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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

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2 thoughts on “the void of meaningful rape prevention advice

  1. I think you’re right that the problem is a lack of a line between designating sensible precautions and regulating women’s behavior, the problem is that this works both ways. Sure, the Indian MPs you quote are certainly disguising disdain for women’s rights as concern, but at what point does offering sincere basic safety strategies – a mother warning her daughter not to walk home late at night, for example – become victim-blaming?

    I think this line of thinking encourages the misconception that explaining why an incident of sexual assault might have occurred (whether it was in a park late at night etc) is the same as *justifying* the sexual assault (it was in a park late at night therefore the rapist is exonerated). Sure, there’s examples of people justifying rapes, such as the Indian MPs you mentioned, but then it’s absurd to assume that all the Joanna Lumleys in the world are letting rapists off the hook. An environment has been created in which no one is ever allowed to offer practical advice and telling men “not to rape” is the only permissible comment, to quote The Guardian’s Barbara Ellen: “I agree, let’s make rape men’s problem! But hang on, we already did. Sadly, in the real world, away from women’s studies modules, rapists don’t seem to care that we are “on to them”. They just carry on raping.” While victim blaming is a real problem and needs to be eliminated, I think critiques of this problem go too far and abandon any sense of practicality or acknowledgement of the world we live in, rather than the world we want to live in.

  2. Clearly there should be NO rape prevention advice. Just like there should be NO advice on preventing any other crime. It is NOT the victim’s responsibility.

    I was wondering, though, if you had any advice for men regarding preventing RAPE LIARS. How can a man protect himself from a female RAPE LIAR? For every female victim of RAPE there are 2 RAPE LIARS. I have only ever seen 2 females be punished for LYING about RAPE. Both instances were in England and in both instances the judges were female. In one case a female invites her ex boyfriend around for sex. In the morning she cries rape. The judge told her she must have known the damage she was doing and sentenced her to ONE year jail. In the other instance a soldier comes home from Iraq where he has been risking his very life for the well being of females. His wife is pregnant. Could not have been him. She said she was RAPED. He was furious. She said forget it. It’s nothing bad. He went to the police. An investigation followed. She named her rapist. She was found out to be LYING and that she was just a slut who had sex outside of her vows of marriage. She got ONE year and had the baby in jail. He wants nothing more to do with her or her illegitimate baby.

    I am also wondering why on Earth you would expect any man to give two hoots about any female being raped? Females campaign to stop violence against females. The safety, well being and even men’s lives are nothing to females even though more men suffer more violence. Females DEMAND to be treated equally. So females DEMAND men not care less about a female’s safety, well being or even her life. It constantly astounds me that brave men keep saving female’s lives. Let them drown or burn or be crushed or whatever. That’s what females DEMAND men do. Why are these evil men NOT doing what females demand? Why are these evil men who do not even know their victims save their lives by putting their own lives at risk. Why aren’t females marching in the streets to STOP this disgusting discrimination? Females don’t save the lives of men so why do men continually do it to females. IT MUST STOP.

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