Thursday, October 31, 2013

Skirts don't cause rape. Rapists do.

A series of sexual assaults at the University of British Columbia are all over the news this week, and tonight some students held a rally to speak out against rape culture, and protest how police responses focus on women's actions (I did not attend this event, so I won't be speaking about anything that happened on campus this evening).

The comments on the event's Facebook page, however, are troublesome. In responding, yes, I fed a troll. Sometimes, though, the trolls dig up the skeletons that people with privilege hastily and improperly bury; we might as well dust off and reconstruct those skeletons, and have them out in the open.

"What if the sexual assaults were actually murders? Would we be mad at UBC telling us to be careful? Absolutely not. We would be vigilant and would see it more of just trying to protect ourselves."

I firmly believe that if these assaults were murders, the campus would be in lock-down mode by now, until the perpetrator was found. Security would be exceptionally visible. At present, it is not - I went to UBC for a concert on Saturday evening, and never once saw a police officer or security guard. Police telling students to be careful is unhelpful. Students know to be careful, but many of us have learned the hard way that being careful is not enough to prevent rape. 

One young man posted an article that pointed out the commonalities between all the victims thus far. According to, "all the victims were women, they were all wearing skirts, and they were all approached from behind." The man who linked to this article used this information to encourage his peers not to wear skirts, for the time being, and vehemently (albeit ineffectively) defended his position against the numerous people, myself included, who objected to this.
"If black people wearing hoodies, and only them, were being targeted and beaten by a random attacker, would you criticize someone who said "wearing hoodies for the time being is a bad idea"?"

Newsflash to this man - people did make such suggestions after Trayvon Martin was shot. But those suggestions, like his point about skirts, miss the point entirely. Trayvon's murder was not about his clothing, but how a violent man perceived his clothing in connection with his race. These sexual assaults are not about women wearing skirts (and indeed, that detail could just be a coincidence), but about the assumptions that a potential rapist makes about women wearing skirts, and about women in general. If everyone executed by a prison firing squad was wearing an orange jumpsuit, surely we would recognize that the problem was not the uniform, but the prison system itself.

"Sure, we should educate men not to rape. But what do we do with the mentally unstable, who can't be taught? What should the women do during the time in which education is still being applied and the unstables are still out at large?"

I am concerned about the implication that "unstables" "at large" are generally responsible for sexual assault. People who have mental illnesses are, by far, more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crimes. As well, many rapists do not necessarily have a mental illness, but instead grew up in a culture that normalizes sexual assault. Or they may have a mental illness, but that illness is not likely the cause of their violence. That being said, someone who attacks strangers certainly has a problem.
We need to support one another. We need to check in with our friends, and make sure that they are safe. We need to create a safe space for survivors of violence who are triggered by these events. Women walking at night don't need to be told to stay vigilant - most of us already are. And note that the women who were attacked fought back. Women are going to keep on fighting back, but we shouldn't have to fight alone. Yes, this man may have a mental illness, and this is exactly why there need to be better social supports and community services. It's unlikely that this was someone who was never troubled before and then, out of the blue, started attacking women. We need an infrastructure that will notice warning signs of people who might become violent, and intervene before they hurt somebody.

“Often being vulnerable is one of the characteristics. Maybe if they were intoxicated? That’s another way of a person being vulnerable.”

So says psychologist Bill Coleman. What he ignores is that an entangled rope of rape culture and misogyny make women vulnerable. I don't know if the women involved in the assaults at UBC were drunk, but intoxication is beside the point. Being intoxicated makes everyone vulnerable - but without rape culture, that vulnerability would be an increased risk of choking and accidents, not violence.

So many people are painting this as a matter of one violent man and a handful of unfortunate, vulnerable, or careless women. There seems to be this myth that rape culture is only applicable for things like "date rape" (I hate that term), or parties where young men "take advantage" of intoxicated girls. Rape culture is more than that. Rape culture is when men make suggestions about women's behaviour, without offering tangible support, joining us in resisting, and asking what they can do to help. Rape culture is pretending that this is an individual issue, rather than a systemic one, and ignoring where systems of privilege intersect. Rape culture is when trans* voices are pushed out of the conversation. Rape culture is when people argue that attempted rape, or non-penetrative sexual assault, is "not as bad." Rape culture is when white men ignore black women's experiences of their gender and race intersecting and contributing to violence. And rape culture is not abstract. Rape culture does perpetuate rape. If you are laughing at it or denying it, you are part of the problem.

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