The thing about “prevention” advocacy is that it can actually empower what it seeks to “prevent”. Consider all the things we deign to inform women about rape; there comes a point when telling women what they should and shouldn’t do becomes a quality of life issue. To wit, what about your clothes? When you go out on the town, wear clothes and shoes suitable for running, and you know, get a better haircut. At some point it sounds like this infintite prevention advocacy comes down to: “Plan your life around being sexually assaulted.” This would seem to invoke some sort of quality of life issue. Human rights. Who the hell other than women do we expect to live in perpetual fear?
No, really. Think about it. A year and a half ago, amid a string of sexual assaults and attempted abductions, Anna Minard of The Stranger (Seattle’s Only Newspaper) threw down the obvious gauntlet:
So, to review: Seattleites—and let’s be honest, we’re talking mostly to women here—as you go about your business, constantly scan your surroundings, memorizing detailed physical descriptions of people you encounter. Always know, down to the exact block, where you are and where the nearest security guard is and the hours of nearby businesses. Wear running shoes and loose, appropriate clothing—aka clothing appropriate for running away in. Bring your cell phone, but don’t use it to listen to music or text. And as you walk through the city like a human danger-scanner, walk confidently and keep your face neutral. You’re “in charge”!
WHAT THE FUCK?
I’m sure the police department is working to solve these crimes. I’m sure they just want to remind people that we live in a city and crime is real and it can happen to you. But this is exactly the kind of shit that we are talking about when we talk about women being raised in a culture of fear and conditioned to certain behaviors and expectations—like the expectation that we’re the ducks in a giant game of Duck Hunt™ ....
.... Here, as a refresher, are the best rape prevention tips I’ve ever read:
8. Use the Buddy System! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times.
That is the conversation I would like to see happening at the Seattle Police Department, and not just among women on women’s blogs. Not a convoluted and ever-growing list of how to prevent your own rape by wearing the right non-rapey hairstyle or crossing the street in the most anti-rape fashion or sleeping in past the raping hour.
That is not helping women and, obviously, it is not ending rape.
We might mention this particular iteration for any number of reasons, suffice to say that there do exist in this world social circles where the 2013 events in Seattle triggered a long-running dispute between associates, a microcosmic reiteration of a genuinely ridiculous debate.
The idea starts simply enough: There are steps women can take to increase their safety. And one need not hunt and peck in order to find the first obvious functional problem with this one. That is to say, far too often, people treat rape “prevention” as if it is so easy as securing your car with a steering wheel lock, or remembering to lock the house doors when you leave.
There is a more subtle problem with this sort of argument, and that is the context in which it is raised and applied. Consider that the spectacular rapes we hear about, with a woman dragged into a car by a random stranger, or hauled into an alley or held down in the bushes, make up something well below ten percent of the reported rapes against women. It’s about on par with being raped by a family member.
As to the rest? Well, this is where the argument gets really sticky; put it to one of these “prevention” advocates and the most common response will be anger, fallacy, and accusation. How could you want women to not defend themselves? How dare you! That sort of thing. No, really. Try it sometime.
Point out that seventy-two percent of reported rapes against women accuse a spouse, intimate partner, friend, co-worker, or other regular acquaintance of the victim. Ask how these “prevention” tips should be applied against, say, one’s husband.
And that is what really upsets “prevention” advocates.
Consider, for instance, a nifty innovation in the fight against rape we learned of in recent months: anti-roofie nail polish. Yes, really, this is a thing. It is nail polish that changes color when it comes in contact with certain chemicals common among knockout drugs.
And, of course, there is a counterpoint.
Although these products typically get a lot of press and are sometimes hailed as complete breakthroughs in the fight against sexual violence — “Soon, a fresh manicure could have the potential to save your life,” the Daily Mail proclaimed in a story about the new nail polish — activists working in the field aren’t convinced. They believe innovations like anti-rape nail polish are well-meaning but ultimately misguided.
“I think that anything that can help reduce sexual violence from happening is, in some ways, a really good thing,” Tracey Vitchers, the board chair for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress. “But I think we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women.”
