Stop telling women to avoid rape

By Amanda Graham, The Ottawa Citizen, OCT. 27, 2013

Over the last few weeks, I have read numerous articles about women being sexually assaulted in Ottawa. Women have been attacked doing things most of us do every day, such as commuting home from work, walking in their neighbourhoods and waiting for the bus.

I also read Coun. Diane Deans and the Ottawa police’s statements on how women in Ottawa can avoid being targeted by rapists. Don’t go out at night, they tell us. If you do, you should walk in pairs.

I get angry when I hear these warnings. I have been told my whole life how to avoid being raped. I think all women have. Don’t go out alone at night, we are told. Avoid underground parking lots, don’t wear clothes that attract the “wrong” attention, don’t assist strangers in need, don’t take shortcuts, alternate your daily routine and vary the routes you take to school or work, walk with your keys between your fingers to defend yourself if needed, monitor the motions of the men around you, if a man is walking towards you on the street you must cross the street or change direction, walk down the middle of the road, don’t wear your hair in a ponytail because it can be used to drag you into the bushes, and on and on.

I’m sick of it.

I did many of these things and so did a lot of my friends. Guess what? Rape still happened. What we discovered was that the rapists were not strangers in the dark. They were friends, dates and schoolmates. Sometimes they were members of our families. The rapists were people we trusted.

Statistics Canada found that women were twice as likely to be assaulted by a man they know than by a stranger. That means that, statistically, the man who is offering to walk you home and keep you safe is more likely to be your rapist than a stranger hiding in the trees. These warnings and rules we were taught only serve to make women who are raped feel guilty, blame themselves and constantly wonder if there was something they could have done to avoid it. We blame ourselves because we are constantly told our behaviour is the only way to stop rape. This week we were told again.

We need to rethink the idea that women must stop their own rape. Women don’t do anything to deserve or attract rape. They are not to blame. Rapists are to blame. Period.
Walking in pairs does not keep us safe. It keeps us scared.

In her famous book The Story of Jane Doe, the woman who sued Toronto police for negligence after her sexual assault asks what would happen if we asked men to restrict and alter their lives to stop rape instead of women changing our behaviour.
Consider a warning that looked like this:

MEN: Stay off the buses. One of you is raping women, and we don’t know and can’t tell which one. So until we find out, stay at home, do not use underground parking or take shortcuts through the park. You should not travel at night unless you are accompanied by a woman.

What would the reaction be in Ottawa to a warning like this? Would men be upset that they could not walk on their own streets? Would they ask how on earth they were going to safely commute back and forth from work at this time of year when the darkness falls so early? Would they protest their lack of freedom in their own city? Would they find these rules completely absurd and impractical?

Well the same is true for us.

It is not women’s responsibility to stop rape in Ottawa. It is everyone’s responsibility. If women can only travel during the day and in pairs, then this means the city is fundamentally unsafe. Half the citizens do not have the same freedom of movement as the other half.

We need to find ways to make transit safe for women so we can wait for a bus without being assaulted. We need to find ways to make our streets safe for women to walk at night and we need to find ways to make our schools, workplaces, churches, homes and other spaces safe. Believe women who say they were raped.

Challenge men and women who make rape jokes or comments that blame women. Join groups that work to end violence against women, mentor and teach young boys about how to be men in ways that don’t involve degrading or abusing girls and women. Teach everyone that yes means yes and no means no.

Both women and men should work toward a world without rape. This city belongs to all of us.

Amanda Graham works for the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa.