Staying “Safe” | Vol. 3 / No. 31.5

So it’s been a very, very long week, and I’ve had a couple of days where the bad news just keeps coming. I’m filled with more rage than I can stand at the entire Brock Turner debacle, but one thing that the terrible rapist, and the terrible judge, and the terrible father kept reminding me of is the broken distribution system for placing the burden of rape. Turner’s father, and Turner’s judge, both act as if the rape Turner committed is something that happened to him, not to his victim. His “20 minutes of action” shouldn’t be held against him. The poor dear. His victim delivered a powerful statement, one in which she makes it clear that at many points it was her actions that were on trial, not his. She recounted the questions she was asked about herself, and her actions, the night of her assault:

These questions re-emphasize what has been a long-standing tradition: making women responsible for avoiding rape, rather than making men responsible for being rapists. The questions suggest that if the victim had done less drinking, had been wearing a different outfit, had done something different with her cell-phone, then she wouldn’t have been raped. That the fact that she was drunk enough to not remember the incident was de-facto consent. In essence, her bodily autonomy wasn’t violated because someone had done something to her: it was violated because she didn’t keep herself safe.
As Jessica Williams made clear in a hilarious and heartbreaking clip a few years ago, women are asked to essentially be on constant guard against sexual attack. We “spend [our] whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace.” And we are asked to protect ourselves, so that others do not have to police our own actions. This makes it the duty of the victim to be vigilant, and a successful attack on her person becomes a “failure” of her attempts to safeguard herself. As an illustration of this mindset, I wrote the following piece for a creative writing class many years ago. It is an imitation of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” But rather than creating a list of instructions on how to be a girl/woman, I made a list of all of the things my mother told me to do to keep myself safe (presumably from pedophiles in my childhood and rapists in my adulthood), from the time I was in kindergarten to the time I left for college (I’m sure I missed a few of them). I know my mother loves me very much, and that this was all my mother could think to do to make sure I was safe in a dangerous world. But it made me grow up afraid of the world, and I may still one day find myself face to face with an attacker, all of my efforts for naught. I may find myself, like Jane Doe, defending what I wore, and what I said, and what I remember or don’t remember. And like Jane Doe, I may see a courtroom have more sympathy for my rapist than for me. So to avoid that, I’m supposed to keep myself safe.

Never take a ride from strangers; if you see a man watching tell a teacher; if someone says they know me, make them say the code word, “Purple Goldfish”; wait for your sister inside the building; wait for your friends to walk home from school with you; don’t wear things that have your name on it, someone could say your name and you’d think you knew them; you have to be less trusting honey, there are people in the world who will try to take advantage of you; tell me when you’re going for a walk, don’t go very far; always lock the door, lock all the windows; keep the shades drawn so people can’t look at you; don’t open the door without looking through a window to see who it is; don’t answer the phone when I’m gone, if you do don’t say I’m not home say I’m in the shower never say that you’re alone; if you’re at a friend’s house and you go somewhere call me; the internet is full of creeps, I really don’t like you being on it, please be careful, I’m just trying to keep you safe; never tell people your real name in a  chatroom; never give out your information on the internet; never put a picture of yourself on the internet; never go places that don’t have any lights; avoid places like alleys; if something ever happens try to make a lot of noise, but don’t fight back to the point you’ll get hurt, nothing’s worth your life; never pick up hitchhikers, you don’t know that what they’re going to do; keep your keys in your hand when you walk to your car so you can defend yourself; look in your car before you get in it; lock your car before you start it; if you think you’re being followed stop in someone else’s driveway; wear makeup that looks like you’re not wearing makeup at all, it’s better to be subtle than to stand out; if you are going to a party, make sure you have friends with you; take your own drink, never let it out of your hand, carry a Dr. Pepper in your purse I don’t care that’s what you need to do; if you start feeling dizzy or drunk get your friends to take you home; never trust someone else to do what you can do for yourself; never trust someone not to take advantage of you if you’re not being careful, you have to be careful honey, you have to be safe.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain all the things wrong with firing teachers for talking about rather common body parts, she studies gender in  popular culture.


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