Rape: No more skirting around the issue

JLumleyby Sarah Walker

Last week several stories featuring public comments about rape of women, and the subsequent criticism of those comments, made the news. While articles printed the comments considered below, and offered some critique, I felt that they failed to critique them from the point of view of a young woman who goes on nights out or, indeed, challenge the wider assumptions that still underlie society’s approach to rape in 2013. 

What comments?

Joanna Lumley, national treasure and spokeswoman on many issues, advised her audienceDon’t look like trash, don’t get drunk, don’t be sick down your front, don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight. This is bad.” Insightful, I’m sure you’ll agree. She continued, “I promise it is better to look after yourself properly  …  don’t be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress with no money to get a taxi home because somebody will take advantage of you – either rape you, or they’ll knock you on the head or they’ll rob you.”

Mr Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester, while advising that women should dress for a night out so that they can escape an attacker, chose to cite “short skirt[s]” as an impediment to a successful escape from the rapists the police can’t protect them from. Another unsupported assertion that clothing and rape are inextricably linked. Now, if I were in the habit of engaging in rape-prevention-based clothing choices then I’d say to Mr Graham that I find it far easier to run in a short skirt than a knee length pencil skirt and suggest to him he try out both options before discussing their merits in future. But this is all beside the point.

Where are they going wrong?

The real problem with these comments is that they all focus on what the woman should do to avoid becoming another rape victim. I fully expect there to be a handbook somewhere advising women on “how to avoid being raped” – maybe with illustrations of suitable outfits and nightclub appropriate running shoes?

A woman isn’t raped because she is wearing a short skirt. She is raped because a man decides to rape her.

A woman should be able to wear what she wants, like a man can. She should be able to walk whatever route home she chooses without being in fear.

I wonder if Richard Graham MP knows the “text” safety mechanism so many young women, on their way home after a night out, feel the need to resort to. How many young women have said, “text me when you get home so I know you got there safely”? We shouldn’t have to say that. We shouldn’t have to plan our nights out (outfits or routes home) based on fear.

So here’s a new idea for Mr Graham, Ms Lumley and the next ill-informed person who decides to provide “advice” on rape: why don’t you aim the message at men and try to stop them from committing rape in the first place?   

What can we do?

The UK government have certainly begun efforts targeted at reaching teenage men with brilliant adverts such as this one.

The main problem is that these are just short-lived campaigns and, in my opinion, do not go far enough. Even this advert fails to target important issues such as self-esteem and what we should expect from a relationship – subjects never discussed when I attended school yet at the core of teen domestic violence and rape. What we need is a societal change in attitude and schools can play a big part in this. Wasted hours in PSHCE classes filling in forms to have a computer programme “predict” your chosen career could instead be spent having meaningful discussions on human dignity, equality and respect for each and every other person – whatever their gender, choice of dress or state of drunkenness.

No case has so strongly indicated public outrage, and ill-informed comments, about rape than the tragic case of the 23 year old girl raped and murdered on a bus in Dehli. Guru Asaram Bapu said “the girl was also responsible” referring to women as the “weaker sex”, whilst several political leaders cited “Westernisation” affecting the behaviour of women. Dr. Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research, stated that he felt these comments represented a “deep-seated mentality which creates a culture and traditions that are oppressive to women.” But this is not a culture unique to India.

A recent video in America rightly caused alarm. It showed a college student laughing and joking having seen a news story about a group of men allegedly raping a woman, saying things such as “they raped her harder than that cop raped Marcellus Wallace in ‘Pulp Fiction’”. After several minutes, one voice off camera says “this isn’t funny”. Another challenges the comments saying, “But what if that was your daughter?”

It’s not only some Indian religious and political leaders and young American college students who fail to understand or show respect for victims of rape. A recent report by Human Rights Watch revealed widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases by the Washington DC Metropolitan police, with one survivor stating “reporting to the police was far more traumatizing than the rape itself” and another saying she was told by that police that “they did not want to waste their time with me”. Worse still, the report identified institutional tolerance for this kind of inappropriate behaviour in relation to sexual assault.

