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Don't Rape, Part I

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Issue: 69 Section: Sexuality Geography: Atlantic Halifax Topics: gender, sexism, violence against women

July 4, 2010

Don't Rape, Part I

Society teaches 'Don’t get raped' rather than 'Don’t rape'

by Hilary Beaumont

Why do we ask survivors to take responsibility for having been raped? Photo: Hilary Beaumont

Disclaimer: Some scenes in this story may be triggering for people who have experienced sexual assault. Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of sexual assault survivors.

HALIFAX—Jenna never wants to see her purple semi-formal dress again. She loves it, but she is reminded of that night in early April when someone slipped what she suspects was Ketamine into her drink.

When she finished class at 4 pm that day, Jenna rushed to her friend’s place to get ready. She wore her mom’s sparkly earrings and bracelet, black kitten heels and the silky, knee-length dress. It was the end-of-the-year celebration she’d been waiting for—a chance to blow off some steam with her friends and classmates at Dalhousie.

She remembers everything about that night—feeling happy, dancing to bad music with her friends at The Palace—up to a point. It’s as if the rest of the evening didn’t happen. She woke up in her bed feeling nauseous and hung over. She stepped into the shower and felt bruises on her chest. It took her the rest of the day to piece together what happened. When she did, she felt embarrassed. She recalled blurry flashbacks of a man in her room, on the third floor of her house. He was white, but she doesn’t remember anything else about him, only that he sat there in her computer chair, looking at her from across the room. Jenna asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t.

A short skirt is not an invitation. Photo: Hilary Beaumont

At the hospital, nurses confirmed her suspicions with a rape kit. They gave her a list of side effects associated with Ketamine, a “date rape” drug. Her symptoms fit perfectly. The police took her pretty purple dress for DNA evidence.

We tell women to cover their drinks, to dress conservatively, and to walk home in groups—never alone at night. While Jenna still thinks those are great ideas, she says they didn’t work for her. She covered her drink as often as she could that night, and she stuck with her friends. Jenna worries no-one is looking at the big picture. It’s not her fault she was raped; she doesn’t take responsibility. Instead, she blames the man who raped her. Too often the media, the police, our parents and even our friends are quicker to point out flaws in sexual assault survivors’ actions.

"Don’t get raped"

Section 271(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada defines “simple sexual assault” as: Any attack of a sexual nature in which force is used. No physical injury is necessary to prove that an offence has occurred. When prosecuted as an indictable offence, this form of sexual assault carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of sexual assaults in the country—double the national average, according to a 2009 report by the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. A 2006 Halifax Regional Police report shows that on average one sexual offence is reported per day in Halifax. However, a 2005 Juristat report showed only eight per cent of sexual assaults are reported in Nova Scotia.

This year in Halifax the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre declared May Sexual Assault Awareness Month. On May 20, at Province House, politicians and community members spoke out publicly against sexual assault.

Avalon’s mission is to shift responsibility from the survivor to the attacker by educating the public.

The centre defines sexual assault as: “Any form of sexual activity that has been forced by one person upon another. Without consent, it is sexual assault. Sexual assault can happen between people of the same or opposite sex. It includes any unwanted act of a sexual nature such as kissing, fondling, oral sex, intercourse or other forms of penetration, either vaginal or anal.”

Before we begin our interview, Jackie Stevens, the Avalon Co-ordinator of Community Education, closes her door, as she usually does when someone comes into her office. When a woman, or sometimes a man, sits in the comfy chair beside her desk, Stevens—wearing electric-blue cat-eye glasses—doesn’t judge or offer advice. Instead she gives the person plenty of information so he or she can make an educated decision.

Too often the people who sit in that chair blame themselves.

“If I hadn’t trusted that person, if I hadn’t gone out drinking with my friends, this wouldn’t have happened to me,” the sexual assault survivors tell Stevens.

Rather than automatically thinking that way, she says society needs to see that an attacker has chosen to take advantage of someone who is vulnerable.

When Stevens reads articles about drunk driving, the police are quoted telling people to stop drinking and driving. But when she reads articles about sexual assault, there is no warning telling would-be attackers not to rape. Instead, the authorities tell potential victims to take precautions.

She doesn’t claim to see every article, but yellowing copies of the Chronicle Herald are piled alongside today’s issue in a bin behind her.

