A male member of the Russian LJ community – Feministki – recently tried to establish a line between victim-blaming and victim-advising. He said he was disturbed by discussions surrounding basic safety, and how they either degenerated into either victim-blaming or accusations thereof.
Of course, he later admitted that stereotypes got the best of him: his original posting concerned women in “short skirts” who “get drunk with strangers” or intentionally “walk around alone in the park at midnight.”
Leaving that aside, the discussion was interesting. In spite of the few trolls who inevitably show up in such settings to air out their misogyny, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of discourse. No one lost their temper, there was no name-calling, and the trolls were mostly ignored.
For me, the crux of the discussion was this: we accept that the responsibility for rape lies with the rapist, however, we also tell our children and our friends and loved ones things such as “don’t hang out with that guy, he tried to spike some girl’s drink last summer” or “take your cellphone with you and don’t get separated from our friends at that party.” For every feminist, basic safety is an important issue, and we should always find ways of talking about it that doesn’t implicate victims or potential victims.
What I also got from the discussion, however, is a reminder that no conversation about rape prevention and self-defense is complete without discussing the rapist himself. Keeping our focus exclusively on the victim is what causes even the most well-intentioned conversation to slide toward victim-blaming.
Life is not a video game with a set number of rules and known quantities. And a rapist is possibly one of the least predictable elements. Rapists thrive on opportunity, but the erasure of all opportunity is the negation of the female (or the male, if we look at male-on-male rape). It’s the negation of humanity.
It seems to me that criminals often set the standard, and we comply, wordlessly, afraid to stick our necks out, or else daunted by how difficult it is to stand up for the weak and how easy it is to side with the strong. Because of this, rape remains one of the most normalized transgressions in many of the world’s cultures. Whereas a stolen wallet might inspire pity and perhaps a light admonishment, “come on, Pasha, you should have been more vigilant while riding that bus in that neighbourhood,” rape inspires an immediate need to exonerate, or, at the very least, excuse the rapist. And yet rape is much, much worse than a stolen wallet.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we normalize rape because it helps us sleep better at night. Accepting the reality of it, its pervasiveness, and its lasting damage might just be too much for the fragile human brain.
Rape prevention will never be meaningful unless the social attitudes surrounding this crime are challenged. Yet the very act of thinking about one’s safety is important, as it reinforces our agency, gives us back a tiny slice of the world in which we can feel, if not safe, then at least somewhat sane.
To that end, and in the interest of the discussion I had previously mentioned, I would like to ask my readers about their own tactics of personal safety. I would like to list mine. They are by no means exhaustive. But perhaps someone out there may find them useful:
Acknowledging the problem. I talk about rape a lot, with my friends and family members. I bring up stories surrounding it, its normalization, its place in popular culture, etc. I hate the embarrassed silence that surrounds it. We are not Victorians. Silence allows rapists to thrive.
Trusting the right people. This method is never fool-proof. People turn on each other all the time. Yet some of us are lucky enough to have a clutch of friends and relatives who have, at the very least, stood the test of time.
Keeping my ear to the ground. I watch people. A lot. It’s not just something that writers do, it’s something that a lot of survivors of sexual abuse and assault do as well. I analyze the behaviour of others, and analyze my own responses to said behaviour. “Am I trusting this person for the wrong reason?” “Why does this guy treat his dog as if he’s five seconds away from beating the crap out of it? Does it tell me something about him?” This can be fun on occasion, but it’s essentially a survival tactic.
I do think that there are things that men can do as well, and that they’re just as important.
Guys, don’t let your friends get away with shit. How many times have I heard a variation on the following?: “So there was X, and he was with this girl, and she was passed out, and he told us to leave, and I don’t know what happened to her, and now I’m kind of like weirded out… I don’t want any drama or anything, but it was creepy.” Too many than I would like to admit. Here’s a thought,
YOUR FRIEND’S DESIRE TO GET LAID IS NOT SACRED. Many, many people still think that assaulting someone when they’re passed out is OK. “Hey, it’s just getting some.” No, no, NO.
Sometimes, a little “drama” is what a potential rapist needs. This may momentarily destroy your veneer of cool detachment and ironic nihilism, but it’s worth it. You can always get the cool detachment and ironic nihilism back. It’s not like losing your virginity, trust me.
Also, don’t let your female friends get away with shit either. Women do normalize rape. And they do turn their backs on it when it happens. Someone I used to know once drove across town suspecting, based on a mobile phone conversation, that her friend was inebriated and in trouble. When she got to the party, some of the other women there said, “oh, don’t worry about Y, she’s just passed out somewhere with some guy, hee hee, she’s going to have a bad morning, ha ha. Anyway, let’s have a drink.” Y was found by her faithful friend, slumped in the shrubbery where she was literally dumped by this immense creep. The immense creep was in the process of removing her dress.
One of the other women at that party actually had a text message from Y on her phone that was comprised of two little words, “help me.” The message was not merely ignored, it was laughed off.
Because of the weird gender politics around these issues, sometimes it really helps when a guy has the temerity to tell a woman, “guess what, rape isn’t funny.” So there.
Rape is a big problem, and it is daunting. But there are little steps that every individual can take to make a small difference somewhere. When you add those little differences together, you end up with something good. It’s important to remember this no matter how demoralized or dismayed you might feel.
Discussions on rape prevention should first and foremost focus on what we can all do to help. Isolating the victim or potential victim, dumping this burden on her (or his) shoulders, is not going to cut it.