Simple Safety Tips for Ladies
One summer night, while I was working on this book, my friend Molly, also an author, walked her greyhound over to my house for a writing date. Earlier that day, my husband had driven to Indianapolis on business, so Molly and I sat in my living room with our dogs and our laptops, drinking tea and clacking away for hours. It was lovely.
Around eleven p.m., Molly asked me for a lift home, per our usual routine when she visits my apartment, about a mile away from hers. But when I went to grab the car keys, they were missing. I checked all of my pockets and a couple of purses, to no avail.
Let’s cut straight to the Encyclopedia Brown reveal: Did you remember that my husband drove out of town? Because I sure hadn’t! And we only have one car.
So there Molly was, late at night, a fifteen-minute walk from home and saddled with a gangly, sixty-five-pound dog who isn’t allowed to ride city buses (and who, it should be noted, would be utterly useless in the event of an attack). The mood in the room suddenly shifted from pleasant and companionable to “Oh, shit.”
I mean, we weren’t going to panic. Panicking would be stupid. Weak. An overreaction. You can’t live in fear! You must refuse to be a victim!
Molly was new to the neighborhood, but I’d lived there for eight years without incident. It was home, and I almost always felt comfortable walking around there. Still, during the month that this happened,
twenty-six violent crimes were reported to police in the two-square mile area where she and I and about fifty-five thousand other people lived. Two of those were criminal sexual assaults; one, a bona fide stranger-drags-a-woman-into-an-alley scenario. So if either one of us had remembered that my car was in another state before it got dark, there’s no question she would have left earlier. Who would plan to walk a mile through our neighborhood at eleven p.m.?
I mean, besides men.
“Hi girls!” begins an email that made the rounds when forwarded safety tips from everybody’s credulous aunties were all the rage. More recently, the same information has spread on social media, with a link to a page claiming that what you’re about to read is the result of interviews with “a group of rapists and date rapists in prison.” Either way, the anonymous writer tells us she’s going to share some helpful rape avoidance tips.
From this document, we learn that women should avoid wearing their hair long, especially in grabbable ponytails (“The #1 thing men look for in a potential victim is hairstyle”). Clothing “that is easy to remove quickly” with scissors is also best avoided, so skip the overalls, gals! (Priceless advice if you were planning time travel to the early nineties.) Also, no talking on your cell or rooting around in your purse in public—a distracted lady is just asking for some lurking criminal to crack her over the head and drag her off somewhere. You must be alert at all times!
Oh, and FYI:
- The time of day men are most likely to attack and rape a woman is in the early morning, between five and eight thirty a.m.
- The number one place women are abducted from or attacked at is grocery store parking lots.
- Number two is office parking lots and garages.
- Number three is public restrooms.
If you’re thinking, “Gosh, I never knew any of that before!” don’t feel bad: I’ve been reading about rape for twenty years, and I had never heard those things before the first time someone passed along the email. Probably because none of them are true.
Barbara Mikkelson, of the invaluable urban legend–debunking website Snopes.com, researched every claim in that chain email and pronounced the whole thing “codswallop.” Noting that the message originated in 2000 with a St. Louis woman, who said it was her takeaway from a recent self-defense class, Mikkelson painstakingly punctures each assertion: No, long hair isn’t a risk factor for rape. No, rapists do not typically carry scissors. Most rapes occur between evening and dawn, actually. Parking lots and garages are only more likely to be the site of rapes or abductions if they’re empty and poorly lit; you can still go grocery shopping without fear of being attacked. Et cetera, et cetera.
“So, to sum up,” she writes, “is avoiding rape a matter of wearing your hair short and eschewing overalls? Hardly. And anyone who attempts to characterize it as such ought to be whomped over someone’s knee.”
My sentiments exactly.
Back in my living room at eleven p.m., I was furious at myself for having a mental lapse that put my friend in a shitty situation. “I’ll call you a cab, tell them to send someone who doesn’t mind dogs, and I’ll pay,” I offered—but even as I said it, I was thinking of other possible scenarios: Molly could leave her dog overnight with me and grab any old cab home. She and the dog could both spend the night. She could go home in a cab, get her own car, and come back to pick up the dog. Or maybe one of my neighbors was still up and would let me borrow their car . . .
