Arts & Life

Polarized debate over rape prevention misses the point

By Sandy Klowak

Pitting ideology against reality doesn’t work. In order to effect real change while acknowledging daily challenges, we need a more nuanced approach.

An article by Slate’s Emily Yoffe – provocatively titled College Women: Stop Getting Drunk—has unleashed a firestorm of criticism on the web. Yoffe’s critics accuse her of perpetuating the common and harmful myth that women should be blamed for their own sexual assaults. Yoffe says she’s just trying to protect them, and that a misguided taboo against warning women of the dangers of binge drinking is only facilitating more attacks.

But as the two camps face off over who should assume responsibility for rape prevention, it’s becoming clear there’s a problem with the way this debate is being framed.

The typical counter-argument to ‘tell women not to get so drunk’ is ‘teach men not to rape.’ The problem is that alone, neither of these proscriptions addresses the complexities of personal safety and sexual assault. (For instance, they are both exclusionary and inaccurate because it’s not only women who are raped and it’s not only men who are sexual predators.) Both arguments imply a dangerous oversimplification of the many factors involved in sexual assault, and do a disservice to those making difficult daily choices about their personal safety, by stifling half the discussion.

Polarizing the issue creates only two untenable options for those potentially at risk:

We can act based on a stance of personal preservation that enforces the harmful status quo (“statistically, as a woman, I have a greater chance of getting raped tonight than a man does, so I’m going to restrict my own behaviour”).

Or, we can act based on an ideological stance that supports a non-violent worldview but is out of touch with reality and can sometimes have severe personal consequences (“I shouldn’t have to worry about getting raped when I go out, so I will take no safety precautions”).

It comes down to a choice between playing the very sub-par game that exists and playing the game you wish exists. The former promotes loss of freedom based on fear and stereotyping. The latter potentially sacrifices personal safety for ideological principle. Both choices are extreme and unrealistic. Neither, on its own, is good enough.

Teaching youth to drink responsibly to avoid a variety of dangers is by no means inherently problematic—it’s just smart. Teaching kids to look both ways when they cross the street isn’t victim blaming, nor does the existence of deadbolts imply that we as a society condone home invasion. It’s when the warnings become gender-specific that they veer into dangerous territory.

Much of Yoffe’s article reeks of thinly veiled victim-blaming—something she has a history of doing. But Yoffe also says that taking charge of our own personal safety should be a feminist priority, and she’s right.

One of the problems with the ‘teach men not to rape’ argument– when used to the exclusion of any other solutions– is that it disempowers women by positioning men as active agents while women wait passively for society to change around them. Teaching respect, communication and the complex nuances of healthy consenting sexual relationships to people of all genders (ideally at an early age) is a key part of counteracting what many have termed rape culture—something that is damaging not only to women, but to men as well. But stopping to chat to some kids about the meaning of consent on my way to the bar isn’t going to affect the attitudes of those already there.

People face different forms of danger based on a variety of factors that affect their level of societal privilege (such as gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity) and are forced to modify their behaviour to avoid harm. While this is in no way acceptable, it’s a reality, and ignoring it by deeming it politically taboo to offer safety advice to women is unhelpful and obscures the path to real solutions.

However, ignoring the fact that rapists are the only actual cause of rape (as opposed to alcohol, clothing choices or walking down a darkened street) is also incredibly damaging.

Women shouldn’t have to worry about getting raped, but they do worry. In the long term, change is what we’re fighting for, but in the short term, pragmatism is necessary. In order to be productive, discussions about sexual assault, binge drinking, and violence against women have to acknowledge both sides of the coin. Turning our backs on one half of the issue will only serve to obscure the other.

Sandy Klowak is a Winnipeg writer, tree-hugger and cat lady.