Friday, April 01, 2011
Women still wearing the blame for rape
A young Saanich woman was allegedly kidnapped and sexually assaulted last week. Police were in the media soon after warning women to take more care.
Yes, 40 years after “women’s liberation,” sexual assault is still our fault.
Women’s issues were a bit of a darling in the media industry when I first got into journalism in the early ‘80s as a “women’s page” reporter. So I wrote a lot about the kinds of things that were considered women’s issues at that time.
They ran the gamut, from jam-making and wedding dresses to abortion, rape and sexual harassment. There were some pretty heavy issues on the table at the time, and I’m glad to say that several are history now.
When I started out reporting, a husband in Canada couldn’t even be charged with raping his wife, because there was no such offence. Sexual harassment had barely even been conceptualized. Hospital boards were being ripped apart by the abortion issue. All of that has changed.
But the way we talk about rape and sexual assault hasn’t changed a bit. It’s still all about victim-blaming and shame.
Don’t women know better than to walk home alone at night? Why aren’t we catching cabs and going everywhere in big groups? Could it be that we’re dressing just a bit too skimpily? Or getting sloppy about monitoring our drinks constantly at the bar so nobody can slip drugs into them?
A friend of mine used to work as an aide in a local elementary-school classroom. He once told me the story of a little girl who was getting her pants pulled down by a group of boys every lunch hour. The principal addressed the issue by ordering the girl to quit wearing elastic-waist pants.
I love that story for how perfectly it sums up the way it has always been for girls and women around rape and sexual assault. Honey, it’s all up to you.
We like to think we’ve gotten past blaming women for their own rapes. But I don’t think we’ve ever internalized the message. Good on UVic’s Patty Pitts for stating the obvious to local media after the Saanich incident - that warning women to stay safe is not nearly as meaningful as challenging “the core beliefs that allow sexualized violence to occur.”
Want to avoid being raped? Don’t dress provocatively. Or drink too much. Or leave your drink unattended, or pick the wrong date. Don’t go around doing wild things like walking home in Saanich alone.
It’s like rape is an unstoppable force waiting to happen to all women unless they learn to keep themselves out of danger.
I don’t mean any of this as an insult to men. The majority are good people who are not rapists, and not the reason why women continue to be blamed for their own sexual assaults.
Nor do I mean to absolve women. They’re half the population, after all, and really do have the ability to affect major change if they’d ever just pull together to get it done.
But let’s get beyond the gender issues and just agree that it’s ridiculous to respond to any terrible crime solely by exhorting future victims to be more careful. We need to be talking about rape and sexual assault in meaningful ways, and not just piling more responsibility and shame onto the victims.
I guess we’re supposed to consider it progress that rape now figures so prominently in TV and movies. The Law and Order franchise has for many years had a “special victims” series that provides a handy reason for starting virtually every episode with a graphic rape or equally disturbing sex crime. As an issue, rape is seriously out of the closet.
Or is it? In real life, victims still go unnamed in court proceedings - understandable on one hand, deeply shaming on the other for the way it stigmatizes the person. Women still frequently keep their rapes and assaults secret, fearing the traumatic things that can happen to sexual-assault victims once they’re in the justice system.
Sexual assault is still not a subject we raise with our sons, despite having normalized it as a form of home entertainment. Nor have we come up with any more creative ways of preventing it than to send police out after each new rape to warn women everywhere to mind their skirt lengths and stay home after dark.
What a sad, slow ride to nowhere. Ladies, lock your doors.