Running through this index of alternatives seemed completely normal to both of us. This is the stuff women are thinking about all the time, even as we brazenly strut through grocery store parking lots at eight in the morning, wearing overalls, with our hair in ponytails. How can I go about my life without risking my safety?
Marching into Battle
In a January 2013 op-ed for the Dallas Morning News, Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor and anti-violence activist, writes of talking with two freshman sorority pledges about the specter of sexual assault in the campus Greek system. The young women impatiently explain to him that they have a strategy to ensure it won’t be an issue for them: “We always go to those parties as a group, and we never leave anyone behind.”
Jensen points out to them that “leave no one behind” is the language of soldiers going into battle, not teenagers going to a party. “I do not enjoy saying that, they do not enjoy hearing it, and we are all quiet for a moment,” he writes. “It is important, but not always easy, to recognize what is ‘normal’ in our culture.”
Ultimately, Molly insisted that she would be fine walking home—taking the most populated, best-lit route—and she was. That wasn’t a surprise to either of us. We both knew the whole time that she had a very good chance of making it home alive and unmolested. The problem wasn’t that we thought an assault was likely, but that as women, we’ve been taught never to rule out the possibility. We’ve been taught that it’s never safe to assume we’ll be perfectly fine, walking around our own neighborhoods after dark, like normal people.
This is why I have no patience for anyone who insists that women must learn self-defense moves and memorize lists of specious advice to prevent our own victimization. We’re already calculating risks and taking reasonable precautions every day. We don’t often talk about that in public, though, lest we be accused of letting fear control our lives, of being completely irrational about the relatively minor statistical risk of being attacked by a stranger.
It’s a maddening catch-22. If we get assaulted while walking alone in the dark, we’re told we should have used our heads and anticipated the danger. But if we’re honest about the amount of mental real estate we devote to anticipating danger, then we’re told we’re acting like crazy man-haters, jumping at shadows and tarring an entire gender with the brush that rightly belongs to a relatively small number of criminals.
No one will ever specify exactly how much worry is the right amount, the amount that will allow women to enjoy all of the freedoms typically afforded to North American adults in the twenty-first century, while reassuring judgmental strangers that we aren’t stupid and weren’t asking to be raped.
“Better Safe Than Sorry!”
Think back to that list of “don’t get raped” tips—and really think this time. Grocery store parking lots are the number one place women get attacked? Are you kidding me? How did that ever sound logical to so many concerned relatives? It’s patently ridiculous.
But when you ask someone who’s just shared that list on Facebook, or suggested a self-defense class to a woman concerned about rapes in her neighborhood, they’re likely to respond with something like “Better safe than sorry!” Translation: “Even if what I’m telling you to remember is a pile of stinking horseshit, you should still engage in this ritualized expression of anxiety with me, because it makes me feel slightly better about things I can’t control. What’s so wrong with that?”
Well, nothing, if you’re just recommending simple, reasonable measures like locking doors, looking both ways before crossing the street, and carrying cash in purses or pockets, as opposed to walking around, waving it in the air, screaming, “I’m rich! I’m rich!” But there is something very wrong when you’re telling women (and only women) to keep their hair short, only dress in ways that no one could consider “provocative,” only dress in clothing that is difficult to cut off with scissors (so, Kevlar jeans, I guess?), and never use their phones or search through their purses in public.
There’s something wrong with expecting women to remember that they should always go for the groin, or the eyes, or the armpit, or the upper thigh, or the first two fingers (I am not making any of these up), and that it only takes five pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear, and if you hit someone’s nose with the palm of your hand and push up just right, you can drive the bone into their brain and kill them.
There’s something wrong with acting as though it’s perfectly reasonable to tell women never to drink to excess—and, when drinking to non-excess, never to let their drinks out of their sight—and not to walk alone at night and definitely not to travel alone, and not to jog with earphones, and not to approach a stoplight without locking the car doors, and not to respond to the sound of a crying baby, and not to get into their cars without checking both the backseat and underneath the car first, and not to get in on the driver’s side if there’s a van parked next to it, and not to pull over for unmarked police cars until they’re in well-lit areas, and, and, and.
