“I get that it’s important to teach rapists not to rape, I mean yeah, that’s great,” I overheard someone say the other day and thought to myself, okay, yes, good we’re all agreed, until they continued on to say, “but I just don’t get why we can’t also teach women how to not get raped. I mean, it’s not like they’re mutually exclusive.” At this point my jaw opened and my brain shut. I said nothing, but I should have. As I was relaying this to a friend later on, she offered the term “esprit d’escalier” to express what I was feeling. Which was the perfect term to describe it, though I am glad I did not literally experience this in a stairwell, lest I’d throw myself down it.
Let’s go chronologically, here. First, we have the statement, “it’s important to teach rapists not to rape”. Right, yes I’m on board, obviously, with this sentiment. I’m talking campaigns like Don’t Be That Guy and other, including non-gender specific, campaigns that make it clear that if you are having sex with someone without their freely given and enthusiastic consent, you are committing rape. Yes means yes. Anything else means no.
Good, all right, that’s out of the way. Next, we had the question of “why we can’t also teach women how to not get raped.” Well, what does that look like? From what I’ve experienced, this teaching looks like being told to avoid certain streets at night, to be aware of what message my clothing is sending, to not drink too much. All this despite the fact that about 80% of sexual assault happens in the survivor’s home, despite the fact that the most common outfit survivors report to have been wearing is jeans and a tee-shirt, despite the fact that more rapists have reported being under the influence of alcohol than survivors have.
What this teaching does is place the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators. This is why we still get people asking, “well what was she wearing?” and “was she drunk?” Pretty straightforward victim blaming. These kinds of widespread teachings just support harmful systems and thought processes, for those involved directly, and indirectly, in sexual assault. It can serve to reinforce feelings of guilt many survivors experience, and restrict them from accessing important resources and support.
So you see, Person I Overheard, there are a few more things to consider on this matter than whether or not these teachings are “mutually exclusive”. Which, I mean, is logistically fair enough. We could also teach people how to build sandcastles at the same time as we hand out tiny bulldozers and point out flaws in sandcastle construction techniques.
Teaching people not to rape and supporting harmful ways of thinking about rape, though not impossible, is kind of like hosting your sandcastle-building seminar in the middle of the ocean.
This is what I should have said.