Oct 21, 2013

Commonsense, victim blaming, staying safe or letting men off the hook. Or all/none of the above.

Well. Another online opinion piece has "re-ignited" the "debate" about what to tell young people about avoiding rape and assault. It's Mia Freedman's, and you can read it here. Perhaps unusually for a Mama Mia piece, it has quite a good comment thread as well (although by the time you check it, that might have changed).

The short version:

  • Mia Freedman, Caitlin Moran and probably most other people think it's only prudent to caution young women/daughters not to get too drunk while out at night to reduce their risk of rape
  • Others argue that this is "victim blaming" and lets men off the hook
  • Mia Freedman says the division of opinion is basically between older women who have daughters (motto: commonsense) and younger women who don't (motto: Slutwalk).

I have daughters, and as my mother did before me, I will certainly caution them on risks of sexual assault and teach them the usual ways to (hopefully) stay safe.


It was not until I read three opinion pieces this year that I finally understood - really understood - the point people have been making about "victim blaming" and the problems with "staying safe."

These were a bit of an epiphany for me:

They shouldn't have been. The first one points out things that had made me angry for years, especially when I was younger. The costs of always "staying safe" are high: reduced mobility, fewer opportunities, more money spent (taxis), and the biggie: the massive and constant psychic and emotional energy invested at all times in "being careful", weighing up risk, etc. But please do read the article - it says all this and more much, much better than I can.

The third one explains the (in hindsight obvious) logical error in comparing "avoiding rape" to "you lock your window to prevent burglary" which, I admit, I hadn't been able to figure out for myself.

I had felt angry about all these issues forever, but still hadn't quite got the link to the arguments made against the "commonsense/staying safe" brigade until I read these three posts.  Until then, I admit I was one hundred per cent with Mia Freedman, Caitlin Moran, and every other cop who comes out and says the same things albeit far less diplomatically.

But it's a slippery slope from those arguments (which really are a kind of common sense after all) to the comments made by some clerics here and in the UK a few years ago (and no doubt still!), that women dressed "immodestly" are like "uncovered meat" that attract voracious animals.  (It's an interesting exercise googling "women like uncovered meat" to find that link, by the way. This seems to be a simile on fairly high ongoing rotation).

So, look. In a nutshell:

  • Of course every mother (yes, even a feminist one!) is going to teach her daughters how to be careful and stay safe
  • Parents teach their sons this stuff too - sure, to a lesser degree, but that is changing, I think
  • Taking basic measures to stay safe (such as avoiding getting too drunk, not accepting rides with strangers and so on), are indeed common sense, and are not victim blaming.  
  • But many of the things we teach our daughters to help them "stay safe" don't work, or are irrelevant. (See statistics: who really gets raped and where?)
  • The focus of any public safety campaign should always be on teaching men not to attack/hit/rape

See? Easy.


  1. Do sons really get taught about the dangers and how to avoid rape? I am not so sure it is either taught or needed to be taught. My theory is women should not have to be taught how to avoid rape. The practical is if I had a daughter, I most certainly would teach her how to avoid rape.

    1. I think parents are starting to teach sons about the dangers of getting drunk, and how to avoid fights, car accidents etc. Of course many always have.
      Yes your theory vs practical point - I think this is how most people (including me) tackle it.

    2. Andrew; of course it needs to be taught! Haven't you read newspaper articles about older females raping or otherwise sexually assaulting young boys? There was a teacher who involved herself with a young student when she should have known better, he was afraid to say anything. My grandson was taught safety tactics at a young age, for instance -be aware who else is in there when walking into public toilets. Scream if anyone tries to touch you etc.

    3. You are right in saying it should not need to be taught. Unfortunately, there will always be rapists. Just like there will always be drunks, addicts, scammers, murderers and so on.

  2. I now have two children of legal drinking age - one son and one daughter. I give them both the same message - drinking to excess decreases your ability to make good, safe decisions, or in some cases, any decision at all. Alcohol first affects the frontal lobe which looks after the risk management part of the brain. And it is not fully developed until beyond 20. Telling my daughter to be careful with alcohol is no different to telling my son other than she is more at risk of sexual assault. It is not victim blaming, it is common sense. Boys who drink and then get into a car driven by a drunk driver without wearing seat belts and get killed? Do we think they we2re stupid? yes we do, but no one carries on about victim blaming in those circumstances. I want both of my children to be as safe as possible - that means not putting themselves in risky circumstances whether it is risk of sexual assault or anything else. Good on Mia Freedman for stating the obvious.

  3. Brilliant post. And how I wish that there were simple solutions which worked. Some of the myths which abound in our culture are dangerous. Stranger danger is an obvious one, which glosses over the ugly reality.

    1. Very true. And while it's risky for anyone to get too drunk, statistically speaking it's not a factor in most rapes. It's good that these discussions are being had constantly now - that's new at least.

  4. I've never been a drinker/club goer, so that's not an issue for me. On the other hand while I was aware of rape and that it could happen, I never worried, I went where I pleased, when I pleased, alone most of the time, and after dark too.
    Now, it's a different story. I'm older, no longer as fast on my feet, I couldn't run away or scream very loudly for help if I had to. It isn't fear, exactly, that keeps me home after dark and away from places I once would have gone to without thinking. It's the knowledge that my body has limitations that it didn't have before.

    1. I agree River, we get naturally more cautious as we got older.I was pretty "I go where I like" when I was younger, although always keeping an eye/ear out for trouble. I sprinted away from a couple of bad situations, which is not in my power now!



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