For Marianne Cassidy, society’s lesson that “Strange Men Are Dangerous” is damaging. Men are not the problem. Rapists are the problem.
“Society teaches Don’t Get Raped rather than Don’t Rape.”
As far as I know, this slogan originally emerged as part of the SlutWalk movement. It has become a key expression of protest against the idea that women should dress more modestly to avoid getting raped. When I heard it first, it resonated with me; it’s challenging, it’s punchy and it felt like a succinct summation of a complex problem. But, (and this is a big “but” because) while my gut feeling is still agreement, I know factually that nothing is ever so black-and-white when it comes to such a sensitive topic. Every time I see it emblazoned on a T-shirt or SlutWalk sign or cropping up in blog posts and comments in the gender arena, I feel the need to break it down and think about what it actually means.
For me, the first half seems straightforward. As far back as I can remember, I have been taught to be suspicious of strange men. And I don’t mean “society taught me” or “experience taught me.” I mean I was literally taught – through the public education system in Ireland, through Health and Safety classes, through guest speakers, through seminars, by authority figures both male and female – that strange men are the single biggest threat to my personal safety, as a girl and later as a woman. I have be careful what I wear and where I go and when I go there and who I talk to when I get there and I should always be vigilant and aware of my surroundings and take self-defence classes and carry a rape whistle and never walk home alone and we all know the drill at this point.
I remember clearly attending a safety lecture when I was eight years-old and a teacher telling us that if we ever got lost or separated from our parents in a strange place and we couldn’t find a police officer, we should “look for a nice lady to help us.” Apparently, nice ladies are a safe bet. It’s the nasty men who are more likely to be holding candy and luring us into their van. This is my earliest memory of the “strange men are dangerous” rhetoric. Since then, it’s been a consistent feature of my life.
In Emily Heist Moss’s excellent article “The Story of Men Is the Story We Decide To Tell: A Single Woman Travelling Alone,” she explodes the standard “creepy guy” story that most women can tell you as an example of why men can be dangerous to a lone woman. Most women have at least one story about a creepy guy who followed them, harassed them, touched them inappropriately and made them feel scared and vulnerable. While it’s definitely unfortunate that most women have had an experience like this, Emily points out that most women also have stories about men who were kind to them or who helped them out of a rough situation. But we rarely tell or hear these stories. This may simply be because potential danger makes for a better story, but we may also gravitate towards the “creepy guy” episode because it reinforces the narrative we have been labouring under for most of our lives; all men are potential rapists.
As the debate in comments section of this article highlights, this is a damaging and offensive stereotype.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of men are repulsed by the idea of rape or sexual assault. Most are offended by the prevalent myth that all men are slaves to their libidos and literally cannot control their sexual urges. Others worry about the perception of sexual abuse as an exclusively female concern and are attempting to break the resounding silence around the issue of male rape. In light of this, it must be frustrating when a woman crosses the street to avoid you when she’s walking home alone after dark. It must be baffling when you approach a woman (because she dropped her keys, or she looks lost, or she caught your eye and you’d like to get her number) and she acts like you have every intention of dragging her down an alley. I can only imagine how confusing it is when a woman would rather wait in the rain with her broken-down car rather than accepting a ride from you. Often it seems no matter how many considerate, kind and thoughtful men we encounter, the relatively small handful of men who perpetrate sexual violence on women still dictate how the majority are viewed.
This is not fair to men. I have a feeling that if I were a man, I would be insulted by the idea that society failed to teach me that rape is a serious and horrific crime, or that my sexual urges somehow prevented me from assimilating that lesson into my moral code. I would be utterly sick of being perceived as a pervert or a creep because I had the misfortune to flirt with a woman who wasn’t interested. I would hate the thought that my sisters, my daughters, my partners and my female friends spend their lives looking over their shoulder with fear and suspicion, scared of the intentions of perfectly decent men like me.
But I’m not a man. I’m a woman, and I still cross the street rather than cross paths with a strange man at night. I still balk at the idea of getting into a car with a man I don’t know. These are instinctive reactions, born of years of being told that strange men are dangerous. If I said I cross the street to avoid black people, instinctively or otherwise, I would be shouted down as a racist, and rightly so. By that reasoning, avoiding the male half of the population after dark is a sexist act. Yet this precautionary measure is viewed as not only socially acceptable, but as advisable and sensible.
