This blog post was inspired by a lunch conversation with my fellow bloggers about all the quirky personal safety habits we have acquired. For example: do not park by a van in a parking lot, keep your phone out at night when walking by yourself, or carry pepper spray when walking alone. I check the back of my car every time I get in. We talked about various habits developed throughout our lives in response to the idea that we need to protect ourselves from strangers. I sent an e-mail out to some friends, inquiring whether they participated in daily or frequent safety rituals. I wanted to know, at least anecdotally, whether we were paranoid people or if others also had these habits.
My friends’ responses were surprising and detailed. Here are some of them: pretending to talk on the phone in a loud and fake conversation; changing routes while walking home; pretending to go to bathroom to escape an uncomfortable situation; carrying a Taser; deliberately choosing non-flashy, non-feminine clothing; lying about having a boyfriend; holding keys strategically to use as a potential weapon…and so on.
The lunchtime discussion about protective measures was light-hearted, and felt almost silly (really though, is someone going to hide in the back of my car?). But after reading through my friends’ responses, I felt the weight of these un-mentioned, but frequently exercised, habits. All my friends took various safety measures, learned by habit, advice, experience, or intuition.
I completed a women’s and gender studies minor in my undergraduate degree and worked for years as an advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. I have thought about this a lot: how we, especially women, are taught to think about personal safety and defense. This whole premise, staying safe from strangers/rapists/kidnappers, is based on one of the most fundamental rape myths of our culture: that the most dangerous people to women are strangers. The reality is, most violence against women is committed by someone known to the victim. For instance, approximately 4 out of 5 sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. 1
The measures we take to protect ourselves from strangers are not entirely misplaced, but tend to pull attention away from the more prevalent and pervasive problem: the frequency of domestic and sexual violence crimes committed by acquaintances and partners, and the resulting blame attached to the victim.
Recently, we read a case in Torts that involved a defendant-teacher asking the court to consider a plaintiff, a thirteen-year-old student, to be contributorily negligent because of her voluntary participation in their sexual relationship. The defendants argued it was partially the victim’s fault, and she had a duty to protect herself from sexual abuse. Most of us recognize this for what it is: blatant victim blaming. The court, with one dissenting judge, rejected the argument to encourage a policy that prevents child sexual abuse.
Similarly, a fairly recent case in Montana incensed activists when the judge opined the 14-year-old victim of a rape was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the perpetrator. 2
Although generally our justice system rejects overt victim blaming, it is still embedded in our culture, and sometimes seeps into law enforcement, the legal system, and other systems designed to provide recourse to victims (i.e. college campus reporting functions). The rhetoric of teaching women to keep themselves safe can impliedly cast a sense of duty over women to protect themselves. Therefore, when someone is subjected to violence, the effects of the self-blame, guilt, and shame are devastating. In my experience of working with survivors of violence, this is the single most difficult hurdle in the healing process.
The bystander intervention movement was created partly in response to the “stranger danger” idea and focused on how third-parties can intervene to prevent a potential sexual assault or domestic violence situation. There is increasing awareness surrounding domestic and sexual violence and who commits these crimes, but there is more work to be done.
For now, I will probably continue to check the back of my car. When I have children, I will teach them how to stay safe from strangers, but I will also teach them to recognize red flags in their relationships and various situations. And most importantly, I will always remember to tell them that if something did happen: it would not be their fault.
Resources for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault or their friends and family:
On-Campus: Student Advocacy Resource Center, 24 hour line 243-6559
Off-Campus: YWCA, 24 hour line 542-1944
Wrtten by: Emily Gutierez