Finding Balance: Enabling women to protect themselves or the perpetuation of rape myths and sexualized violence.
By Grace Lore & Kelsey Wrightson
With four reported stranger attacks at the University of British Columbia from Spring to Fall 2013, sexual assault has been in the spot light. The University and RCMP responded with a series of public messages, signage warnings, and safety campaigns., yet the bulk of these responses reproduced gender bias. Specifically, solutions overwhelmingly targeted women’s behavior and attitudes, rather than those of the perpetrators. The result supplies yet one more example of the “victim blaming” that so often pervades public culture.
Press releases and email alerts to students from the RCMP, the managing director of Student Development Services, the Vice-President Students, and the University President told women not to walk alone at night, don’t let your friends walk alone, and to stay “extra vigilant”. Such instructions were followed by the offer of pink whistles for help in case of attack. While they may offer some protection in a culture rife with sexualized violence, such “solutions” miss the point. It is perpetrators that constitute the ‘problem’ not women.
Unfortunately, targeting the wrong sex is the predominant cultural response to sexualized violence. Resilient rape myths “that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women” (Lonsway and Fitzgerald) effectively limit women’s freedom. Commonplace admonitions about intemperance and dress invoke an essentially anti-feminist politics of female containment. Very typically, in a 15 November 2013 National Post article, Jonathan Kay encouraged women “to fight date rape by staying sober,” bluntly arguing that “being the drunkest woman on girls’ night out is akin to being the slowest gazelle on the savannah”. In January 2011, a police officer at the University of Toronto evoked similar prejudices in warning students “not to dress like sluts” if they wanted to avoid rape, an observation that set off world-wide “slut walks”. The common petitions for women watch their drinks, walk in pairs, and stay aware of their surroundings are obvious reflections of the continued failure to uphold women’s right to be free from violence.
Responses to assaults contribute to compromising women’s civil rights. In an interview with a Vancouver radio station following the four UBC attacks, Brent Turvey, an Alaskan forensic scientist and criminal profiler, undermined survivors’ claims, suggesting they “didn’t sound like real behavior” because “rapists don’t get their victims by the hips”. This statement, which discounts the fact that rapists grab their victims in all sorts of ways, in effect constitutes a “second assault” arising out of “social attitudes and nors about rape” (Ulman). This recurring pattern of ready disbelief encourages post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following assaults (Ullman and Filipas) and self-blaming by women (Kelly and Torres). Given the complex physical and psychological toll, it is little wonder that lower rates of reporting are found (Heath, Lynch, Fritch, and Wong). Finally, the focus on the stranger attacks ignores the extent of the problem and invokes a standard error. Most assailants are known to their victims, many assaults occur in private residences, and only a minority are reported (see Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics). In other words, preoccupation with a campus ‘hooded’ stranger detracts from what is really going on. Despite its president’s hopes, UBC is unlikely to be a cultural anomaly.
Rape myths do more than damage individual survivors. They undermine gender equality generally. In a 1994 UBC student survey, sociologist Currie found that “large percentages of women” were avoiding “going alone to areas of campus which Faculty and Administrators might imagine as being important to students’ freedom of mobility” including libraries during the evening (26%), major parking lots (between 31% and 55%) and the Student Union Building (17%). Such fears affect student involvement and equity in campus life (Janz and Pyke).
A CKNW reporter asked one of us “if you are at a beach and there is a shark in the water, don’t you want someone to warn you?” The answer, of course, is yes. Campus women need information and tools. But the metaphor is poor: we are talking about public spaces where women have the right to be present and safe, not a beach where nature offers risks for all. Nor is a shark the equivalent of a human assailant. The latter thrives in a sexist culture where rape myths abound and violence against women is too often denied or justified. The infamous chant of UBC’s undergraduate business students, both men and young women, in September 2013, which encouraged the sexual assault of underage girls, highlighted that larger culture of male entitlement. While this particular moment was broadly condemned, the chant had existed under the public/institutional radar for decades. That disregard invokes the same spirit that allowed the province’s (and indeed the nation’s) ‘missing and murdered women’, many of whom are Indigenous, to be just as routinely ignored.
Today, the University, the RCMP, the community, and the media need to do their homework: consult the extensive research on violence against women, some of it produced by UBC scholars (i.e. Currie). They would find ample evidence to reconsider solutions that target women rather than male violence and cultural entitlement. Such a reorientation has proven value. The Vancouver Police Department’s “Don’t be that Guy” campaign has recently targeted men’s behavior. In the process, it has debunked myths. In the first year of the city campaign (2011), the rate of (reported) sexual assaults dropped by 10% (Matas). Nor are the police alone in updating their response. A partnership between the Ending Violence Association of BC and the BC Lions Football Club now calls upon men to ‘be more than a bystander’ and to create ‘positive social change’ (http://www.endingviolence.org/node/1089). Its posters put men at the centre of solutions.
Given the leadership of the VPD and the Lions, we ask why UBC has been a laggard? Despite its aspirations to world ranking in scholarship, it sidestepped well documented strategies that “shift accountability to the offenders and away from the victims” (Vancouver Police Department). For an institution that regularly claims to be ‘second to none’, such dereliction is nothing less than ‘second rate’.
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