I just did that off the top of my head, by the way. A bunch of those recommendations are manifestly useless, but they are all in my brain, a full catalog of two and a half decades’ worth of “helpful tips.” Even the ones that are based in some sort of recognizable reality still ultimately send the same message: As a woman, you must live in fear and behave impeccably. If you fail at either charge, you will most likely be raped—maybe even murdered—and it will be at least partly your fault.
“Please forward this to any woman you know,” says the end of that email. “It’s simple stuff that could save her life.”
Actually, there’s nothing simple about it.
In The Gift of Fear, his popular 1997 book on violent crime, security expert Gavin de Becker tells of an exercise he once did during a presentation at the Central Intelligence Agency. He informed his audience that a small but significant number of people per year are killed by angry kangaroos and then listed the three unmistakable signals a kangaroo will give before it attacks: a wide “smile,” compulsive pouch-checking, and a glance over its shoulder.
Only after audience members demonstrated that they’d memorized all three signals did he reveal that he’d made them all up—and in fact, he knows zilch about kangaroo behavior. Nevertheless, he predicted, everyone who witnessed that presentation would remember the fake indicators of an imminent kangaroo attack forever.
“In our lives,” writes de Becker, “we are constantly bombarded with kangaroo signals masquerading as knowledge.” The whole point of The Gift of Fear is that inaccurate information—along with denial about who’s most likely to be the perpetrator or victim of a crime—can interfere with our natural ability to intuit and react usefully to danger. Those handy “don’t get raped tips” that keep turning up on the internet like bad bitcoin are just more kangaroo turds for the pile that Western women are expected to carry around in our heads all the time.
By the time we finish high school, our brains are already filled with such rape-proofing basics as the appropriate skirt length for discouraging violent attacks (long); the number of alcohol units that can be consumed before one is thought to have invited sexual assault (one, tops); a list of acceptable neighborhoods to visit alone in daylight; another of acceptable neighborhoods to visit alone after dark (just kidding—there are none); and a set of rudimentary self-defense moves (“Solar plexus! Solar plexus!”).
This ubiquitous idea that by controlling our behavior, appearance, and whereabouts we can keep ourselves from being raped does nothing to help women (let alone potential victims who aren’t women). It merely takes the onus off the rest of society to seriously consider what we can all do to prevent sexual violence. It keeps our focus on what the victims did “wrong” instead of on what type of person rapes, or how he chooses his victims, or how we can prosecute sexual assaults more effectively. It trades on reductive, sexist ideas about how “good” and “bad” women behave and strongly suggests that some victims, frankly, had it coming.
Playing by the Rules: A Case Study
Following a series of sexual assaults in late 2012, Minneapolis police issued a crime alert, encouraging residents to exercise extra caution. In the Star Tribune, Paul Walsh and Nicole Norfleet described its contents:
The crime alert issued to residents in the latest attack included strong advice from police on what women need to do to protect themselves. That includes pay attention to strangers, avoid traveling alone (especially after dark), stay away from isolated areas, and switch directions and seek a safe place if you think someone is following you.
All sensible advice, to be sure! Now, let’s compare it to what Walsh and Norfleet tell us in the same article about the behavior of the third victim, a thirty-three-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted on her way home from a club. We’ll call the woman “Jane Doe,” the first of many in this book.
Jane called her friend Sheila as she walked out of The Gay ’90s, an enormous, laid-back, straight-friendly downtown gay club, where I personally have gotten plastered and danced until the wee hours without incident, so anyone who has a problem with that part of the story can move along. She told Sheila that she was concerned about a man following her. Jane was paying attention to strangers.
Then that creepy man stole her phone and coat. It’s unclear where he went after that, but Jane got on a city bus headed toward her home, and the man did not immediately follow her. She avoided traveling alone (especially after dark).
Two stops later, the man got on the bus. Jane stayed on board, probably assuming it was safer than getting off in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She tried to stay away from isolated areas.
