Yesterday, I got into a big feminist huff about this Emily Yoffe piece on preventing rape on college campuses, which was published by Slate. I rewrote the article, changing all references to gender to illustrate what it would look like if I took a headline like “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk … it’s closely associated with sexual assault, and yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it”  and changed it to “College Men: Stop Raping Women … It IS sexual assault, and yet we’re reluctant to tell men to stop doing it”. 

I was not trying to “write an article telling men not to rape women”. I was changing an existing article in order to illustrate what I thought was a fairly simple point about how rarely we see articles from that other point of view – the point of view that addresses men and talks to them about rape prevention, as if they have something to do with it!

The article was retweeted and shared on Facebook a number of times, and the excellent folks at rabble.ca offered to republish it on their site, which of course I said an enthusiastic “yes” to. You can find it on rabble here.

I haven’t received a crazy amount of negative response to the article but I have encountered several (tried and true – very familiar to me and probably every other vocal feminist on the internet) arguments from seemingly well meaning men whose comments fell loosely in one of these categories:

  • Men who don’t see why we can’t “do both” (that is, talk to men about rape, but also tell women to protect themselves) – as if I was ever suggesting that we not do both.
  • Men who feel offended that the “hey men, don’t be rapists!” message implies that all men – including themselves – are potential rapists.
  • Men who feel (seriously) that society already does a lot to tell men not to rape (ha ha).
  • Men who believe that non-rapists don’t need to hear this message, and that rapists will never listen anyway, so it’s probably not the best strategy for changing anything (let’s leave aside the fact that most rapists don’t actually consider themselves rapists).

One guy even commented on my original post that when both parties are drunk, it’s not rape. Or, in his words, “there is no victim”. I’m not even going to address that one, because really, where to begin?

Before I go any further, I have to point out, most of these men were not aggressively argumentative – they were trying to understand my point of view, and I appreciate that type of effort, even if it comes with a certain amount of (inevitable) mansplaining. I’d rather someone try to understand me in a clumsy way than not try at all.

Anyway. Something about the repeated return to the “why can’t we do both” argument has been really bothering me, and I wanted to articulate exactly what it is.

What bothers me is the very idea that it is important to make sure women are aware of the potential risks all around them. It bothers me because my own experience would lead me to believe that approximately 100% of women do not need any such reminder, as they are already all too aware, every day of their lives.

Sure, let’s get this out of the way first. Yes. It’s perfectly fine to tell any potential victim of any potential crime to “be aware” and “protect themselves” and “make smart decisions” and “not put themselves in high risk situations”. I’m not saying it’s bad to do that. Nobody ever said that, and it’s beside the point.

Do this as an experiment, men who doubt me when I say that women are already very aware. Ask the women in your life whether they’ve ever felt afraid when they’re alone in an elevator and a (male) stranger gets in. Or when they’re walking alone at night. Or when they’re walking alone at night and they hear footsteps behind them. Or when they’re walking alone at night on an empty stretch of road and a (male) stranger is heading straight toward them. Or when they’re walking alone at any time of day and they suddenly approach a group of more than two or three men who look at them in a leering way. Or when someone catcalls them on the street, or slows down their car next to them as they walk in order to make a lewd comment or proposition. Or when they’re walking to their car in an otherwise empty-seeming parking garage. Or when they’re in a bar and some guy won’t leave them alone even when they say “I have a boyfriend”, because the only way they feel allowed to turn the guy down is if they’re taken by some other man, because “I’m not interested in you” is not good enough, because  drunk guys often can’t take no for an answer?

Ask them if they’ve ever considered carrying mace in their purses, or actually carried it, or if they ever had a “rape whistle” on their keychain, or if they ever held their keys in their hand like a weapon while walking, just in case. Or if they’ve ever pretended to be on their cell phone while walking by some (male) stranger or group of strangers in an otherwise secluded place, in order to appear as though they weren’t quite as alone. Or if they’ve ever actually phoned someone while walking home alone, so that they’d be on the line with them, just in case. Ask them if they’ve ever taken the long way home in order to avoid a usually very safe shortcut, just because they didn’t want to be in a park or a back alley by themselves.

Ask them if they’ve ever been afraid of being raped, period. I’d bet good money that you won’t be able to find a single woman who would honestly answer “nope, I’ve never felt that fear”. Most would say “of course”, because for most women, being aware of their safety and the threat of rape is as natural as getting your period every month. We don’t need to be reminded.

Now think about the fact that most women aren’t raped by a hooded stranger lurking in the bushes on their walk home. Most women are raped by someone they know. A date. A “friend”.

That means that on top of the fact that we’re already on high alert in everyday situations that might legitimately be dangerous, we also have to be on high alert at the times when we should be able to relax and not feel fear – when we’re with people we know and trust. Even in those situations – at parties, on dates, in group settings with our friends, colleagues and classmates – we are told we have to be aware – to not dress a certain way, to not drink too much, to not allow ourselves the luxury of letting our hair down (metaphorically – because if we did it literally it would probably be misinterpreted as flirtation and provoke some rapist – ha ha) the way that men can anytime they want.

And what usually happens when women do make the mistake of actually relaxing in situations in which men are allowed the same pleasure? When they have as many drinks as they want, instead of as many as they can while remaining on guard for a potential sexual attack? Well, sometimes they are lucky and nothing bad happens. And other times, they are not lucky, and someone takes advantage of their vulnerability and afterwards they are shamed and scolded for not having been more aware of their own safety. Because there is never a time when women are just allowed to let their guard down. And as a society, we don’t consider that to be enough of a problem to make us say “hey, instead of telling women to be constantly in self-protection mode, let’s try to change the way we behave and create environments where they don’t have to feel fear and anxiety, because nobody should have to be on high alert all the time”. That would be unrealistic, because rapists will be rapists, am I right?

Because this (truly hilarious image, which I got from Ella Ceron on Twitter) …

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… is how our society deals with rape. Conclusion of study: sexual offenses were not victim-initiated. Recommendation: make the victims change their behaviour.

So, let me ask you this, men who say “hey, I’m all for educating men about rape prevention, but why can’t we do both? Why not teach women self defence and remind them to be aware and to protect themselves”. Did it ever occur to you that that’s pretty condescending?

FOOTNOTE: when I say “tell men not to rape”, I don’t mean that our message to men should literally be “hey, don’t be a rapist”. That’s simplistic and ridiculous and not what I was ever suggesting. As I have mentioned elsewhere before, I am using this as shorthand for the many ways in which we could creatively engage men in a real discourse about rape and rape prevention, talk to them and/or teach them how to not behave in ways that are sexually predatory, and generally make them a whole lot more aware. If men were aware the way women are constantly being asked to be aware, then perhaps they would be more sensitive to subtler signs of discomfort or fear from women around them. Perhaps they would stop their drunk pals from going too far with girls they’re out drinking with. Perhaps they’d say “hey, that’s really not cool” the next time their university’s frosh week captain tried to lead the crowd in a sexist, rape-condoning chant. Perhaps they – the ones who are proudly assured in their belief that they are not capable of ever committing a rape, and neither are any of their friends – would start to change their behaviour in all those small ways that eventually amount to a shift in the rape culture we actually live in. Perhaps they’d even think twice about arguing with women when all we want to say is “hey guys, be more aware. And also, don’t rape”.