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A day or two into my freshman year, our dorm was treated to the requisite “safety talk” by one of the security guards.
He surprised me by leading with the theory that if someone wanted to hurt me, specifically, or steal something in particular from my room, there wasn’t much I could do to stop that person.
Super reassuring, Mr. Security Guard. Thank you so much for that pep talk.
Luckily, he went on to clarify that most crimes on college campuses are random in nature, and that by doing a few basic things—such as locking your dorm room door—would-be criminals will often move on to other targets. He never implied that if we neglected to lock our doors that we deserved to get robbed or attacked; he was just inviting us to do whatever was within our control to reduce the likelihood that we might become victims.
Makes sense, right? Park your car under a light rather than at the far end of the lot. Lock up your house when you leave for work. Never use the same password twice. No one who forgets or neglects to do these things deserves to have their car broken into, their house robbed, or their identity stolen—and we wouldn’t dream of blaming those who do. We simply encourage caution and good sense, and hope for the best.
And yet, when we try to talk to young women about how to protect themselves against sexual assault, the notion of victim blaming gets inserted into the conversation almost immediately:
So what if she was wearing a short skirt?
So what if she was drunk?
So what if she went to the party alone, or agreed to go up to his dorm room?
All good points. All true statements. An assault is never, ever a woman’s fault. There is not a single thing about a woman’s behavior that ever gives anyone the right to violate her, and at any point she’s allowed to reverse course and safely extricate herself from a given situation.
But (you knew one was coming, didn’t you?), is being right, or suspecting you would win your rape case in a court of law, comfort enough for a survivor after an assault has taken place and cannot ever be undone?
Just because a man should allow you to leave, doesn’t mean that he will. Surely, if we can counsel our sons regarding the meaning of consent, we can counsel our daughters about how to keep themselves safe—or at the very least boost their chances.
I don’t have any daughters, and I count myself incredibly fortunate to have never even come close to being sexually assaulted. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.”
That is a huge number, people. Imagine your workplace, your school, your neighborhood, your extended family—and then think about how many women in each of those groups are statistically likely to have been assaulted. Go ahead and take it a step further; pick a few and give ‘em a name. Is it your Aunt Pat? Your niece, Emma? Your neighbor, Dawn?
I tell you what, if I did have a daughter, I’d sure as hell give her some tips on how to decrease her likelihood of being the one in that “1 out of every 6” statistic. To begin with, I would encourage her to spend some time thinking about her own sexual health:
>> Is she even ready for sex?
>> Under what conditions would she consider having sex?
>> Does she want sex to occur exclusively within the context of a relationship, or would she be okay sleeping with someone she’s only known for a few days, or even a few hours?
>> Is it okay to have sex if she’s drunk? Without protection?
>> Would she feel comfortable telling someone “no” or “I’m not ready for that” should a situation escalate further than she intended?
>> Has she already had some experiences she’d rather not repeat, and what does she plan to do differently the next time?
>> When she’s an old lady looking back on her sexual history (wait…do old ladies actually do that?), what would she like to be able to say about it?
Not out loud, though. Please. No one wants to hear an old lady reminisce about her sexual history.
I would tell her that while she should theoretically be able to walk down the street naked and remain untouched, the reality is that bare skin and/or tightly wrapped curves can sometimes send an unintended signal. Maybe she’s signaling nothing beyond the fact that the weather is warm, or that she’s a modern, powerful woman who can wear whatever she wants, dammit. But in the same way the Ann Taylor Loft cardigan I wore to my husband’s knee surgery somehow signaled to the nurse that I was his mom and not his wife (um yeah, that actually happened), or my children sometimes put out a distinctly “homeless” vibe with their stained T-shirts and too-short pants, our clothing messages can be received in unintended ways.
Again, is it the woman’s fault? Does that micro miniskirt or exposed cleavage mean a woman craves sexual attention, or that she deserves unwanted sexual attention? It does not. Further, if a woman is dressing to attract sexual attention and she receives it and she’s happy with how the evening plays out—great. Go get it, girl.
But we do a huge disservice to young women when we pretend that miscommunications, misrepresentations, and mixed signals don’t occur—or that they don’t matter because the law is on our side. Instead, why not encourage women to embrace the concept of “mindful dressing,” taking into account their well-thought-out sexual intentions as well as the possible (and sometimes unintended) impact of their clothing choices? What on Earth is to be lost by looking at all of the potential implications (and not just how one’s ass looks in a pair of jeans) head on?
I would tell my daughter that if she’s intoxicated, she cannot legally consent to sexual activity. I would tell her that if something happens while she’s drunk that she did not want to happen, that absolutely qualifies as assault. I would also tell her that once an assault has occurred, having the legal high ground will likely matter very little compared to the trauma of being raped. I would tell her that being drunk straight up puts her at greater risk, and urge her to take additional precautions if she intends to socialize and drink at the same time.
Alcohol.org states that “at least 50 percent of student sexual assaults involve alcohol.” Even if you take assault out of the equation and simply look at the spectrum of behaviors one might simply regret doing while under the influence, it still pays to be mindful of your surroundings and the ways in which you can reduce your own risks.
I would tell my daughter that there is safety in numbers. That she should speak with her friends about the decisions she’s made regarding her sexual health, and ask them to help keep her accountable. We’ve done an admirable job of teaching our young people that when alcohol is involved they should bring along a designated driver. Well, what about a designated “risk manager?” Someone who agrees to stay sober and keep an eye out for potentially dangerous situations, someone who can press “pause” in a moment of indecision and take a friend aside for a timely and courageous conversation.
Though I’m hoping someone will come up with a catchier name than “risk manager.”
As parents, we assess risk for our children because, until they are in their mid-20s, their prefrontal cortex is still developing and they are unable to properly predict the consequences—especially the long-term consequences—of their actions. They don’t like wearing seat belts, eating vegetables, or looking both ways before crossing the street, but as adults we know these actions keep our children safe and so we insist upon them. Alcohol only compounds the effects of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex—and that, my non-existent daughter, is where your tribe comes in.
Friends don’t let friends assess risk while drunk.
I’m not naive. I know that a woman could take every one of these suggestions to heart and still find herself the victim of an assault. Tragically, we can’t prevent them all. But, by encouraging our girls to take mindful precautions and make thoughtful decisions regarding their own behavior we are not victim blaming—we are victim reducing.
We are preventing trauma.
We are empowering women to keep themselves safe.
Talk to your daughters.