The issue is complicated by the fact that women are not just told that strange men are dangerous; we also are told that is our responsibility to avoid them and keep them at bay. There is no fool-proof way to prevent rape or sexual assault, but society tells us that a woman would have to be completely devoid of common sense if she didn’t take every possible precaution to avoid a worst-case scenario. For many women, it is worth offending a hundred good men if she manages to avoid even one situation that could potentially end in rape. Or worse, that could end in her blaming herself for being raped, because society tells hers that she should have been more cautious.
The “Don’t Rape” part of the SlutWalk slogan is muddier and presented more of a challenge when I tried to figure out why it rang true with me initially. On the surface, “Don’t Rape” seems to me to fall under the general umbrella of “Don’t Be A Shitty Human Being,” along with other basics such as “Don’t Murder” and “Don’t Steal.” I think society at large does a pretty good job of instilling us with these basics at a young age.
To me, the concept that society fails to teach “Don’t Rape” is an attempt to articulate the fact that rape apologists exist. Victim-blaming exists. For many, a grey area of consent exists. A woman who has been raped will be interrogated about everything from her previous sexual partners to the absence of an extra two inches of skirt. In these cases, society does not teach that rape is unequivocally wrong and that the rapist must bear the full brunt of his actions. Instead, it teaches that there is an ambiguity of blame and responsibility, that there is a chance of getting off lightly, and even a chance that society will forget all about the rapist in the rush to find fault with the victim. As far as I can identify, this is the main reason that society does not teach “Don’t Rape” as well as it could. Rather than a society that teaches “Don’t Rape,” we have a society that teaches “Don’t Rape But She Was Pretty Drunk and She Didn’t Explicitly Say No and Look At What She Was Wearing.” This is problematic, because what we really want is a society where “Don’t Rape” means “Don’t Rape, Don’t Assault, Don’t Harass, Don’t Intimidate, Don’t Abuse, Don’t Take Advantage of a Situation, Whether You’re Male, Female or Anything In Between.
Equally problematic is the fact that society doesn’t teach “Don’t Get Raped” so much as it teaches “Strange Men Are Dangerous.” This is damaging because men are not the problem. Rapists are the problem. It’s also particularly bizarre and misleading when it is estimated that 73% of rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows.* Nonetheless, the numbers indicate the vast majority of reported rapists are male and the majority of rape victims who come forward are female.* So how do we reconcile this, when the numbers reflect a vastly gendered divide?
I mean this as a genuine question. In an ideal world, a woman would be able to walk down the street wearing whatever she wants at any time of day or night, without any fear of rape. However, people utterly bereft of morality and empathy will always exist, so this ideal world is not attainable. In the meantime, women have the right to look out for themselves and prioritise their own safety. Equally, men have the right to walk down the street without being treated like rabid monsters just waiting for their chance. How can we teach women to be safe and savvy, without simultaneously demonising every man they come into contact with?
For the moment, how do we come up with a slogan that encapsulates this?
“Society teaches us All Strange Men Are Dangerous, instead of Look Out For Yourself Because There Are Always Going To Be Assholes Out There, But Remember That Society Has Your Back And The Hammer Of Justice Will Be Swift And Mighty In Your Defence, Because No One Should Ever Touch You Without Your Express Consent And That Goes For Everyone, Regardless of Gender.”
I know, I know, it’s not quite as catchy. But that’s why a slogan is just a slogan, and not a fully-formed argument. “Society teaches Don’t Get Raped rather than Don’t Rape” serves its purposes on protest signs and sandwich boards, but taken out of context, it can successfully stop conversation dead in its tracks. Many women wield it like a talisman, throwing it down as their last word, their core point in any discussion about rape. Many men view it as an offensive generalisation, and grow impatient trying to debate around it. A slogan should be a spring-board, not a full-stop. It should make you think, not tie up the argument. In any discussion concerned with breaking down stereotypes and forging new perspectives, there should be no full-stops. There should be fluid dialogue, honest opinions and respect even in disagreement. Above all, there should be a genuine attempt to understand experiences that are foreign to you, whether that experience is being called a creep or trying to shake off a man who is following you. These are the stories that cause people to change the way they think, but they can’t hear them if they are deafened by a slogan. More importantly, neither can you.
photo used with permission by Michael Courier
—*From the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Study, 2005.
*In 1991, The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 91% of rape victims were female and 99% of rapists were male. It was also estimated that over 60% of rape cases go unreported, making it the most unreported serious crime in the US.