First published on The Fifth Column on 24/11/15.
If you’re a female in the UK- and if you identified as or were labelled as female when you were growing up- you’ll have been told something like this:
“Don’t go out at night, it’s dangerous.”
“Don’t go for a walk alone, you never know who is around.”
“Try to fit in your exercise earlier or you’re putting yourself at risk.”
Regardless of whether your parents and family friends explicitly mentioned sexual assault or not, chances are you received far more warnings about the risks of going out alone, staying out late, drinking and contact with the opposite sex than your male siblings, cousins and friends. It might not always be obvious, but the subtext is that all of these things, including flirting or wearing ‘provocative’ clothing, could potentially lead to sexual assault. Women are indoctrinated from childhood to fit their lives around a constant threat of male violence. Women are taught to accept that we can’t do what we want, go where we like, step outside our home on a whim. We have to plan our journeys so that we’re never alone for a second on a night out; or if we are, we have to strategise an alternative brighter, busier route. Even in daylight women are told to hike in ‘safe’ places. Freedom is not for us. Nor is the right to feel safe or enjoy the environment.
Parents and educators seem to spend far more time telling daughters not to get raped than telling sons not to rape. This is actually amazingly stupid, as the only person who can 100% prevent rape is the rapist. As a society we focus on the woman. If schools and families spent as much energy on boys, we might actually have less rape; some rapists honestly don’t understand that what they are doing is rape because nobody has ever effectively discussed consent with them. The MOD appears to have embraced this view with its first-ever military rape prevention campaign of posters aimed at perpetrators.
Men are also at risk of sexual assault and even more at risk of murder than women. But they don’t go through life scurrying from safe place to bright patch to busy spot. They can own the world. I’m not saying that men never worry about their safety; my male friends actually do. But they don’t let it overwhelm their lives and dictate their movements. And when a man is sexually assaulted or even murdered, he usually isn’t victim blamed. Nobody claims that a male murder victim was “asking for it” by wearing “aggressive clothing” or “violent tattoos”, or that he shouldn’t have been out alone at night because it’s “just asking for trouble.” Nobody pens articles on college-age men “taking risks” and how alcohol leads to men becoming victims. People don’t say “well, if he didn’t want to fight he shouldn’t have answered back.”
That’s the thing, right there. Rape is impossible to prevent. You could live in fear for decades and then get assaulted by a friend, colleague, classmate or partner. Even a teacher, neighbour or family friend. Or you could get assaulted by a stranger no matter how carefully you plan; sexual attacks do occur when victims are in groups, in daylight, when youths are accompanied by parents, and even when there are many witnesses. And if you are sexually assaulted, nobody will appreciate the missed opportunities, the anxieties and time wasted over all the years you spent avoiding rape. You can be victim-blamed or even disbelieved by police, press, friends and family. You’ll be criticised for letting your classmate into your flat, for drinking, for “leading him on”, for what you were wearing, for not taking a cab, for staying out after your friend went home with a headache, for not screaming for help, for letting him walk you home. For being a female sexual assault victim.
So why bother? The question is: is it all worth it? Are all the years of self-repression and fear that you have to go through as the price of being female, while your brothers are free, worth avoiding a rape (assuming you even manage to succeed in avoiding it?) As long as you aren’t abducted and kept as a sex slave, sexual assaults are usually over fairly quickly. Avoiding it doesn’t seem like a fair exchange for decades of restraint. Of course sexual assaults can leave lasting adverse psychological effects- but not for everyone. And constant fear of violence is also bad for your mental health. Quite apart from the stress itself, it reinforces the idea that you are vulnerable and a second-class citizen; men can go where they fancy without thinking about it but you can’t.
I’m not criticising women, men, agender or intersex people who choose to take precautions or use rape-drug detecting nail polish or wear anti-rape underwear. These products have quite rightly been criticised for their potential to increase victim blaming, but if they make you feel safer, by all means buy them. I too take alternative routes if it’s dark and I’m alone. I’m also more aware of who else is around me at these times, especially if they’re male.
My point is that as a gender we’ve been brainwashed into accepting that male violence will always and forever impinge on our freedom in a way that as a nation we would never allow terrorism to. After news of ISIS’ plans to carry out terror attacks in the UK we were told to attend the threatened events and carry on as normal. By contrast police tend to warn women to stay away from an area where a rape has occurred and encourage them not to go out alone or late. Whether you agree with bombing the ‘Islamic State’ or not, today’s news has proved once again that politicians are not worried about provoking terrorists, but women are frequently given the message that they can avoid rape by not provoking a rapist. In fact the SlutWalks originated from just such a comment by a police officer.
Why should we be limited because of what men do? Surely they are the ones who should be punished with restricted movement. We may not be able to stop ourselves from taking the safe road home right away. But with the realisation that we’ve been taught to live in fear and organise our lives around men’s violence, we can slowly, surely, start to free ourselves.