Clearly, in India, the UK and the US, many young men, and older ones too, do not believe that women deserve respect; even those in power tasked with the role of giving women a voice or ensuring that rape victims are heard, understood and receive justice. This attitude is wrong and it needs to change now so that future generations of young men know that a woman is not there to satisfy a need but that she too is a human being, deserving of respect. Young men must know what consent is, how to ask for it and that if it is not given they must have the self-control to respect the wishes of the woman.

Desmond Tutu, in a 2012 blog post on The Elders website, wrote a message to the young men of today, titled “Let us measure up as men” … Far more preferable than using the length of a girls skirt to measure a woman. Desmond called “on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women. It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men”.

Concluding comments

It is clear that comments like those of Joanna Lumley and Richard Graham are not only misguided but also wrong and do nothing to help prevent women being raped. We must end this outdated emphasis on women as clueless victims who need to behave more carefully and focus instead on raising a society of men who know that rape is wrong, who respect women as equals and who will stand up for the rights of women, by integrating these important messages into education and reinforcing them in our legal system.

  1. John D said:

    Sarah: I am a man and I agree with every word you say above. It is wrong for men to lack self-control or to engage in criminal conduct – for that is what the act of rape is: criminal conduct. Someone in the article above is asked “What if it were your daughter?” One could add: wife, sister, aunt, mother, grandmother and others to the question. Where I live, it is not unusual to see young women going in to the town centre on weekend evenings, often wearing just a dress and no coat. They often totter along on high heeled shoes. Personally, I think they ought to wear something warmer and more comfortable, especially after the tragic case recently of a young woman who died within sight of her front door after walking miles along snow-covered roads to get home. It is a matter of personal choice as to how women and men choose to dress themselves. It may not always constitute wise choice but it is their choice and no one else’s to make.
    Men also need to ask themselves how they would feel and react if they were raped anally on a night out?
    Ultimately, rape of anyone – adult or child – is a crime of assault. It was not requested not acceded to. Just because someone is slightly the worse for wear – perhaps due to over-consumption of alcohol – that is no excuse whatsoever to subject them to a criminal assault. Indeed, in my mind, the fact that they subject an unwell person to a criminal assault makes them even more detestable than a criminal who assaults someone who is in normal helath and who may have some ability to defend themselves. Rapists are criminals and cowards. I have never raped anyone in my life and I consider it thoroughy uncivilized to engage in such pathetically criminal and exploitative conduct.

  2. Sarah Walker said:

    Thanks for your comment John. I hope that many men do agree with what I say above and only hope that more will in the future.
    Sadly, I do not think this change in societal attitude will come about unless more is done, by way of education of young people (girls and boys) and removal of the ‘blame’ ridiculously placed at the door of those who are raped simply because they chose to ‘let their defences down’ by wearing high heeled shoes or getting drunk, as many others (who are lucky to not suffer that fate) do.

  3. trampshining said:

    I’m outraged by comments about rape which imply a complicity of women who wear minis or whatever is considered exciting to the animal in men. Rape is rape – a violent sexual attack – and is a terrible crime and there are no mitigating circumstances, ever.

  4. John D said:

    trampshining: I do not think you should lump all men together as rapists. As I have stated above, I have never engaged in such conduct; nor, I believe, have the vast majority of men. It can be and is used as a weapon of power and of war in some circumstances. The horrendous conduct of poorly trained and poorly disciplined toops in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and other war fronts reveals that rape is a deliberate military tactic, which is disgusting and to be completely condemned. In these “theatres” there are also cases of male upon male rape too. Please do not think that all men are rapists or potential rapists. That is to assume that all men are criminals or potential criminals, which is clearly not true either. It is the cowards and the bullies who abuse their powers and abuse others – whether men or women, children or adults – who need to be confronted. Overall, I have a fairly tolerant attitude towards occasional breaches of the law but one area I believe we should be intolerant towards is physical assault, particularly of a sexual nature. The offenders, in my honest opinion, should be jailed for life after conviction and never ever allowed out into normal society ever again. They are just too much of a risk to normal society.

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