So much advice about safety and avoiding crime is about how not to be a victim. We teach girls how to avoid sexual assault while investing little or no time teaching boys that is their responsibility not to assault girls. Victim blaming, and misplacing the responsibility has massive consequences.
Part of what we teach when we teach people to stay safe, is that it is the victim’s behaviour that causes or attracts the crime. If I was assaulted when walking across town alone at night, it would be understood that I had been assaulted because I was walking across town alone at night. We tell each other that it is just common sense to take safety precautions without examining what the safety stories actually do.
If your clothes, or where you happen to be make you a target, then we’re telling each other that the criminals can’t help themselves. They have no defence against a woman in a short skirt, or a person who is alone and looks worth mugging. We apply this more to the victim of sexual assault than we do to the mugging victim. We tell a story that says crime is responsive. It can’t resist your open window, your unlocked car, your low cut top. If you can’t expect people to avoid temptation, you tell a story that we’re all basically awful and that perhaps any of us would do the wrong thing given the chance. That’s affirming to those who are inclined to harm others.
This is an especially pernicious idea when it comes to sexual assault. We are too quick to ask what a person could have done to avoid being a victim. Every time we do this, we send out a message that we don’t really expect people to resist temptation. Every ‘stay safe’ message carries a subtext that the woman who isn’t staying safe is pretty much asking for it. Every time we ask what the victim was wearing, we give credence to the idea that clothes justify assault. We reinforce the idea that we cannot expect men to control themselves if they see a woman in a sexy outfit. We keep perpetuating the idea that anyone faced with an attractive woman in an appealing outfit might feel the urge to do something criminal to her. We normalise it.
Too often, we lose the key facts here. 100% of rapes are caused by rapists. All abuse is caused by abusers. Theft is a consequence of people stealing – not of what security measures you had in place. We don’t talk about the likelihood of your attacker being known to you – that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you trusted than by a stranger on the streets. All those safety measures we are encouraged to take don’t work if you’re dealing with someone you thought you could trust.
It’s hard to live fully if you have to organise your life to avoid becoming a victim. Many women are doing this. We need to be much clearer that the responsibility for crime does not lie with the victim, but the perpetrator. Here in the UK, we really need the police to stop telling people what to do to stay safe (invariably aimed at women) and to start being a lot clearer about the legal responsibilities of perpetrators and the things that you are not allowed to do to another human being, no matter what they were wearing at the time.
The best way to avoid being a victim, is not to have anyone feel entitled to attack you. Until we dismantle the things in our culture that create those feelings of entitlement to attack, no amount of doing things to try and stay safe can actually guarantee your safety.