At that hour, waiting for another bus would be even more dangerous than remaining in an enclosed space with a man who had already robbed her and might continue following her, so “switching directions” wasn’t really a viable option. But at the bus stop nearest her home, where she knew the territory, Jane got off. She tried to seek a safe place.
Unfortunately, the man followed her, overpowered her, and attacked her.
While Jane was riding the bus home, Sheila called the police to report that her friend had been followed by a strange man and was no longer answering her phone. Sheila was told they could do nothing. She called Jane’s stolen phone again and again, until she finally talked to the rapist himself. Eventually, she called her ex-husband and asked him to go over to Jane’s neighborhood and look for her. Sheila’s ex found the victim not long after it happened and took her to the hospital.
So, to recap: The victim was suspicious enough to call a friend and tell her there was a creep around—and wise enough to choose a friend who would go all out trying to send help in time. She got on a well-lit moving vehicle that the creep wasn’t on. After he boarded it, she chose to stay there, rather than get off and risk him following her in an area where she’d have nowhere to run. She only got off the bus when she was close to the promise of safety. (And let’s keep in mind, she didn’t know this guy was definitely planning to assault her. If he hadn’t, all of the above behavior would have been dismissed as “paranoia,” if she’d told anyone.)
In other words, she followed nearly all the “strong advice” the police had to offer, and yet somehow, she didn’t magically ward off the sexual assault this criminal planned and executed.
Were there still other things she could have done differently, which might have led to a different result? Sure. A commenter at the website for Twin Cities alternative paper City Pages did some Monday-morning quarterbacking that was highlighted in a separate post as “good advice for people riding the bus by themselves late at night.”
There’s no excuse or mitigation of the fact that the man is a violent, dangerous rapist who needs to be stopped. But I did use this awful incident to talk to my early-teen daughter about how to handle a situation like this on the bus. Don’t get off the bus. Go up to the front and sit next to the bus driver, and tell the bus driver that the man in back has already attacked you and is following you and has your coat and cell phone. Do Not Get Off The Bus.
“I’m not saying it’s her fault, but [reason why it’s her fault]” is a bog-standard response to stories about sexual violence. There’s always someone who knows exactly what a victim like Jane should have done, even without a whole lot of important information. Information like: Did the man say anything to Jane as they rode the bus? Was the bus driver also a woman? Were there other people on the bus? Was Jane perhaps concerned for others’ safety? Did she think the man had a weapon? If he did, or she thought he did, was she concerned that moving or asking someone for help might escalate the situation?
It’s easy to work backwards from an attack and see things that the victim could have done differently. And it’s really, really easy to sit at home and imagine ourselves as the heroes of our own stories—outwitting criminals, saving the day, making all the right choices and no false steps.
What’s not easy is being alone on a bus in the early morning, probably exhausted and a little drunk, with no phone, looking at the man who stole it from you and then reappeared after you thought you’d escaped to safety. You can talk all you want about preparing for the worst, but how can you truly prepare for that? Don’t even tell me you know what you’d do in that situation.
Also, let’s keep in mind that in the versions of the story where we do everything right, the happy ending is that no crime occurs. You might not even know that you saved yourself.
What About the Men?
Putting the onus on women to prevent our own rapes isn’t just an unfair burden. It also reinforces a concept of sexual assault that sex educator Twanna A. Hines describes as “the invisible hand of rape” (with apologies, or not, to Adam Smith). Rape is presented as an abstract threat to women, the way climate change is a threat to the earth—it’s a frightening specter we all live with, and we must change our own behavior in hopes of warding it off, but you can’t really pin it on anyone in particular.
You’ve heard of “victimless” crimes. Rape is perhaps the only perpetratorless crime, in our collective imagination.
Or, as Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, puts it, it’s “amazing how this works, in domestic and sexual violence—how men have been largely erased from so much of the conversation about a subject that is centrally about men.”
Before you ask, let’s acknowledge that women have been known to commit every crime under the sun, including rape. And the boys, men, girls, and women who have been victims of female sex offenders have intense stigma piled on top of their trauma. They all deserve support, concern, and justice as much as any other survivor. Still, the best available evidence suggests that nearly 98 percent of rapists are men—regardless of the victim’s gender—so Katz is absolutely correct that a discussion of rape should be centrally about men. “Calling gender violence a women’s issue,” he says, “is part of the problem.”
