Big surprise: I read an awful lot of feminist literature. Big surprise number 2: a great deal focuses on rape and its prevention.
What I find fascinating is how many feminists denounce information targeted at women, particularly that which suggests they take greater care of themselves on a night out. To say a woman should alter her behaviour and thus reduce her risk of being raped is often considered victim-blaming. Why should she change the way she lives her life because he can’t understand right from wrong?
In principle, I sympathise. This school of thought wants to make it clear that the only common denominator in rape is the rapist: a fact which is, undeniably, true. I recognise their fear, which is that by suggesting a woman change her behaviour/clothing/journey to avoid said rapists, we are at the top of a slippery slope which ends in “With a skirt that short, what did she expect?”
But there is a fundamental problem with this approach, which is that this utopian rapeless world is simply not going to evolve overnight.
I strongly believe that we need to educate both men and women on the realities of rape and sexual assault, what we can all do to prevent it, and the intricacies which underline the entire issue: which actions go beyond banter into sexual assault, what constitutes victim-blaming, how to ensure we have consent, when it’s ok to say “no” (FYI: at any point), and how to step in and help when we see our friends, family, peers etc behaving in a way which props up rape culture in even the smallest way.
We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we refuse to advise women on the principle that we “shouldn’t have to”. It’s true that telling potential victims how to avoid being raped tackles the symptom and not the cause; but sadly, until we can get rid of all potential rapists, it’s in our own best interests to take care of ourselves.
IMPORTANT NOTE: this does not mean “cover your cleavage”, “stop doing sexy dancing” or “don’t smile at men you don’t know”. I’m talking simply about common sense self-protection: reminding people to not get flat-out wasted, to go home with a friend, to take a taxi. It would be lovely if we didn’t have to concern ourselves with this but since rapists do still exist, sadly, we have to. I don’t consider reminding women of these options to be victim-blaming. However, if a woman walks home alone and gets raped, we can’t turn around and say “well, why were you walking alone?” That, my friends, is victim-blaming. Ultimately, nobody is responsible for rape beyond the rapist. After all, that woman might have been raped by the “friend” she asked to accompany her. And that’s why we need education for everyone, to tackle the culture of sexual expectation, and not only expect women to rely on “good behaviour” to keep them safe.
What is absolutely not ok is education, PSAs, and advertising campaigns aimed solely at women, telling them to take greater care of themselves and each other; but make no simultaneous requests of men to stop their behaviour straying into sexual assault, or encourage them to prevent their friends from committing rape.
We shouldn’t avoid telling women (and men) to look after themselves. Until the rapists understand why what they are doing is inherently wrong, people remain at risk. So in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with helping women to take care of themselves PROVIDED THAT it’s alongside education for men not to rape.
It’s very easy to assume that rape = scary criminal leaping from bushes. It’s much harder to grasp the concept that rape is also bullying or shaming one’s existing partner into consenting, or getting a woman so drunk that she’s incapable of saying no, or taking advantage of someone already in a vulnerable state. Such behaviour is further propped up by ingrained societal attitudes which say women in short skirts are “asking for it“; that prostitutes deserve to be raped; that women can’t get pregnant through rape . . . etc, etc, etc. Whilst women are being told “don’t walk home alone”, men should be being told “if you help a woman back to her home, it’s not ok to expect anything in return”. I’m certainly not suggesting that all men are potential rapists but I am suggesting that these nuances – whether they appear subtle or obvious to those who’ve already grasped them – are an essential part of sex education, for everyone.
So, I was excited to learn about Kenya’s new programme which not only teaches boys not to rape, but also empowers women to protect themselves. It starts the education at a young age, before they are party to societal expectations, and clearly identifies to boys why such behaviour is not acceptable, and to girls that they have the right to say no. Since the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim, this female empowerment is as vital as the education which says “it’s not ok to expect sex from someone just because they are wearing a bikini / have had sex with you before / accepted a drink”. It may sound obvious, but these things clearly need to be spelt out, and therefore the Kenyan government can only be applauded for taking charge and doing the spelling.
According to research conducted alongside, “The training increased boys’ successful interventions when witnessing physical or sexual assault by 185 percent, from 26 to 74 percent . . . and rape by boyfriends and friends of girls in schools where ‘Your Moment of Truth’ was taught dropped by 20 percent, from 61 to 49 percent”.
Much like Vancouver’s “Don’t be that guy” poster campaign, this is a non-victim-blaming, sensible approach to a very difficult and sensitive subject. Canada spread the responsibility; Kenya are tackling the root of the cause.
I hope that the UK government will sit up and take notice. Let’s insert these lessons into sex education for our youngsters, before it’s too late. Let’s teach our girls to be empowered, confident young women, capable of saying no, but not ashamed to say yes; to look after themselves, but know that if they are subject to a sexual assault, that it isn’t their fault; to not shame their fellow women for choosing sex if they themselves are less inclined. Let’s teach our boys not to be afraid of their new desires, but be respectful of the girls to whom they may soon find themselves attracted, not to assume that women exist simply for their sexual satisfaction, and to call out their friends who don’t abide by these rules. Surely to instill this behaviour from a young age, to calmly impart this wisdom to as-yet unsullied minds, we can only help future generations towards that bright new future, creating a society where people can be themselves without fearing the result; a world in which we all deserve to live.