For the last few days I've been preoccupied with rape. It's not a very nice topic to spend time thinking about but it's one that's very much at the fore of New Zealand's public consciousness at the moment so it's not so surprising that I'd be dwelling on this a bit. In fact, I woke up at 2.30 this morning with a swirling maelstrom of rape-related thoughts demanding my attention and had a bloody hard time getting back to sleep, so this post will be me getting a few ideas off my chest about that. If that's an upsetting topic for you because it has directly affected you or someone you care about then you might want to come back tomorrow. I completely understand.
I am a 38 year-old woman and I have never been the victim of a serious sexual assault or rape.
The fact that my initial impulse was to include the word "luckily" in that statement says a lot about my expectations as to how the world works, especially for women.
I'm not an expert on rape by any stretch of the imagination and what follows are just my own thoughts which have been screaming through my head with an increasingly shrill and incredulous tone, because I'm more and more concerned about how we, as a culture view rape. Despite my lack of experience with rape there are certain things I know to be true and it seems that these things, though they seem self-evident to me, are actually not common knowledge to some and this is A Very Big Problem.
So here's what I know and if you disagree with any of the following you need to take a good long hard look at yourself and ask where that's coming from.
There is no "rape outfit" - Short skirts, knee-high boots, a daring amount of cleavage. None of these cause rape to happen. I have at various times sported all of these and as I mentioned, rape was not a natural or actual consequence. The lack of rape that occured the last time I wore a short skirt was not some failure in the natural order. I'm pretty sure that it was just because there weren't any rapists nearby at the time.
"Risky" behaviours don't cause rape - Although I'm a bit of a boring old sod now, in the past I have done some decidedly unclever things. I have been so drunk I couldn't take care of myself in any fashion. I have, when out at night, become separated from friends. I have been alone with men who I didn't know nearly well enough. I've walked home alone at night through "dodgy" parts of town. I still didn't get raped. The reason? Because nobody decided to rape me on those occasions. This is something I'm pleased about, but the difference between it happening and not happening didn't have anything to with my choices but those of the people around me.
There is not such thing as being too old/young/unattractive to be raped - It's a sorry fact but there isn't a section of society to which you can belong that might keep you safe from becoming a rape victim. Children are raped. Retirees are raped. Men and boys are raped. And yes, sometimes teenage girls are raped. It's nice to think "that could never happen to me" but the truth is it could. It probaby won't, but it could. And rape is certainly not a consequence of being attractive. If it were wouldn't we all go out of our way to be as physically unappealing as possible?
Rape can happen anywhere - You can be raped in your own home, at a friend's house, at work, in a park, at school, at a party. There isn't a specific geography that makes rape more likely. The deciding factor that determines where a rape will occur... is the location of the rapist. Without one in the immediate vicinity your chance of being raped drops to zero. Even if you're running around in the skimpiest outfit you own.
Rapists look like normal people - Sadly there is no obvious trait that lets the rest of us know that someone is a rapist. A rapist can be handsome. A rapist can be charming with a good sense of humour. A rapist can be someone you love and trust. A rapist can be someone you've previously had consensual sex with. A rapist can be a family member or friend or workmate. A rapist can be a complete stranger. A rapist can be young or old, rich or poor and of any ethnicity or religion.
As far as I'm concerned the above are solid, unimpeachable facts so why anyone would consider that it's okay to turn the blame for a rape back onto the victim, whilst willfully ignoring the above is quite frankly mindboggling to me. It is simply not acceptable in a modern society like ours to spout that kind of nonsense. This kind of attitude actually makes it easier for rapists to get away with their vile crimes by creating an environment in which victims will not report rape because they fear being shamed and guilted in this way. That's right. This kind of rubbish actually helps no one...except rapists.
And it's all very well for me to get self-righteously annoyed about this but what are we going to do about it?
Some have suggested donating to critically underfunded groups like Rape Crisis and that's never going to be a bad option. But I also think we need to take some personal responsibility to, when we hear someone expressing these kinds of wrong-headed victim-blaming opinions, to just shut that s**t down.
I'm not just talking about ill-informed Cretaceous Period radio jocks either, but your boss, or your otherwise quite nice uncle, or your mum or that lady in the queue at the supermarket scanning the headlines of the newspaper. Because too often I think we let this sort of thing slide because it's just a little bit too uncomfortable or awkward for us to deal with. It's much easier to just murmur uncomfortably and sidle away and so people think that this way of approaching rape, assuming that the victim must in some way have invited their own downfall, is perfectly fine. It's not. It's bloody twisted, cruel and unjust and I hate it to my very core and will be saying so in future. Awkwardness or no. It's up to you how you approach this. A gentle reminder that that's not how rape actually works is probably better than throwing a wobbly though I know which I'm probably more inclined towards.
Maybe you've even had thoughts yourself that certain victims of rape or sexual assault were "very silly to let themselves get into that situation". If that's the case then you need to take a step back and shake those thoughts out of your head. Because the only people who cause rape to happen are rapists. But a lot of the people who make it easier for them to continue, aren't.