How I gained some understanding of feminist views on rape (Trigger warning!)

For a long time, I got depressed every time I read the comments on articles about rape culture and how to stop sexual violence.

Of course it’s normal to get depressed reading the comments on any article. (I am eternally thankful to my pet starling Sirius, for perching on my mouse hand and pecking at my scrolling finger whenever I’ve been sitting at the computer too long!)

Rape is certainly not one of the more pleasant things I could be reading articles about, and articles on gender politics of any kind are bound to get inflammatory discussion in the comments. Read them, and you’re going to end up seeing some viewpoints that are so opposite to your own that they drive you crazy. It’s a world of roiling conflict in there.

But the main reason for my sadness at these comments was that, in the world of feminism, there were lots of commenters I mostly agreed with, who seemed like intelligent, rational and ethical people who were on my own wavelength– but whose opinions on a few specific points were completely alien to mine.

For example, I couldn’t understand why so many people would consider it wrong to give young women advice on how to avoid being raped.

I understood that rape is the rapist’s fault, and that a rapist is still just as guilty regardless of what precautions the victim was or was not taking. What I didn’t understand was why some people characterized those precautions themselves as “victim-blaming.” Articles mentioned how it was safer to go out in groups, call for help if someone threatened you, go to a public place for your first in-person meeting with someone you met online, take self-defense classes, and not get incoherently drunk at a party. The comments on those articles ranted about how society was placing the responsibility for rape on the victim.

I could have understood this if it was just a general complaint that all articles seem to be focused on what women should do, and no one seems to be talking about the men’s responsibilities. But for many commenters, it wasn’t a general complaint; it was directed and personal, calling the author of each article a victim-blamer just for saying such things, despite whatever feminist credentials she had.

I understood that no precaution can prevent rape 100%, but wasn’t it worth it to reduce the chance somewhat?

At first, this was all quite baffling to me. If you give people advice on how to avoid identity theft, pickpocketing, purse-snatching or having their car stolen, no one accuses you of blaming the victims of those crimes. If the responsibility for crime prevention were placed solely on the criminals– who don’t even want to prevent crime– then we’d all be helpless.

I imagined what would happen if we did not give such advice, and always put the responsibility solely on the potential perpetrators. I imagined telling young women that their only hope of avoiding rape is if men benevolently decide not to rape them. To me, at the time, that seemed like a horribly sexist and disempowering way to look at it.

And perhaps I’ll never fully agree with that way of seeing it… but after some thought and some time spent looking at it from other people’s perspective, I can see where that viewpoint comes from. Looking at it in the right context (as I’ll try to describe) it is completely understandable.

I have never been raped, nor have I ever heard a story of rape from a close aquaintance, so it’s not my place to talk about what that experience is like. But I have one small experience with being a victim of one of the other crimes I mentioned. Here is how that went:

During college I studied abroad. I traveled in many places where tourists were likely to be robbed on the streets, and the travel books I read were full of advice on how to avoid theft.

For the most part I did avoid it. But one day in Spain, a stranger snatched my purse. I wasn’t injured, and with the help of several kind bystanders I got it back almost immediately, but the visit to the police station and subsequent legal proceedings caused me some inconvenience.

When I told my fellow students about it, the prevailing mood was one of sympathy with my ordeal, shared anger toward the thief, and shared relief that it wasn’t a worse situation. I don’t recall anyone nagging me that I should have been paying more attention, shouldn’t have allowed myself to be alone with a stranger, or should have kept my valuables under my clothes instead of in plain sight.

These precautions were all highly recommended in the travel books I read, and they featured heavily in the advice I had gotten from my parents… but in the aftermath of the crime, my friends weren’t preoccupied with the question of whether I had followed that advice.

This may be at the root of the controversy over how to avoid rape. The problem isn’t about the idea of taking precautions to be careful, per se– it’s about how those precautions are viewed after the fact.

With crimes like theft, we freely give advice on how to avoid being victimized… but if the crime occurs, people rightly and properly sympathize with the victim, instead of focusing on all the things the victim could have done to prevent it from happening. From what I’ve heard from the stories of rape victims online, society doesn’t extend that basic decency to sexual crimes. Rape victims are blamed for the crimes. Rape victims are constantly questioned on why they didn’t prevent it.

Society’s treatment of rape is so warped that when people hear advice on how to avoid it, they can’t help hearing the unspoken words, “If you don’t follow this advice and you get raped, it will be YOUR FAULT”– even if that was not intended by the speaker. The thing is, many people have heard such words aloud so many times, they are reminded of them any time they hear the mention of safety precautions.

It’s like something I once read in a newspaper. Someone wrote in to an advice columnist, asking if it was racist just to mention a person’s race. Apparently she had used a coworker’s race as an identifying characteristic, to make it clear which person she was talking about, and another coworker had seen that as offensive.

The columnist responded that some people find it offensive because of the years of racial conflict, discrimination and oppression that have shaped our world. If race had never been viewed as a trait that divided humans into superior and inferior groups, it would be no more offensive to talk about it than to talk about hair or eye color. But after generations of people being identified only by their race, regardless of what other important characteristics they might have, it’s understandable that using race as an identifier could be seen in a very bad light.

I think something similar happens with women’s rights, including issues of sexual assault. Some things are offensive not because of what they are, but because of the connotations they have in the context of history and culture.

And while I don’t think anti-rape advice for women is inherently bad, I do agree that the greatest emphasis in rape prevention really should be on men. I believe the most effective way to prevent sexual violence would be to educate young men about women’s rights. What we’re taught in our youth plays a large part in shaping our behavior as adults. If men grew up respecting women, knowing what is legal, and believing in what is right, there would be a lot fewer sexual crimes in the world.

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