In any case, the fact that rape is always committed by individual human beings who chose to behave violently usually gets pushed so far to the side in discussions of sexual violence that people start to forget it exists. Rape is a thing that happens, sure, but it’s not really something people do. Certainly, not that nice boy, that star quarterback, that beloved priest, that trusted babysitter, that troop leader, that teacher, that dear family friend.
It’s as though none of us ever learned about “passive voice” in freshman comp. She was raped. Local woman raped. Girl, 11, raped in abandoned trailer. Who’s doing all the raping here? Incubi? If nobody’s actually committing rape, how are we supposed to address it as a public health and safety issue?
Oh, right, by giving women endless lists of acceptable behaviors and warnings about personal responsibility, for as long as it takes until those dummies get it together and quit becoming victims.
What Are We Teaching Our Boys?
In fact, we know who’s at risk of committing rape and what group of people could most benefit from an intervention geared toward preventing sexual violence at the source. Are you ready? Because this is where I make the statement that anti-feminists will trot out as evidence of what a man-hating crackpot I am, whenever they hear my name, until the end of time: every American boy is at risk of growing up to become a rapist.
No, I’m not kidding. But first, let me clarify what I do not—not, not, not—mean by that:
- Every American boy, left unchecked, will grow up to be a rapist. I do not mean that!
- Every American boy has a fundamentally rapey nature. I do not mean that, either!
- Boys and men are icky and evil, so we should just keep a few around as sperm donors, kill all the rest, and turn America into a radical political-lesbian separatist paradise.
Okay, maybe that’s not a bad idea.
No! I kid, I kid. I do not mean that either!
I am really quite a fan of boys and men. I love a great many of them, including my husband, father, brother, and four nephews, so you can put that stereotype back in its holster for now. If you want to prove I’m a manhater, you’re going to have a hell of a time marshaling any real evidence.
So here’s what I do mean by “every American boy is at risk of becoming a rapist”: we live in a rape-supportive culture, and boys have to grow up here, too.
They grow up in the same atmosphere as girls, absorbing all the same messages about the difference between good girls and sluts, about what certain types of clothing signal, about “real” victims and the ones who were “asking for it.” And on top of that, they’re reared in a culture of aggressive masculinity that reviles the feminine, demanding conspicuous heterosexuality and rejection of all things queer, while granting social power to young men who have as many semi-anonymous sexual encounters as possible (or at least develop a reputation for doing so). They grow up in a culture where people stand around and take video of popular football players raping a sixteen-year-old girl, instead of stepping in to stop it.
In light of all that, every boy who doesn’t grow up to rape anybody deserves a big gold star—and the really good news is, that’s most of them! As I discussed in Chapter 1, research shows that a relatively small number of serial predators commit the majority of rapes, and most guys have no trouble figuring out that a willing sex partner is far preferable to one who’s not interested.
So why should we bother teaching boys about meaningful consent, the legal definitions of rape and sexual assault, or the double standard that makes guys who have sex “studs” and girls who join them “sluts”?
Well, naturally, I believe we should be teaching kids of all genders those things. But I stand by framing this as “We need to teach boys not to rape.” For starters, that statement makes a lot of people furious—which to me is evidence that our culture doesn’t want to deal with the facts about sexual violence and who’s committing it.
In March 2013, the writer, political analyst, and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Fox’s The Sean Hannity Show to argue against encouraging women to arm themselves in anticipation of encountering a rapist. Because that would end well, especially for women of color! Police, prosecutors, and juries already think women lie about rape all the time—I’m sure victims would have zero trouble proving they shot sexual predators in self-defense. Just ask Marissa Alexander, an African American woman who fired a warning shot into a wall after her husband attacked and threatened to kill her. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison. That conviction was overturned, but Alexander then faced a new trial and possible sixty-year-sentence before entering a guilty plea that awarded her freedom after three years’ time served. For a warning shot.
