8.8 Editor's Pick
July 25, 2019

Encouraging Common Sense is Not the Same Thing as Victim Blaming.


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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.


author: Allison Banbury

Image: @waylonlewis/Instagram

Image: "The Kissing Booth"/IMDB

Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Rebecca Robertson Jul 30, 2019 8:58am

No, I have a daughter and kids hear enough victim blaming, this advice is so wrong.
“If I had a daughter I would tell her…” doesn’t cut it.

Allison Banbury Jul 30, 2019 5:09am

To Teresa Shea and others: unicorns and rainbows are lovely to contemplate, but they won’t save anyone. Teresa’s vision of the Sacred Feminine is as mesmerizing as it is heartbreaking, given how very far away we are from that being the reality of our society. And to bring 5 year old children into the conversation seems a deliberately obtuse and offensive reading of my article. Jesus. I’m honestly very curious to know what you would tell your own daughter as she embarks on the world of high school parties, or is heading off to college, or moving into her first apartment as a young adult. I get that you’d tell her that she’s the “face of the Divine”–and she is–but would you have any other advice to impart? You advocate for “harsher punishments” while we wait for society to become enlightened (and I don’t disagree with you), but what of our daughters during this in-between time (which I fear will be a long one, as it seems we are slipping farther from the Divine every day)? I am teaching my boys about consent, respect for women, toxic masculinity, intimacy, and the ways in which I expect them to speak up in the face of their peers’ sexist, misogynistic, homophobic comments. But if the 2018 election and its aftermath is any kind of yardstick, something close to half of the families in this country are reveling in the patriarchy and laughing at (or at least accepting of) comments like “grab ’em by the pussy.” What do *you* propose we tell our teens and young adults about keeping themselves safe until the unicorns arrive? Because having rapists serve longer prison sentences–or even getting castrated–sounds like cold comfort to me.

Teresa Shea Jul 29, 2019 3:44pm

In the end what it comes down to is that society itself has to change. Patriarchy has brought the world to the brink of extinction. Not just humans but the Earth itself. There is no respect for the Sacred Feminine in today’s society. (There are a few enlightened, awake males, please don’t latch onto that and miss the rest.) As females we need to stand up and insist by our words and our actions that we are treated with respect and that we too are the face of the Divine. Not by acting in a militant or violent way, but by bringing our own unique talents and strengths to the table. Acting from a place of love and kindness, we could change the world. Now is the time. And…I’m sorry but I am of the opinion that someone who has not been raped should not be telling women where to go, with who, dressed how? and were you drunk? THAT is the exact MALE attitude that has made rape and assault and unequal everything possible. A 5 year old child has done none of those things and rape and assault happens all the time to children. The attitude that a male’s sexuality is paramount and all other humans need to cater to that is disgusting. They CAN and MUST be made to control themselves. MALES need to be taught that their physical needs are pretty low on the priority list in an enlightened society and until that can have time to be effective, harsher punishments need to happen. As child of a farm/ranch family I will say this, and any rancher will tell you this. Too many intact males in the herd cause too much fighting and too much fucking. They are unnecessary to the survival of the species. Maybe it’s too soon for castration….but just sayin.

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Allison Banbury

Allison Banbury, a licensed mental health counselor, works at the University of Delaware’s Center for Counseling and Student Development. In her 27-year career, Allison has worked as an English teacher, dorm parent, school counselor, mindfulness instructor, and dean of students in both public and private school settings, as well as owning her own private practice. She is ecstatically married and the proud (and sometimes frenzied) parent of two sons and two stepsons. Allison enjoys traveling, reading, outings with friends, and spending time outdoors. She has flirted with writing on and off throughout her career, and is hoping Elephant Journal turns out to be a great fit!