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It’s never your fault: A reaction to Steubenville

Photograph by Brian Stansberry

There were many shocking things to come out of the Steubenville case this week: the sympathy with the attackers, the identification of the victim by a national media organisation, and the footage of the attack that was circulated on social media networks to name but a few. But one of the worst things about Steubenville was sadly all too familiar: the victim blaming.

The victim was vilified on social networking sites; she was called a slut and a whore. Television stations and newspapers drew attention to the fact that she had drunk alcohol. There were many, many people out there – some in powerful positions – who wanted the world to believe that the rape was somehow the victim’s fault.

Our society constantly promotes and perpetually reinforces the idea that women are to blame if they are raped. And it’s not just men who are responsible for victim-blaming. A 2010 study showed that a shocking 71% of women think that a victim would be in some way responsible for her rape if she got into her attacker’s bed voluntarily, and a third thought that going back to her attacker’s house for a drink or dressing provocatively would put her at fault.

The problem is that as a society, we’ve got our messages on rape all wrong. As long as we keep telling women that they can prevent rape then the victim blaming will continue.  Women are told not to walk home alone, not to drink too much, and not to dress provocatively, but the truth is that none of these things will stop a woman from being raped. Women cannot prevent rape. Yes, we can take steps to minimise the chances of being raped, but it is only men who can actually prevent rape. By not raping.

Putting the onus on women to prevent rape is wrong for so many reasons, but allow me to elaborate on just a few. For a start, the culture of fear that surrounds rape is yet another way in which women are oppressed. Fear controls how women dress, socialise, and travel. Fear of rape is just another tool used by men to control women. After a spate of sex attacks you’ll often see and hear warnings telling women to stay indoors, lock their doors and windows, or not walk home alone. Why not tell men to get themselves home early and keep themselves locked away, so that women can feel secure?

Secondly, this so called ‘rape prevention’ advice is misleading. Statistics show that around 90% of victims of sexual violence know their attacker, and advising women to carry pepper spray, to not distract themselves by wearing headphones, or not to leave their drink unattended minimises the threat of acquaintance rape. Women are far more likely to be raped in their home than they are when walking home.

And why should women bear the financial burden for sexual violence? Why should women take a taxi home instead of walking for fear of being raped? Why should women have to shell out for rape alarms and self-defence classes to make themselves feel safe? Why should women have to pay for expensive gym memberships because they feel vulnerable running alone in the dark after work?

Instead, we should be advising any men who worry that they might not be able to stop themselves from raping a woman who they see walking alone at night to take a taxi home instead, just in case. And if they’re really worried, they can carry a rapist alarm and set it off if they see a woman that they might rape, to warn her to get out of the way. If men are concerned that they may encounter lone women who they may be tempted to rape when jogging alone at night then they should be encouraged to join a gym instead.

Instead of saying to women: “Don’t drink too much”, we should be saying to men: “If you see a woman who has had too much to drink, don’t rape her! Why not find her friends instead? Or help her to get a taxi home?” Instead of saying: “Don’t walk around alone at night” to women, we should be saying to men: “If you see a woman walking alone at night, don’t rape her! In fact, don’t even approach to her, she won’t want to talk to you, and she’d probably appreciate it if you walked on the opposite side of the road.”

We need to be telling men that the fact that a woman has had sex with you once doesn’t mean that you are automatically entitled to have sex with her again. Even if that woman is your wife, your fiancée, or your girlfriend, if she doesn’t feel like having sex with you tonight, you can’t go ahead and force her to have sex with you anyway. And if a woman has had sex with your friend, that doesn’t mean that you can have sex with her too.

Just because a woman is wearing a short skirt, it doesn’t mean that she wants you to force yourself upon her.  You may be on a sports team, but being good at football doesn’t give you the right to have sex with whomever you like. If a woman is asleep in your bed, that doesn’t mean that you get to have sex with her. If a woman is unconscious – even if she’s unconscious because she has drunk too much alcohol, or taken drugs – she can’t consent, and so you can’t have sex with her.

And we need to make it absolutely crystal clear that no consent always equals rape.

This is what rape prevention advice should look like. If we stop telling women that they can avoid being raped, then we will stop blaming the women who are victims of sexual violence. If we make it clear that it is men, and not women who are responsible for rape, then victims will stop believing that the rape was their fault. Schools should not be giving out rape alarms to young girls; they should instead be educating young boys on consent and coercion, and making sure that they are aware that sexual violence is always unacceptable.

It is only with such a seismic shift in the messages surrounding sexual violence that we as a society will ever stop the victim-blaming.

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