In a Metro News article from March 19, 2010, Dalhousie University spokesperson Billy Comeau told students to “be aware of their surroundings and to take all precautions when they are out travelling” in response to a man grabbing a 19-year-old female student from behind in Halifax’s South End. In a Chronicle Herald article from May 14, 2010, a prosecutor told parents to “watch what their children are doing, both online and within the proximity of their house and outside the house,” in response to a Halifax woman allegedly luring a girl over the Internet and sexually assaulting her.

“Rather than always putting out the messages of ‘don’t walk alone’ or ‘don’t drink’ or ‘don’t talk to strangers’—all of those things—we need to say ‘don’t sexually assault,’” Stevens declares.

As a result of these misplaced messages, we say, "She shouldn’t have been walking home alone late at night," or, "She shouldn’t have worn a short skirt," rather than, "He shouldn’t have raped her."

The way a woman dresses or acts does not cause or prevent sexual assault; an attacker rapes someone because they want to exert power and control over him or her. The attacker is solely responsible for the crime. However, this responsibility is lost in translation through the police, the courts and the media.

Eighty-four per cent of people over the age of 15 who are sexually assaulted are women, according to the 2009 Status of Women Canada report. More than 90 per cent of those accused are men.

Sexual assault is a social problem, Stevens says, with lingering patriarchal structures* at the root of offenses by men toward women.

“There’s a lot of perception of sexual assault as an isolated incident that happens to certain people and it’s perceived as a very individual issue. The Avalon Centre takes the approach that sexual assault is a social issue and that the root causes are based in patriarchy, violence, oppression and inequality. Sexual violence is just one form of how that inequality and power imbalance is played out.”

Stevens says sexual assault and violence against women is interconnected with sexism and other forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and discrimination based on disability, gender identity, cultural background and lifestyle choices.

“Often times people who do experience sexual violence may be targeted for very specific reasons because of their vulnerability,” she says.

Jane Doe*, a local activist who also works at the Dalhousie Women’s Centre, wouldn’t be considered pushy if she were a man. Her voice is louder than the average woman’s. Her tone is aggressive.

“If I’m too confident, I’m a bitch,” she says.

Doe agrees that the root causes of male to female sexual assault are male privilege and the imbalance of power.

“Women weren’t legally human beings until 1920. If you’re property up until 1920, what role did sexual assault play in the world? Zero. There’s no such thing as rape—only for women. The pressure was on women to not allow men to ‘ruin’ them because women’s value and worth was placed in their virginity, their purity, so they could sell their sexuality to a man as property.”

As a result of historical imbalances, she says young men often feel entitled to “get drunk and get laid,” especially in a university atmosphere.

One in five male university students surveyed in a 2006 StatsCan study said forced intercourse was alright “if he spends money on her,” “if he’s stoned or drunk,” or “if they have been dating for a long time.”

One in five Canadian women surveyed in a Juristat report said they had unwanted sex with a man because they were overwhelmed by the man’s continued arguments and pressure.

“If we can change the response and how we think about sexual assault then we will change the rates of sexual assaults because it becomes less natural, less normalized; there’s more public scrutiny and judgment around it,” Doe says. “The problem is, it’s very much a part of male culture.”

*According to Avalon, “patriarchy” refers to “the current societal framework, the structure of which has historically kept men in positions of power and authority in society, and has encouraged the domination of other nations, races and cultures of people for economic and political gain.” In the not-so-distant past, women were placed in inferior roles and their sexual, financial and personal autonomy were suppressed. That framework still lingers today; women are still not equal to men.

*Name has been changed.

Hilary Beaumont is a freelance journalist and editor in Halifax, and a contributing member of the Halifax Media Co-op. This story was produced by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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The problem of sexual

The problem of sexual assault and patriarchy also has to consider the fact that the majority of these men who commit rape are not the ones with lots of power. In fact when interviewed many have expressed that they feel they have little power but somehow believe that they are entitled to some. The result is a person who is threatened by everything they cannot control.

The ultimate price of patriarchy is very few on top and many on the bottom, with the few on top being all male and the many at the bottom all women and the majority of men.

I really wish police would start to tell rapists to stay home at night though rather than telling me to stay home and hide from every little shadow... Garneau Sisterhood had it right.

Hilary, thank you so much

Hilary, thank you so much for this. I have been saying this for years, and it's so rewarding to see my attitude validated here.

Great article. I have one

Great article. I have one quibble with it, "Women weren’t legally human beings until 1920." First, I could argue about what you mean by "legally human", but I am going to assume you mean suffrage and equal rights - if this is incorrect, I would like to know what "legally human" refers to in your lexicon. Your legally human comment is nearly identical to the complaint, both blame the victims for the acts of the offender.

