionaire heiresses don’t experience male violence is incredibly silencing of women across income brackets. It’s parroting a myth that only a certain kind of woman or girl experiences violence. Meanwhile, the voices of women are left unheard again. One of the problems I’ve spoken to IDVAs about in the past is the lack of financial help available to women who on the face of it are wealthy but who, on account of abuse, have no control over their finances and therefore little means to escape violence. We cannot make such sweeping statements about which women experience violence. 

There is a point to be made about how telling women to get cabs is problematic because it puts an onus on women to either spend money they might not have, or stay indoors. But the argument isn’t that women should suck it up until ‘society’ sorts itself out. The argument is that we need to do more to tackle the causes of rape, that we need to do more to dispel rape myths that do so much harm to women. 

In this exchange, Caitlin Moran and Mia Freedman ignore that women are raped at home, on the street, at clubs, in pubs, in the office, in schools, in universities, when they’re drunk, when they’re sober, when they’re wearing heels or flats or skirts or skinny jeans or pyjamas. They’re ignoring that the ONLY thing that all rapes have in common is the presence of a rapist. Not the woman. The rapist. No-where do we get a sense that the cause of violence is the perpetrator. 

Of course, it is comforting to believe that there is set of rules to follow to prevent rape. It’s comforting to think “it won’t happen to me because I don’t wear heels”. But these statements dangerously re-enforce rape myths. And it’s these rape myths that prevent women from having the confidence that they’ll be believed if they report rape. They keep the conviction rate at 6.5%. And they lead to judges saying that a rape survivor ‘let herself down’ when she took drugs and got drunk. They’re why rapists get 4-6 years in jail and victim compensation is so rare. Rape myths have a huge impact. They’re not throwaway comments, they impact on justice. 

And of course following these rules does nothing to reduce the incidence of rape. It does nothing to stop rape. These rules don’t tackle the causes or stop the perpetrators. They just teach women to feel frightened all the fucking time. 

Finally, we have the ‘fucking nutters’ comment. Not only is this disablist – stigmatising mental illness – but once more this statement puts women at risk. It emphasises the idea that rapists are strange monster-men who jump out of bushes. A rapist might be a respected, loved, popular man. He might be the life and soul of the party, he might be your friend. By re-enforcing the stereotype of what a rapist is meant to look like, the rape myth that popular, so-called respectable men aren’t violent towards women is emphasised. The more this myth is repeated, the harder it is for a woman who reports a rape by one of these ‘nice guys’. The myth can mean she’s either not believed or, in the case of a man who killed his wife a few years ago, he gets a tiny sentence on account of being “respectable and successful”. 

The conversation between Caitlin and Mia encourages the dangerous myth that rape can be prevented by women’s behaviour. It props up the absurd assertion that women are like objects that can be stolen if we’re careless. It perpetuates an atmosphere where women are taught to live in fear of male violence. This is not acceptable. I really worry that some of Moran’s young fans might read this and not question the damage rape myths cause. Or they might read it having experienced violence, and believe that they were to blame. Caitlin Moran has a huge influence, she has a huge audience. Her words have an impact. As feminists we need to do all we can to empower women and men to speak out about violence, to challenge these rape myths so that every single person understands that the only person that causes rape is a rapist. As feminists we simply cannot and must not be re-enforcing the idea that women’s behaviour can keep us safe from rape.

Also read: Stavvers, The F Word and Perestroika

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