[TW: Rape, Victim blaming, Sexism]
For whatever reason, some people, usually men, can’t seem to keep themselves from trying to give women tips on how to prevent rape. These tips usually consist of “common sense” advice like, “Never leave your drink unattended” or “Always go to a party with friends.” These tips are everywhere, and pretty much everybody can name several of the common ones, whether they use them or not. Although some of these tips can be absurd, overblown, and obviously problematic, I’m going to argue that the idea of men giving rape prevention tips to women* is inherently sexist, regardless of the quality of the tips or the intentions of the man giving them.
First and foremost, it’s sexist to assume that the men giving the advice know more about how to prevent rape than the women receiving the advice. Women have to live their entire lives worrying about rape, and already take considerable precautions to avoid it. Whatever “advice” you have in mind, she’s already heard it before. Men giving rape prevention tips to women is like going up to a tennis player and saying, “Hey, have you heard of this thing called Wimbledon?” Like, I’m pretty sure they’re already aware.
Because women have to live in a world where they’re much more likely to be raped than men, they understand rape and how to prevent it far better than men do. Women are cognizant of all sorts of things that men are unaware of. Most women are taught from a very young age how to protect themselves from rape and sexual assault. And yet, men still feel the need to treat women like they don’t understand, and that men are the experts.
At the core of this is the belief that men are experienced, rational, and knowledgeable about everything, and that women are emotional, irrational, and in need of protection. Because women can’t be expected to take care of themselves, it falls to men to guide them through this big, scary world. Even if rape is something most men never experience, and even if it’s something that they almost never think about, men still know more about how to prevent it than women, simply because they’re men.
It’s for this same reason that men react so harshly when the tables are turned. For instance, when rape prevention advocates create campaigns telling men not to rape, the same people giving advice to women get really defensive and insulted. They’ll say things like, “Men already know rape is bad,” and that these campaigns are a waste of resources, despite evidence that they actually reduce the rape rate**.
This is, of course, a glaring double standard. When men are giving rape prevention advice to women, it’s “common sense” and “practical,” and it’s just “helpful tips” that “couldn’t hurt.” When women are giving rape prevention advice to men, it’s “unnecessary,” “useless,” and “a waste of time.” This double standard only makes sense if you believe that men just know more things than women do. (As an aside, if this advice is so “common sense” then why do people act like it’s this big revelation? If it’s common sense, then pretty much everyone already knows it by definition.)
This isn’t exclusive to rape, of course. Men routinely act like they know things they don’t really know, and that the women that actually know those things are simply mistaken. This is so common that it has a name (mansplaining) to describe it. This behavior is at the same time arrogant and condescending, while also being really sexist. It’s sexist for a man to assume that the woman he’s talking to knows less than he does, simply because she’s a woman. And, whether that man is aware of it or not, that’s exactly what he’s doing when he tells women how to avoid rape.
Secondly, most “common sense” rape advice relies on a misguided sense of what rape looks like. Many people have this idea of rape that involves a stranger hiding in the bushes, or some guy drugging a woman at a party. In fact, statistics show that about two thirds of rapes are committed by people the victim knows and trusts. Rapists can be friends, partners, spouses, or relatives. And over half of all rapes take place in the home of the victim, and another 20% happen in the home of someone the victim knows.
Most “common sense” advice on rape prevention doesn’t actually apply to most rape scenarios. Even when the rape advice is applied to the scenarios most people think of, i.e. at a party or walking home at night, the “advice” is contradictory and unhelpful. Were you raped while walking home alone? Well you should have listened to the advice and gone with a friend. Unless that friend rapes you, then you should have listened to the advice and not trusted the guy.
And really, most rape advice is simply used like this, as a tool to blame women for their own rape. In every rape case, literally every case, people will look for something the victim did wrong, so they can point to that and say, “If only she did this one thing, she wouldn’t have been raped. Clearly it’s her fault.” This happens every time. And not just by random people, either. Police do this, reporters do this, and judges do this. Most “rape prevention advice” is given after the fact, not to help women, but to blame them.
Finally, we spend so much time telling women how not to get raped, and so little time telling men not to rape. We never teach what rape is, we never explain why it’s bad or what it does to the victims, and we never talk about consent and how to respect people’s boundaries. The conversation about rape is almost exclusively “how can women avoid rape” and almost never “how can men not rape.” And again, we place the burden on women to avoid rape, rather than on men to not commit rape.
Fortunately, this is starting to change, and more people are speaking out about the role of men in sexual assault. But we still have a tendency to treat rape as though it’s some sort of force of nature, in that we can’t control it and our best course of action is simply to weather the storm. But this isn’t the case. We can (and do, sometimes) reach out to men in an effort to educate them about what rape looks like, and what it does to its victims. And as I’ve already mentioned, when we do this, there are fewer rapes.
It shouldn’t be women’s responsibility to make sure rape doesn’t happen, and it shouldn’t be their fault if it does. It’s the fault of the rapist, and it’s our responsibility as a society to make sure it stops. We need to stop treating women like they’re not informed about their own lives and their own experiences, and blaming them for not following advice that’s impossible to follow, instead of placing the blame for rape on rapists, where it belongs.
*I should note that when I talk about “men giving rape prevention tips to women,” I don’t mean to imply that only men give rape prevention tips, or that women are the only people who get raped. Neither statement is true. There are certainly plenty of people who are not men who give rape prevention tips, and as I’ve written about before, men get raped too (and so do people who don’t fit the gender binary). My point here is that the specific instance of men giving advice to women is inherently sexist, and that the same action with a different combination of genders is not (although it still may be sexist, it’s not necessarily so). I hope this post does a good job explaining why.
**The dedicated reader will note that this link also talks about “risk reduction programs for women,” including self defense courses, as well as the type of advice I criticize here. The study concludes that self-defense courses are beneficial, but that advice is probably not effective in the long run. Specifically, the study focuses on mixed-gender educational programs, and concludes that they “can be effective in changing rape-supportive beliefs and/or attitudes over the short-term (several months to a year), but they have generally not been successful in changing beliefs and attitudes over the long-term.” While the study doesn’t directly assess single-gender educational programs, I see no reason why the results would be different. This emphasises my first point in this article: that this advice is ineffective because women, for the most part, already know the material. Most women do not have self-defense training, so it would provide a benefit that advice would not.