Furthermore, it is grossly inaccurate and draws an improper polarity that permeates our modern socio-historic assumptions. Not all women were not legally human until 1920, but most were not. For example, 1869 Wyoming is one of the earliest recognitions of women being legally human (voting rights). But, identically, not all men were legally human until fairly recently. For example, Kuwait men were not legally human until 1962; the United States did not recognize black men as legally human until 1870; Greece in 1864 (1952 for women); India everyone in 1950; Argentina 1912 for men (1947 for women); Netherlands 1917 for men; United Kingdom 1918 for men over 21 (women over 30); United States? 1776 for white men; Plymouth Colony was 1620 for men. Look at the comparisons here. In 1776 for white men in the U.S. to be legally human, 1870 for black men, 1920 for women. White men were "legally human" 144 years before women in the U.S., black men only 50 years.

The differences between white men and all women obtaining "legally human" status may seem great - almost 150 years! - but in the greater human timeline that is nothing. If you assume these social norms have been created across humanities history it is a miniscule dip. If you assume it has progressed since year 1 AD, you have over 2010 years. That 150 years is less than 7%.

Even today both men and women suffer from not being recognized as "socially human" if they are not a part of the bourgeois. Even the law sometimes fails to recognize them in those cases. Why else do you think so few men are reported as having been raped? Rapes of men are vastly more (by percentage) unreported as compared to women. Similarly, the number of men who are raped has been shown to be similar to that of women. Yet, we seem to blame the dilemma of "Don't get raped" on the difference between men and women, not how our society perceives the action.

If you were to drop the rhetoric that this is overwhelmingly a problem of how society perceives women and instead focus on how this is a problem of how society sees victimization, your article would be significantly stronger.

And yet, I must say thank you for the great article overall.

I'm right because someone agrees

I've always thought I was right about this issue. The fact that someone agrees with me is obvious and irrefutable proof that I am and always have been right. Thank you so very much Hilary for proving that I, like Anonymous on Tuesday July 6, was right all along.

It's time to take a stand

It is ridiculous how all the blame is shifted towards the victims, and that the women are being advised to dress 'properly', to not walk alone at night, etc. Stevens is correct when she says that articles about sexual assault do not warn potential attackers to not rape. In the past week and a half, the media in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have reported several cases of sexual assault, and in each article, they routinely and repeatedly tell the public, especially women, to "not go out alone at night", to "be aware of your surroundings", and to "not talk to strangers". They never, ever say "Don't sexually assault".

I think a possible reason why the majority of the public refrain from saying "Don't sexually assault" is because rape and sexual assault is still considered a taboo in some cultures. Coming from an asian culture, my family still consider rape, sexual assault, and any type of assault for that matter to be a very heavy topic. One of my aunts has been physically and verbally assaulted in the past; another one of my aunts is (to the best of my knowledge) still being physically assaulted by her husband. Both these women are still married to their husbands and show no signs of resistance. I don't know the details of these situations as the women are reluctant to share. However, I do know that the women's lack of action and acquiescence to the men are silently empowering the men even more.

Not only do we need to begin exposing these men and resisting their power, but we also need to create social change. We need to let society know that rape and sexual assault is not okay, just like stealing and killing is not okay. We need to change the way society responds to these rape and sexual assault cases. Don't sexually assault. Don't sexually assault. Don't sexually assault. You heard me.

Rape has always been around

Rape has always been around and always will be, which is why people tell others to protect themselves. Society knows rape is wrong, we don't have to say it - however, SO FEW know to PROTECT themselves from predators. When I'm out so many times i see women getting wasted, leaving their drinks unattended, walking home alone, etc etc. You are just setting yourself up. It's not that you are at blame, it's taking steps to protect yourself because we know evil exists. You can't just walk into the lion den, per say and expect to come out unscathed. Unfortunately our world is not that great.


To Anonymous on Friday, February 25:

You may have skipped over the first 300 words of the story, so let me be clear:

When covering your drink doesn't work, when dressing conservatively doesn't work, when walking home in pairs doesn't work, and when as a woman you are raped in your own home by no fault of your own, then the strategy you outlined has failed. And even after it has failed, the blame will most often fall on the victims' shoulders.

By saying women are "setting [themselves] up" to be raped, you are blaming them. By using the lion's den metaphor, you are equating any space in which a woman is raped -- including her own home -- to a place she should expect rape. By implying that protection always works, and by not allowing that it should ever fail, you are finding victims and survivors of rape responsible.

Please read the intro to this feature, which is a perfect counter-example to your argument.

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