Rape-tolerant society: Leaves men who rape confident they can get away with it Print E-mail
The Sydney Morning Herald -- Saturday February 3, 2007

One violent crime and the female victim: considered guilty until proven innocent

Emily Maguire

If you're a woman, chances are you've received at least one version of the "how to not get raped" email. Even if you haven't, you will be familiar with the contents, because it's the same stuff you read in the newspaper whenever there's a known sex-attacker on the loose. It's the same stuff the women's magazines publish under headings like "How to stay safe".

Again and again, women are told that we can avoid rape if we don't go out alone, don't get drunk, carry our car keys as a weapon, take self-defence classes, don't dress revealingly, don't talk to strangers, and on and on. We get it. We live it. And we still get raped.

Women get raped sober and drunk. They get raped when they're out and when they're home. They get raped wearing short skirts and wearing burqas. They get raped by men they know and by men they don't know. If one woman avoids rape by using her self-defence skills, a woman unable to defend herself gets raped instead. Whatever women do or don't do, men continue to rape them.

Here's a radical suggestion: direct the rape prevention message to men. Write emails and advice columns that say: don't rape. Don't rape drunk women, solitary women, sleeping women, flirtatious women, any women. Seriously, just don't.

Men who rape may be in the minority, but that's no reason not to direct the message to all men. Not a single woman has caused her own rape, not ever, and yet women are bombarded with advice that can do nothing except cause our would-be rapist to find a different victim.

Rape is a male crime. There are female rapists but they are so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Acknowledging this in no way minimises the suffering of their victims, nor does it excuse the perpetrators. It does, however, stop us from pretending that rape is a gender-neutral crime and thus allows us to confront those responsible for most rapes.

There is a culture of acceptance about the rape of women. This becomes clear when we think about the way male-to-male rape is perceived. Male-to-male rape is seen, rightly, as a horrific, unprovoked crime. The victims are never blamed for putting themselves in harm's way by getting drunk or walking down a street alone. Men are not lectured on how to behave so as not to attract rapists.

Consider why rape is thought to be more serious if the victim is a straight man or a female virgin. The thinking is clearly that a person who has sex with men willingly in other circumstances shouldn't be so upset at "having sex", albeit unwillingly, in another circumstance. The huge misconception here is that rape is just a rougher form of sex. It isn't. Rape is to sex what being beaten unconscious is to peacefully falling asleep. It is an act of violence visited upon a person's body and it is as traumatic for a sexually active woman as it is for a virginal one or a man.

This same misconception about rape-as-sex is evident in discussions over consent. Rape, by definition, cannot be committed with the victim's consent, yet this question comes up again and again. When a woman is raped she must prove she has not consented. What did she do to stop her attacker? Did she fight hard enough, say no often enough, scream loud enough? Wasn't she dressed like she wanted to be violently penetrated? Didn't her drunkenness indicate she was up for anything? The answers to these questions are often used in lieu of evidence to determine that an alleged rape was just a big misunderstanding. If only the woman had been clearer about not wanting to be raped…

Am I arguing that women shouldn't be held responsible for their behaviour? No. If a woman drinks to excess then falls over in the street, loses her wallet and vomits all over herself, she has only herself to blame. But rape is not a consequence of getting drunk. It's a consequence of a man deciding to rape someone.

Likewise, if a woman commits a crime while drunk - driving a car or assaulting someone, say - she should be held responsible. But being raped is not a crime; raping someone is. In no other situation do we hear the victim being told to take responsibility for the criminal's actions.

Telling women they're responsible for rape doesn't keep them safe; it just keeps them scared. It also lets rapists know they can get away with their crime as long as they pick the right victim - one who "makes herself vulnerable" by refusing to live according to the edicts of a rape-tolerant society.

Emily Maguire's most recent book is The Gospel According to Luke (Brandl & Schlesinger).