Protecting Ourselves Against the Wrong Rapists

As Editor of Fem2.0, part of my job entails keeping up with news, campaigns, and events related to women’s rights.  Because we tackle such a broad range of issues, I have Google Alerts set to a rather random smattering of keywords that do or may affect women.  One of these is “sexual assault.”  While a Google Alert algorithm is hardly perfect knowledge on what’s going on in the world involving women, the stories that end up in my inbox relating to sexual assault every single day seem to be exactly in line with my own fears about how scary it is.

Except that both are misleading.

Growing up, protecting myself against strangers who would attack me in the street, drag me into an alley, and gang rape me before leaving me for dead, was a normal, everyday part of life.  Many of my friends grew up like that, and not because we lived in dangerous areas.  It’s just that in a culture that blames the victim and in which women are seen as perpetual victims, we’re taught to be extra cautious.

Now, unfortunately, it permeates every aspect of our lives.  We’re concerned about going running at night, about walking alone in “bad” parts of town, about traveling in a foreign country.  Rarely does anyone say I might get robbed or beaten – instead, it’s always that I might be raped.  When I meet potential female roommates, or make small talk with young women at an event, the conversation often turns to the safety of the neighborhoods we live in and how we – as women – take specific precautions so we won’t be raped.  Frankly, it’s just everywhere.

Here’s the problem.

In the US at least, rape is not the crime of a stranger.

Don’t get me wrong – the stories and statistics all come from somewhere, so it’s not that they’re completely false.  It’s just that more than 80% of rape victims know their attacker.  Rapists are family members, boyfriends, husbands, friends, work colleagues, and even casual acquaintances.  Most women in the U.S. who will be sexually assaulted know their attackers.   We know exactly who they are, and more often than not, we have history with these people.  They aren’t strangers crawling into our bedroom windows in the middle of the night.

And yet, that’s what we’re afraid of, every day.

No one ever told me to be careful of my boyfriend.  No one ever told me not to let a work colleague into my house if he showed up unexpectedly.  No one ever told me not to invite a male friend to my college dorm room just to hang out and have a few drinks together.

Some people think sexual assault and rape are easy to understand and easy to define.  Why is there all of this “education” going on?  Why are we spending taxpayer money to “educate the public” – particularly college students nowadays – about what rape is.  We all know what it is: it’s the stranger in the night who attacks you on the street and against whom you fight with all your might until you are an inch from death.  For this crime to be taken seriously by a police officer or a court, ideally, you’d also be a virgin who was walking home from church wearing a floor length burlap sack while eating an ice cream.

This is why feminism matters – why the study of gender matters.  Why it matters that we teach people not just what the law says about rape and sexual assault, but also what it actually entails.  Not hearing someone when she – or he – says no.   Using your privilege and authority to pressure her – or him – into completing sexual acts.  Taking advantage of someone who is too drunk to 100% consent to sex.

Human relations are complex matters, and that’s just one reason why rape and sexual assault are so complex in and of themselves.  These crimes are about how we relate to one another, about how we interact with one another, with people who are close to us and with whom we interact every day.  It’s about people in our lives – not strangers hiding in the bushes.

And yet, for generations, this is what women have feared.  It’s got us carrying pepper spray in our purses, writing notes on the fridge for our roommates about what time we should be back from going out, walking in groups or with a man so that we’ll be protected when we’re out at night.  The precautions we’re all taught to take against “stranger rape” is truly incredible when we consider the actual rate of stranger rape in this country.

I’m not saying women are not ever raped by strangers or that we shouldn’t take appropriate precautions against such horrific crimes.  But education about feminism and gender relations and patriarchy and even sexual dominance in general are crucial for a society that has raised its people to so egregiously misunderstand what sexual assault is.  If we don’t know who is doing the assaulting and what the circumstances are, how are we going to appropriately protect ourselves from it?  How are we going to address it as a society and a culture?

We can’t change a situation that we don’t understand, and it’s time we honestly looked at exactly who is doing the raping.  Without this knowledge, we’ll be protecting ourselves from the wrong people in the wrong way, and we’ll never be able to address or eradicate the problem.


Photo Credit: Garret Miller

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