Why Staying Safe Shouldn’t Mean Staying Scared

It’s back-to-school time, and for the first time in three years I’m headed back to school too. It’s exciting, but also stressful and, especially if you’re headed to college for the first time, potentially kind of scary. Not only do you have to worry about doing well academically, making friends, securing work, etc., but you’re navigating a new social world and testing your own boundaries, all in an environment where we know sexual violence is a pretty big issue. Luckily, new and returning students have plenty of folks to offer them super useful advice on staying safe like, don’t walk around alone at night. In fact, don’t be alone ever. Also, watch your drink. Maybe you shouldn’t drink at all actually. To be safest, just don’t trust anyone, or yourself, and you should be OK. Wait, what?

Over the two years I’ve been writing for SAFER, I’ve carefully walked the line between trying to promote primary prevention education and techniques (primary prevention meaning approaching sexual violence prevention by focusing on the changing perpetrator behavior and cultural attitudes that enable rape and assault) over risk reduction techniques, without totally writing off risk reduction (risk reduction being the strategies most often given to women to ‘reduce the risk’ that they will be assaulted by altering their behavior, i.e., stay in groups, watch your drink). Because honestly, people probably shouldn’t accept drinks if they aren’t sure what’s in them. If you feel a situation is unsafe, whether it be a walk alone to the other side of campus or an aggressive person hitting on you at a party, you should listen to your instincts and call in a friend for company or backup. Some of this advice is good old-fashioned common sense that we should all have, because until we’re living in a rosier world where violence isn’t an issue, sometimes we’re going to have to make shitty sacrifices.

But that’s the thing—they are sacrifices. What frustrates me about hearing the same risk reduction techniques handed out to students every year (and let’s face it, they are always aimed at female students) isn’t just the fact that focusing on women’s behavior alone puts the sole responsibility for preventing violence on the potential victim, which I think unintentionally plays a role in enabling victim-blaming. It’s also that while telling you how you can help “protect yourself,” no one stops to tell you how fucking unfair it is that you have to do it in the first place. Few things make me angrier than the fact that I experience social situations or even just taking a walk differently than my male peers because of the threat of sexual harassment or violence. And by not giving space to that anger, these lists of safety tips, as well-intentioned as they are, continue to normalize violence as harassment as these givens—like: Men are potential threats. Learn how to protect yourself from them. That is all. This defaults men into being predators and women into staying scared. There is no room for progress, or envisioning a world in which women’s behavior isn’t seen as a predictor of the likelihood that they will be assaulted.

What if instead or alongside these safety tips for women, we distributed information on how NOT to be a rapist? What would that world look like? Can you imagine, security and anti-violence professionals across the country releasing lists every fall with advice on how to reduce your or your friends’ risk of sexually assaulting someone? For example:

  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs to manipulate someone into sexual activity. Don’t stand by silently while your friends do it either
  • Don’t ignore verbal and/or physical signs of discomfort when hooking up with someone
  • Ask your partner what they want, or check in with them before taking things further
  • Stand up to your friends who make jokes about rape
  • If you see someone being aggressive or making clearly unwanted advances to another person, step in or cause a distraction
  • Understand the long-term negative emotional and physical effects of sexual violence on a survivor

People who get all up in arms about critiques of risk reduction as standalone prevention effort or critiques of victim-blaming usually talk a lot about personal responsibility—women need to be responsible for their behavior too. And there’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s just address the “too”—the “too” implies that culturally we are already holding folks accountable for perpetrating or enabling violence. And by and large, we aren’t. And I could wax philosophical for a long time about why we aren’t—because it’s harder to do than telling women to protect themselves, because it involves talking about sex with young people which makes everyone uncomfortable, because it challenges long-established gender and sexual norms, and so on—but the end result is that we accept that women should go through life afraid, constantly questioning that one wrong move that might ‘increase their risk’ of being violated. And I am so, so tired of settling for that, every year, over and over again.

So this year when you go back to school, and during orientation someone tells you about how you can “keep yourself safe,” file that information away for a time when you might need it, with the understanding that the only person who can truly prevent rape is the rapist. But also, harness your frustration, and anger, and fear into something positive.  Ask if your school has primary prevention education also. Ask if they are going to address the responsibility each of your peers has to not violate each other’s sexual boundaries. If you don’t get answers you like, start talking about it to the administration, to student activists, to your school’s peer health educators, to us at SAFER. Don’t feel forced to settle.

Cross-posted at Change Happens

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