Asked what we should be telling women about rape prevention, if not “Carry a gun,” Maxwell replied, “I don’t think we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there for prevention. . . . You’re talking about it as if there’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone that you know and trust.”
Well. From the reaction those remarks got, you’d think she’d said, “We should castrate every male baby, and start there for prevention.”
Writing for RH Reality Check, Tara Murtha summed up the fallout: “For her audacity, Maxwell received a torrent of abusive tweets. These Twitter users said she should be gang-raped and that her throat should be slit. They called her a ‘n——.’ Many others simply insisted on perpetuating a false, twisted representation of her argument: Zerlina Maxwell believes women should be raped instead of using a gun on a rapist.”
“So it’s come to this,” Murtha adds wryly. “We now must add carrying a gun to our victim-blaming checklist. ‘She wasn’t carrying a pistol; she must’ve wanted it.’”
Critics who say, “You can teach kids whatever you want—that won’t stop criminals from committing crimes,” aren’t necessarily wrong. But educating our young people about consent—especially our boys, who wield the responsibility that comes with both cultural and physical power—might just prevent some of them from becoming criminals. If nothing else, it sends a message that eliminating sexual violence is important to us, as a society. It sends the message that we take every individual’s bodily autonomy seriously and that we really do believe rape is an abhorrent crime.
Beyond that, it’s one of the only things we know of that works.
In April 2014, the Centers for Disease Control released a report on preventing sexual violence on college campuses. After reviewing 140 studies that measured the effectiveness of various prevention techniques, CDC researchers found that “only two primary prevention strategies, to date, have demonstrated significant reductions in sexual violence behaviors using a rigorous evaluation design.” Both were interventions aimed at junior high school students.
One of those programs, Safe Dates, “includes a 10-session curriculum addressing attitudes, social norms, and healthy relationship skills, a 45-minute student play about dating violence, and a poster contest.” A description of Safe Dates on the website of the curriculum’s publisher, Hazelden, explains that it begins with a lesson on “defining caring relationships,” followed by one on “defining dating abuse.” Later lessons include “overcoming gender stereotypes” and “equal power through communication.” The final session before a review of all the material is on preventing sexual assault.
And it seems to help. From the CDC report: “Results from one rigorous evaluation showed that four years after receiving the program, students in the intervention group were significantly less likely to be victims or perpetrators of sexual violence involving a dating partner.”
To be fair, it’s true that casually suggesting people don’t rape, especially once they’re already adults, isn’t particularly useful. The same report notes that a one-off attempt to change hearts and minds works just about as well as you’d expect:
Brief, one-session educational programs conducted with college students, typically aimed at increasing knowledge or awareness about rape or reducing belief in rape myths, comprise the bulk of the sexual violence prevention literature. However, across dozens of studies using various methods and outcome measures, none have demonstrated lasting effects on risk factors or behavior.
What actually creates lasting effects is talking to adolescents about consent and boundaries, over a longer period of time. In other words, teaching kids what rape is and not to do it. These programs challenge the lazy assumption that a “good boy” couldn’t do something that falls under the legal definition of rape, even if he’s never learned what actually constitutes consent. They give all young people, not just girls, the information they need to take responsibility for choices they’ll make down the line. They present sexual violence as a widespread problem that men and women can work together to solve, not a rarity perpetrated by monsters on victims who fail to protect themselves adequately.
Whether or not such interventions reduce the number of men who eventually go on to commit sex crimes, they help create an environment where sexual violence isn’t tolerated and victims aren’t isolated. They offer young teens reasonable guidelines for holding themselves and others accountable for their behavior. A criminal (someone else’s kid, surely) will do what he’s going to do, but will your son stand up to him? Will your son even know that what that guy’s doing is wrong? Will he know that a passed-out drunk girl can’t give consent or that penetrating someone else with any object against their will constitutes rape in many jurisdictions?
Will your son use his phone to call 911 if he witnesses a rape or to take a video of it?
Excerpted from "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise in Rape Culture -- and What We Can Do About It" by Kate Harding. Copyright 2015 by Kate Harding. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Lifelong Books.