Women are already expected to work hard to prevent themselves from becoming the victims of sexual assault. They’re told to avoid wearing revealing clothing, travel in groups, make sure they don’t get too drunk, and always keep a close eye on their drink. Now, remembering to put on anti-rape nail polish and discreetly slip a finger into each drink might be added to that ever-growing checklist — something that actually reinforces a pervasive rape culture in our society.
“One of the ways that rape is used as a tool to control people is by limiting their behavior,” Rebecca Nagle, one of the co-directors of an activist group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture that challenges the societal norms around sexual assault, explained. “As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted — it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behavior. Solutions like these actually just recreate that. I don’t want to fucking test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in.”
Ms. Nagle pretty much wins the point on the human rights and quality of life questions. But let us test another aspect of this question:
• Okay, guys, here you go: You’re getting ready for a night out, maybe dinner at the Met and, I don’t know, you wouldn’t attend the theatre on your own, would you? So, what, is she dragging you along for one of those chick things? Whatever. Perhaps you might ask her why she’s wearing sweats and running shoes instead of, you know, a dress and heels like she wore the night you fell head over heels in lust with her legs. “Rape prevention”, she tells you. As you walk the couple blocks from your parking space to the restaurant, her phone rings, but she doesn’t answer it. Maybe it’s something important, but she doesn’t bother with it. “Rape prevention”, she explains. And it really is a lovely dinner, except what’s her problem, right? She comes back from the bathroom, stares pointedly across the table at you as she dips her fingertip into her drink and holds it there briefly. Then she looks at her fingernail and nods. “Rape prevention”, she explains. Because, let’s face it, of all the possible rapists in the city, the odds favor the proposition that if it’s her turn you will be the rapist.
As Rebecca Nagle explained: “The problem isn’t that women don’t know when there are roofies in their drink; the problem is people putting roofies in their drink in the first place.”
Last month we noted Barry Deutsch’s excellent cartoon on the proposition of affirmative consent, and while the punch line cut to the bone, to be certain … well, maybe it is best to let the artist explain his remix:
Sometimes I don’t get cartoons right the first time. After I’d posted this one online, David Feldman emailed me suggesting that the punchline would be better if it focused more on past acts than on future plans. He was right, and after a bit of emailing back and forth, we came up with a new punchline.
It is not that the old punch line was wrong; rather, the new one simply cuts more directly.
Because this is the only identifiable boundary to what would otherwise be infinite prevention advocacy; the IPAs want women to suspect every man, but #NotAllMen, and definitely not me, or my husband, or my son, or my brother, or my freakin’ anyone!
Think about what we’re down to. When you go out on the town, ladies, wear shoes that are suitable for running away from an assailant. And dress appropriately for fighting off an assailant. And make sure your haircut doesn’t help an assailant too much. And don’t use your mobile phone downtown. And don’t listen to music downtown. And don’t let your friends pour you drinks. And don’t encourage the harassers by responding. And don’t encourage them by looking frightened. And don’t encourage them by looking like you’re ignoring them. And … and … and ....
And at what point is this a human rights issue? At what point do quality of life and living in fear matter? Is it merely when that prevention advice must be applied to #NotAllMen?
And what those “prevention” advocates need to comprehend is that you can’t ask this sort of contradiction of anyone. Suspect everyone, but not everyone? Suspect everyone, but not me?
The thing is that the logical failures are hardly subtle. Effort is a prerequisite of failure to notice overlapping demands for mutually exclusive conditions. And, you know, damn it, if a continuing rape crisis besieging the women we know—our mothers and daughters and sisters and friends—is what it takes for you to be able to crack a crude, locker-room joke without feeling like you’re oppressing women, what the hell is wrong with you?
Meanwhile, the beat goes on. #BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor #ThinkBeforeYouGiveBadAdvice
Deutsch, Barry. “Rape and Consent – Affirmative Consent Explained”. Ampersand. 9 October 2014.
Minard, Anna. “To Avoid Rape, ‘Try not to show fear'”. Slog. 13 February 2013.
Culp-Ressler, Tara. “Why Rape Prevention Activists Don’t Like The New Nail Polish That Can Detect Roofies”. ThinkProgress. 25 August 2014.
Hofheimer, Leigh. “Rape prevention tips”. Can You Relate? 24 May 2011.
Zimmerman, Jess. “Not All Men: A Brief History of Every Dude’s Favorite Argument”. Time. 28 April 2014.