This comes shortly after the Toronto Police had held a public briefing about a series of sexual assaults that have been occuring around the city.
SlutWalk Toronto was on Twitter Wednesday and yesterday, and last night spoke with CTV News about this issue and about slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Because they deal quite eloquently with those issues, I'm going to focus on others that come up when safety advice against rape is the topic.
When issues come up in the news like stranger rapes and murders, I understand that it is many people's first inclination to want their friends and family to be safe, and to try to give some concrete and sensible advice as to how to do that. It may very well make them feel like they're being productive and helpful. Unfortunately, it's often more about making the advice-giver feel better because when they're told that advice isn't terrible helpful, then come the hurt and offended proclamations of "How dare you challange me?! I'm just trying to make women safe! Marches and walking in pantyhose won't keep women safe from psychos, but guns and karate will, con sarnit!!!"
Here's the thing about most of the safety advice that is generally trotted out in times like these - they tend to fall into the categories of a) Rambo, b) slut-shaming, or c) If you don't do this because of practical issues you face in your life, you're just not dedicated to avoiding sexual violence. There's also the category of d) Duh, as in "I'm assuming you're a braindead child and know nothing of keeping yourself alive and will address you as such." The last one comes up with frustrating regularity.
To clarify why I find most of the safety advice the antithesis of helpful, I'm going to go through some typical scenarios in my life and how I manage rape-prevention versus doing everything else I've gotta do during the course of my day.
I am lucky in that I live relatively close to work. It's about 4.5km from my apartment, and I've taken to walking there and back to improve my cardio and to save money. On the rape prevention side, it's great to have an opportunity to work on my cardio, leg strength, and stamina so that if I were ever attacked out of the blue, I could potentially run away.
On the other hand, there is a stretch of over half a km between my apartment building and the main road that is barren and looks shady, including the parking lot for an abandoned movie theatre. Even if I took the bus, I'd have to walk past this stretch in order to get to the bus, because public transportation is ridiculous and doesn't go past my apartment complex to the station.
Now, I could potentially take another way, but the other ways are not pedestrian friendly. There are no sidewalks and there are blind curves that vehicles fly around. That is basically a no-go-, because if I have to weigh my chances of getting raped versus my chances of getting hit by car or truck, in this case I'm more likely to get run over. And if I were to get run over, I'd be more likely to be killed than if I were sexually assaulted.
As a pedestrian, I come across scenarios like these a lot. No city I have lived in is 100% pedestrian friendly and free of areas where people have to choose between shady alleys or parking lots, etc, or of getting flattened by oncoming traffic.
Let's say for arguments sake that the bus did stop directly in front of my apartment building and that I didn't have to go through any shady areas on my way from home to work. Taking public transit doesn't guarantee my safety. Not even in the middle of the day.
Or, let's say that I take a cab from my doorstep. That's not a guarantee of safety, either.
Aside from the risks I potentially face with other modes of transportation, women aren't given hazard pay from the government to deal with taking extra safety measures against rape, such as catching a cab or moving to a "safer" neighbourhood. Or for taking self-defense classes or martial arts.
Three days a week, after work, I pay to work out with a personal trainer. It's not cheap, but it's absolutely worth it for what it's done for my strength and stamina and personal well-being. If I were to be attacked in a blind alley today, versus in February when I first started, I would have a much better chance of defending myself today. Maybe.
The thing about working out to see results is that it hurts. Some days I hurt like hell. I am in the peak shape of my life, but some days I hobble home from the gym and can do no more than flop on the couch until suppertime. So, if I were attacked on a Monday before the gym, after I've had the weekend to relax and recoup, I'd be in pretty good form. After the gym, notsomuch. Or if I've gotten a cold or flu I'd be pretty weak, too. Or an injury from working out. Or if I were attacked by someone larger and stronger than me who also goes to the gym.
How about other advice, like taking self-defense classes, or going through the list of maneuvers discusses in the "Through a Rapist's Eyes" spam that keeps getting regurgitated and recirculated? Some of it may prove useful, but we've got to take something very important into account - those emails/ FB posts/ Tumblrs, etc, don't just get distributed to potential victims or survivors. There are potential and active rapists who read those, as well. So I can try any number of those techniques and maybe they'll work, or maybe they'll have studied up on that and compensated for it. Tough to say.
After attacks like these, the police often will advise women to not walk alone. That's a great idea in theory, but who can afford to hire a body guard? How many times in a day do you have to go someplace alone, on average? I know for me, there's no one to walk to or from work with me. Some days my partner will come to the gym with me, but there's no guarantee of that since our work schedules are so different.
Taking a look at the recent attacks that have been taking place at University of Toronto, these attacks took place during the day, close to public transit. The safety advice of "travel in pairs or in groups" seems sound in theory, but someone needs to have people they trust on hand (taking into account different work schedules, class schedules, and general life schedules), and they also need to connect with those people. Maybe these women were on their way to meet up with their safety buddies. Maybe they had just left them. Maybe they thought they only needed buddies in the evening, and not at 3 pm on a weekday.
One thing that a lot of safety advice never seems to take into account, is that there are certain groups who face much higher rates of sexual violence than others. Women of colour, immigrants, native women, disabled women, and transwomen are just a few groups that face much higher rates than the general population, including white women. No amount of demure clothing or avoiding alleys will remove the underlying issues of racism and transmisogyny that proliferate violence against them.
There certainly is some solid safety advice out there, but the truly helpful and productive safety advice doesn't sound as shocking or have the gratifying punch of "Wear a RapeX" or "Carry a gun and shoot anyone who threatens you".
Some ways that we can reduce risk and incidences of rape:
- We can not give rapists a social license to operate.
- We can not make rape jokes so that we make our culture safer for survivors and less amenable to rapists.
- We can believe people when they report.
- We can understand the many different forms rape takes,
- We can hold abusers accountable for the crimes they've committed, rather than let them off because their rapes weren't rapey enough.
- We can also support women in asserting and maintaining their boundaries.