“Don’t get raped!” – The useful myth of personal responsibility in rape culture

“All I’m saying is… be careful.” The phrase often comes across as benign advice, stirred by a feeling of care and concern. It sounds like something a parent would say to their child, or from an experienced hand instructing a trainee. How could anyone have a problem at an attempt to help and warn others?

Context is important, advising someone to wear a seatbelt because there is a random and unpredictable risk of a car accident, would be reasonable and straightforward. But this cautionary logic doesn’t apply to deliberate actions pursued by one group towards another group.

When Stephen Lawrence died on the streets of Eltham, did anyone seriously think to start a campaign to warn black people to “whiten up” before going out at night because of racists roaming the streets? Wouldn’t that reduce risk of racist attacks? The idea that anyone should imprison themselves for their own protection, reveals an absurd logic which punishes the potential victims while simultaneously sanctifies the freedom of the aggressors. Rape is predominately a male societal problem, not one of female personal conduct. Why then is it so often construed otherwise?

Most mornings whilst at work, I enjoy listening to Colourful Radio Breakfast show. I find it good antidote to the Eurocentric and bland offerings from the BBC, and the frivolous banter from other commercial broadcasters. Yesterday during the show, this Daily Mail report came up in a discussion between the two presenters, Henry Bonsu and Juanne “Juju” Fuller. It is poorly written (the 22 year old is consistently referred to as a “girl”) and a dubiously sourced account about a British student, who was allegedly gang raped in Thailand. The presenters agreed that this case “proved” the need for women to protect themselves from becoming a rape victim. Bonsu went on to defend Joanna Lumley who had recently scolded young women for putting themselves at greater risk to rape by acting “laddish”. His reasoning was that though he can look after himself, he avoids getting drunk in public as that would be putting himself at risk of getting “battered” on the streets. He suggests one must be careful.

The reasoning here is that the world we live in is full of violent and manipulative people, ready to prey on actual or perceived weakness. So you can’t expect anyone else to protect you from the jungle that is urban life. Rape is lumped together with random acts of viciousness like being punched by a drunken reveller. But rape is seldom random, it is happens regularly and often. The idea that an individual’s clothing or sobriety can significantly reduce rape is not just misguided, as Zoe Stavri explains, it is dangerous nonsense:

This rape prevention advice is targeted at a very narrow model of rape: the predatory stranger in the dark alley. The vast majority of rapes do not happen this way–it’ll more likely be a friend, a partner, or an acquaintance, and it probably won’t happen in a dark alley. By reinforcing stereotypes about rape, we help maintain rape culture which benefits greatly from the assumption that rape is only a thing which involves a stranger jumping out of a bush.

Slutwalk was invented to combat this pernicious stereotype. Rape is not like burglary, being mugged or getting into a fight after a night out. Rape is much more persistent and systemic. Unlike the other listed crimes, 90% of reported rapes in 2012, the victim knew the identity of their attacker. Putting the emphasis on the victim’s personal responsibility in this context is farcical. But this sick farce is sustained in police investigations and the courts. We know that circumstances in Britain today, the police have sabotaged rape cases, mistreated survivors and investigations and even participate in rape themselves.

In the courts, the defence are able to use the survivor’s sexual history, her clothing, her previous relationship with the man as “mitigating” circumstances. The idea that women need to be told “don’t get raped” is not only incredibly patronising but indicates where authorities think the problem lies, and the sphere that they perceive within their influence. This reasoning though widely accepted is of particular value to the patriarchy that governs the state and society in which we live. It is popularised in society because it is a useful myth which:

  • Absolves male collective responsibility for the prevalance of rape
  • Positions the survivor to share in (or take) the blame of being attacked
  • Normalises rape as “a natural response”
  • Regulates women’s behaviour to accept patriarchy
  • Deflects scrutiny of ruling patriarchal thought that are displayed in the coercive arms of the state

By placing the burden on the victim, authorities can hide the fact that we live in a rape culture, one which routinely blames the survivor and gives attackers free reign. The patriarchal norms and those who benefit from it remain unperturbed as rape is reduced to an “individual matter”, rather than correctly understood as a widespread symptom of a prevailing culture of male impunity and dominance over women. It is for this reason why feminists use the slogan “Don’t rape” instead of “Don’t get raped”, by turning the logic around, they show that the personal responsibility lies with men and this emphasis challenges men (and women) not to enter into rape-apologism.

Nadia Kamil who is doing a year of watching only Bechdel passing films continues in this fine tradition with this video:


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One thought on ““Don’t get raped!” – The useful myth of personal responsibility in rape culture

  1. […] So it was a welcome surprise when Henry Bonsu of Colourful Radio graciously gave Nadia and myself, a platform to make the case against Rape Prevention Advice. We took it up and you can hear our discussion below. This is an edited extract of the show which includes the entire discussion. The rest of the show can be downloaded here Colourful Radio’s RSS archive. I blogged about the background to this discussion before here. […]

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