Following my blog on Caitlin Moran’s dreadful comments about how she lies in bed thinking about how easily she could rape women wearing high heels, I was surprised to see a comment thread where some agreed that she had a point. A similar pattern occurred later in the week, when I came across this ghastly, inexplicably Red Riding Hood-themed advice put out by Durham City Council, which informs women “Don’t make yourself vulnerable by getting too drunk”.
Once again, people were defending this as good advice. This was not just lengthy mansplanations–although I certainly did receive some lengthy mansplanations. Women, some of whom were feminists, saw nothing wrong with putting out this sort of advice. I’d hoped fervently that the archaic “short skirt” argument was a dead horse these days, but it is apparently alive and healthy. And so I cannot believe that, as 2012 draws to a close, and the world might end tomorrow, that I have to write a blog explaining why putting out advice like this is not just nonsensical, but dangerously nonsensical.
Put simply, rape prevention advice targeted at women shifts the responsibility for a rape from the perpetrator to the survivor. We should know by now that rapes don’t happen because the survivor is wearing a short skirt, or a pair of heels, or she has been drinking too much. This should go without saying. Yet implicit in all of this rape prevention advice is the assumption that actually these behaviours displayed by some women are related to them being raped, and if they would just not do these things, nobody would get raped.
And of course, this isn’t true. This rape prevention advice is targeted at a very narrow model of rape: the predatory stranger in the dark alley. The vast majority of rapes do not happen this way–it’ll more likely be a friend, a partner, or an acquaintance, and it probably won’t happen in a dark alley. By reinforcing stereotypes about rape, we help maintain rape culture which benefits greatly from the assumption that rape is only a thing which involves a stranger jumping out of a bush. Were we to take rape prevention advice to its logical conclusion, we would need to put out a campaign informing women not to talk to men, not to go to places where men might be, and for the love of God don’t have a relationship with a man. This is just as nonsensical as telling women to make sure they get a taxi home after a night out if they don’t want to get themselves raped.
The net effect of rape prevention advice, then, is further patriarchal regulation of women’s behaviour. You will notice that rape prevention advice tends to tell women not to do certain things which “good girls” shouldn’t do: wear revealing clothing, get drunk, be independent. A good example of this is the targeting of high heels: why aren’t concerned citizens sagely advising women not to wear flip flops, when flip flops make just as much noise and reduce mobility? You can’t even kick someone in flip flops! There are two major differences between flip flops and heels, and both say everything we need to understand about rape prevention advice. The first is that flip flops are gender-neutral, and the second is that they are not remotely “sexy”.
What rape prevention advice does is develop a climate of fear around something which need not be feared. Rape prevention advice delivers a threat of rape: unless the woman complies with a set of behaviours, and if she does not then it will be her own fault that she gets raped. It’s a potent threat, and it took me years of walking home drunk through dark alleys in silly shoes for the fear to fade.
Some people prefer to defend rape prevention advice by saying it is just sensible personal safety advice, which also applies for protecting oneself against mugging. This would only be true if this advice were also thrown at men, and it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. Likewise, rape prevention advice is not the same as telling someone to lock up their car, or hide their wallet. It is far deeper than that, and rape is very different from theft.
Comedian Nadia Kamil perhaps provides the best demonstration of the difference between rape prevention advice and how other crimes are dealt with in this short sketch, which I recommend you watch.
Transcript here. This sketch absolutely perfectly demonstrates how ludicrous it is for people to hide, not living their lives in the way they choose to because of the threat of drunk drivers. And of course, that is nonsense: we’ve all seen how society deals with drink driving in massive awareness campaigns informing people not to drink and drive. This is exactly how it should work for rape.
The current state of rape prevention advice is unhelpful. It targets the wrong people and manages to further muddy the waters in our thinking about rape. Rape is not about what the survivor has done to bring it upon themselves, but, rather what the perpetrator does to make it happen, and there are still very few instances of mass-scale campaigning to address this. Sure, there’s a few and they have their flaws (see Lambeth Council’s Real Men Know The Difference campaign for an example of this), but we need to build upon this model. Rape prevention advice should–and must–consist of one simple message: don’t rape people.