Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Asking the tough questions

Lest the previous post give the reader the impression that men are the only ones who have work to do regarding rape in our culture, I posit that women also have work to do. Contrary to the traditional approach where women must work at preventing rape, I argue we must work harder on how we react to other women who have been raped. We cannot control the actions of other, we can only control how we react to them.

To do this, we must ask ourselves difficult questions like:
  • Why do women continue to have the prevention discussion when it puts an unfair burden on them?
  • Why do we take on the responsibility for preventing rape when the responsibility really belongs on men not to rape?
  • Why do we criticize and stigmatize other women for their choices?
  • Why do we look at a victim and try to find a way to blame her?

For that matter, why don’t we ever stop to see that we may have been in similar positions in our past although with a different outcome? It doesn’t take a mental gymnast to do this. It’s just a series of simple questions…
1. Have you ever been in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
2. Have you ever been alone with a member of the opposite sex?
3. Have you ever consumed alcohol in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
4. If you answered yes to all the previous questions, were you raped in that situation?
Most people can probably answer yes to questions 1-3, while answering no to question 4. Yet, one common criticisms we hear is that a victim drank too much alcohol, leaving herself vulnerable in the wrong situation. Well-meaning experts will suggest that women not drink in excess around people they don’t know or trust. Still, this warning contradicts the vast majority of experiences that women have. Rape is the anomaly, not the rule. Why do we still hold rape victims to a standard that we, ourselves, do not live up to?

One answer is self-preservation. In order to get out of bed and face the world every day, we must have some sense of safety. We can build our sense of safety by mentally checking off behaviors that we see resulting in negative consequences. I will not touch hot burner on the stove because I once burnt myself. I will not go around railroad signals to beat a train because I saw the pictures of resulting collisions in driver’s ed. We tell ourselves we won’t get hurt if we follow all of these rules. We tell ourselves that we are in control of our fate. The same is true of rape.

It’s tempting to think that if I can figure out what a rape victim did “wrong,” then I can protect myself from that crime. I tell myself that I will never make the same mistakes, so I will never be raped. That way, I can go out and face the day without fearing for my personal safety when in the presence of any man. The fact is, though, this mental checklist does not protect you. Women can do everything “right” and still get raped.

Even women who have been raped fall victim to this mental accounting. They examine their own situation for some thing they can latch on to- something to which they can attribute the negative consequences. That way, if they just avoid that behavior or situation in the future and they will never be victimized in the same way. Victims blame themselves so they can feel a sense of control over their future. Control has been taken away by the rapist and the victim is willing to do almost anything to get that sense of control back- even to blame herself for her victimization.

As women and as human beings, it is difficult to accept that we are not in control. Rape, however, is a crime in which we are not in control. The only person in control of the situation is the rapist. He chooses to whether to rape or not. With that power comes the ultimate responsibility and ultimate blame. It is not the woman’s fault that she was victimized, but it’s understandable that she might blame herself so she can get back some sense of control. With rape victims, it is a difficult process to navigate self-blame, victim-blaming in society, and her ultimate powerlessness over her body and safety during the crime. That is why agencies exist to meet the myriad needs of rape victims.

For the rest of us, we need to learn to accept or refuse responsibility as is appropriate. I must take responsibility for not touching a hot burner. It is my hand and I choose where I put it. I must take responsibility for not trying to beat a train. It is my car and I choose not to cross the tracks when a train is coming. I cannot, however, prevent myself from being raped and if I am raped, it is not my fault.

To blame a victim is a natural method of coping with the threat of victimization. Thus, we must make a concerted, conscious effort to question out assumptions about blame or guilt. It requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves. As women, we must lead the way in refusing to accept blame for what a criminal chooses to do to us. However, we cannot simultaneously ask men to take responsibility for preventing rape while we blame a woman for her actions before a rape so we can feel safer. We must decide to hold rapists solely accountable for their actions, even if it means our world is more uncertain or more dangerous than we would like.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An ounce of prevention?

Recent politics is rife with conversations about rape and its prevention. The eyes of the nation have most recently been drawn to the state of Colorado for a pair of controversial statements. First, Joe Salazar a Democratic State Representative argued that women should not need concealed weapons to protect themselves from rape because “that’s why we have call boxes, that’s why we have safe zones, that’s why we have whistles.” His concern, not wholly without merit, is that a woman who fears for her safety might shoot an innocent person who had no intention of raping her. A second story out of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs concerns a school website that lists "Last Resort Tips" to avoid sexual assault. These include telling the potential rapist that you are menstruating or have an STD and/or urinating or vomiting on the attacker to dissuade him from raping you. The legislator from Colorado apologized and the university took down the list of “Last Resort Tips.”

More important than the apology or the removal of the webpage is that these two stories show how fundamentally wrong our discussions about sexual assault can be. By reframing rape as a gun control issue, the focus falls on women to prevent rape by carrying a gun or a whistle, depending on which side of the gun control debate someone happens to fall. By suggesting a woman scream or bite or tell certain things to her attacker, the onus once again falls on women to prevent their own rape. The logical conclusion of the prevention argument that many people fail to acknowledge is that victims somehow bear some responsibility if they fail to ward off their attacker. As if the woman is to blame for not preventing a man from raping her. That notion is unacceptable.

Victim blaming is nothing new. Over the decades of the victim services movement, we have heard questions about how short of a skirt the victim was wearing, how much she had to drink, or even how many sexual partners she had before the rape. This new brand of victim blaming is more insidious, however, because it is couched in terms of prevention. The bottom line is that no matter how many steps a woman takes to prevent rape, if a man is determined to rape her, it will likely happen. A woman can carry a gun and a rape whistle and still be raped. A woman can scream and kick and fight and still be raped. A woman can use an emergency call box and still be raped before help arrives.

Everyone can and should take steps to make themselves feel safer, but the only sure way to prevent rape is for men to stop raping women. Rather than teaching our girls how to vomit on command or how to shoot to kill, we need to teach our boys not to rape. Women should not have to look at every man as a potential rapist. Men should not settle for having to prove that they are not a rapist before a woman will engage them. Both genders deserve better than that. It is time for a real discussion about why rape happens. 

We need to ask ourselves as a society why rapes occur. Although we don’t have all of the solutions, we know that "a lack of prevention by women" is an unacceptable answer that puts a misplaced burden on women and an unfair stigma on men. It is not a woman's responsibility to prevent rape; it is up to men to choose not to rape. That understanding must be the starting point for a meaningful discussion on how to address the issue as a society.
Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services