(twitter.com/screen collage by Salon)

Is sexual assault "always avoidable"?

A poorly worded tweet inadvertently reveals an important message

Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 2, 2014 5:43PM (UTC)

It wouldn't be a day on Twitter without a few social media failures. And on Wednesday, the source was the Massachusetts State Government, which lamely attempted to offer resources for the state's sex assault survivors -- but wound up apologizing for a poorly worded tweet. Yet read another way, the message was spot-on.

In an acknowledgment of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the office tweeted, "Sexual assault is always avoidable. Learn more from @Mass_HHS." And in just the first five words of that tweet, the message from the state seemed to reinforce what survivors have heard throughout time -- that, as Judge G. Todd Baugh said while sentencing former teacher Stacey Dean Rambold last year to just a month in prison for raping a 14-year-old female student, they are somehow "as much in control of the situation" as the person who abused them.


The tweet drew a swift response from the Twitter community, who called it "pathetic" and asked for a clarification. It was quickly taken down, and Geoff Kula, director of Mass.gov, issued a apology, saying, "We in no way meant to suggest that victims of sexual assault are to blame for the crimes committed against them." He added, "It is clear there was no malicious intent behind the tweet; the tweet inaccurately summarized the content in the linked-to blog post, which discussed services available for victims of sexual assault. The tweet author agrees that perpetrators of sexual assault are always at fault, and it was never the author’s intent to blame victims for crimes perpetrated. The author has agreed to participate in sexual assault awareness training." Gov. Deval Patrick, meanwhile, said, "It was a stupid mistake and sometimes stupid mistakes happen and I appreciate very much the head of Mass.gov taking responsibility for it, and issuing an apology and I apologize as well.... Victims of sexual assault are in no way responsible for these crimes; the perpetrators are."

At face value, the message of the original tweet seems clearcut and hopelessly misguided – that if you just take the right steps and follow all the right rules, rape won't happen to you. That's ridiculous and insulting and, per usual, puts the onus of rape prevention on everybody but rapists. Yet that tweet linked to a blog post advocating using "peer mentorship, community education and creative media" to raise awareness and reduce sexual assault. And within that context, there's a truth. If we flip where we direct the message, sexual assault is indeed almost always avoidable. But don't tell it to potential victims. Tell it to potential abusers. Tell it to the guys who say that they're too popular or successful to possibly ever rape somebody, to the people who see assault as something provoked in the heat of desire. Focus, as it seems the Massachusetts program actually is trying to do, as much on educating people not to commit rape as you do on educating people on how to not be raped. And the number one tip for avoiding rape? Don't rape.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Deval Patrick Massachusetts Sexual Assault Sexual Assault Awareness Month Twitter

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