the void of meaningful rape prevention advice
‘Don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t get drunk, don’t wander around at night, and don’t walk alone’ – I’ve heard this advice repeated often, ever since the Delhi gang-rape. Most women have heard these warnings before, but now, suggestions on being constantly and vigilantly cautious have been increasingly doled out by almost everyone – politicians, celebrities, mothers and friends. The advice is well-intentioned; it is offered in the hope that it might help women avoid being raped, and this is commendable. However, rape prevention advice can often be more disingenuous than helpful.
English actress Joanna Lumley’s recent controversial comments are illustrative of how most rape prevention advice is misguided, ineffective and punitive.
‘Don’t look like trash, don’t get drunk, don’t be sick down your front, don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight. This is bad…,’ Lumley warned. ‘I promise you it is better to look after yourself properly, which means behave properly, be polite, be on time, dress properly… but don’t be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress with no money to get a taxi home, because somebody will take advantage of you, either they’ll rape you, or they’ll knock you on the head or they’ll rob you.’
Many people have defended Lumley’s comments by saying that it’s just sensible personal safety advice, similar to warning people about other forms of crime. ‘Take care of yourself’ as general advice is fine, but as specific advice for dealing with rape, is misleading and problematic. Rape is not the same as having your wallet stolen or your house broken into. Nadia Kamil’s video clearly demonstrates the difference between rape prevention advice and how other crimes are handled, through the example of drunk-driving. Imagine drunk-driving advice aimed only at people who might be run over by drunk-drivers, warning them to adjust their lives so that they wouldn’t be run over, and put the victims at fault if they weren’t quick enough to get out of the way. It’s a ridiculous idea. This is why society, instead, addresses the threat of drunk driving with campaigns telling people not to drink and drive. This is exactly how it should work for rape.
Like Lumley’s warning, most rape prevention advice shifts the responsibility for the rape from the perpetrator onto the victim. Warning a woman of the threat of rape unless she complies with a set of behaviours makes her a pre-emptive victim; if she does not conform, then it suggests that it is her own fault if she is raped. This is dangerous, because, of course, this isn’t true. Women of all classes, ability, sexuality, race and faith are raped, irrelevant of the length of a skirt, a “silly dress” or amount of alcohol consumed. Rape is a deliberate act of violence by the rapist. It’s not the clothing. It’s the rapist. It’s not the drinks at the club. It’s his act of raping. This should go without saying. Rape prevention advice focuses on what women should or shouldn’t have done, rather than focusing on the act of the rapist.
Additionally, rape prevention tips, like Lumley’s, perpetuate rape myths. Most are targeted at the “predatory stranger at night”. However, according to Rape Crisis, ‘only 9% of rapes are committed by “strangers”‘. The majority of rapes are likely to be committed by a friend, a partner, or an acquaintance. ‘Even with a serial rapist on the loose, women in your ‘hood are still much, much more likely to be raped by someone they know’, says Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. ‘Focusing so hard on stranger danger means we pay less attention to warning signs from people we’re acquainted with, and it also contributes to our cultural unwillingness to believe victims when they’re attacked by someone they know.’ Warning women to not go out at night, avoid dark streets and walking alone only reinforces stereotypes about rape, cultivates a climate of fear and curtails women’s freedom.
Many would then argue that the rape prevention suggestions are basically “general safety ideas” and are worth the price of well-being. The problem with this is that there is a lack of a line between designating sensible precautions and regulating women’s behaviour. Advice for women to ‘not get drunk’ quickly becomes ‘don’t drink’, ‘don’t wear a short skirt’ becomes ‘don’t wear a skirt’, and ‘don’t go out late’ can become ‘just stay at home’. According to Abu Asim Azmi, state president of the Maharashtra Samajwadi Party, ‘there should also be a law that women should not wear less clothes and roam around with boys who are not their relatives. What is the need for roaming at night with men who are not relatives? This should be stopped.’
MP Rajpal Saini believes that women should stop using mobile phones. ‘Why do housewives and school going girls need mobiles? It encourages them to make futile small talk and get connected with people outside their homes.’ Where does this end?
There’s a story about Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel whose cabinet minister proposed a curfew in Jerusalem, until a serial rapist in the city was caught. Meir agreed, with one provision – that the curfew be for men. Her cabinet demanded why the women weren’t put under the curfew as well. Meir’s answer was simple: ‘The women aren’t doing the raping.’ She was correct. Why should women be restricted because of the actions of others?
Women have heard rape prevention warnings their whole lives, and already live their lives with the awareness that sexual assault is a real threat. However, most people don’t consider that no matter what a woman does or doesn’t do, a man has to choose to rape her. Real practical prevention advice needs to start with the much simpler message of “Do not rape”. Why not teach everyone to assume that no one ever wants to be raped, and then build that assumption into our legal system? It’s our responsibility as a society to create a culture in which this is true without a second thought.
So far, we have failed.
By Pavithra Sagar