Almost without fail, if an article about rape is posted on the internet, there will be at least one comment listing what steps potential victims (usually women) should take to stay safe. These strategies range from not consuming alcohol or drugs to dressing conservatively to having a buddy system so you are not out alone. This line of thinking was perpetuated by a German mayor, who — in response to mass sexual assaults in her town on New Year’s Eve — suggested that women should travel in groups and stay away from strangers. While we certainly agree that everyone, regardless of gender, should make smart choices, comments like these demonstrate the problems inherent in risk reduction strategies. Today, we are addressing four of the main issues that we have with risk reduction as a sexual assault prevention strategy.
First, risk reduction strategies focus almost exclusively on “stranger” rape — an assault by a person unknown to the victim. While this sort of assault is certainly the one most commonly depicted in pop culture, it is actually far less prevalent than an assault by someone known to the victim. 82% of rapes are perpetrated by a non-stranger. This means that in the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults, the attacker knows his victim — a friend or acquaintance, intimate partner or family member. Half of all sexual assaults occur within a mile of the victim’s home. These statistics make it obvious that typical risk reduction strategies simply won’t work to prevent most rapes. Never walking alone at night may be a good decision as a general matter, but it won’t stop an assault by a friend or intimate partner. These strategies perpetuate the myth that most sexual assaults are committed by the proverbial stranger in the bushes. In doing so, they prevent us from truly addressing the root causes of gender violence in order to effectively stop sexual assault.
Second, risk reduction strategies tend to be inherently victim-blaming. They are almost used as a checklist to determine a victim’s worthiness; if she didn't do everything to prevent a potential rape, then perhaps she isn’t truly a victim. This leads to questions about whether a victim was “asking for it” by flirting or wearing revealing clothing, or if she really wanted it because she did not fight back enough. It puts the burden for not getting raped directly on the shoulders of the potential victim, instead of focusing on the actions of the perpetrator.
Third, risk reduction strategies simply do not work. There is no length of skirt that will guarantee that you will not be sexually assaulted. There is no career choice that is 100% free from sexual assault. You can be assaulted while completely sober. Assaults can happen in broad daylight and in public places. They are most frequently are committed by someone known to the victim. A person can do all of the “right” things and still be assaulted. No matter what a person does, they cannot control the behavior of others — which is why risk prevention strategies are not effective.
Fourth, risk reduction strategies assume that rape is inevitable. These strategies do not discuss how we can end sexual assault, but how you can personally can avoid being raped (giving a false sense of control). Far too often, risk reduction is offered as either the only or the primary strategy against sexual violence. Not only does this put the impossible burden of preventing rape onto potential victims, it essentially concedes that there is nothing we can do to end rape. We do not believe that sexual assault is inevitable. This is why Blackburn Center focuses on primary prevention strategies. By addressing the perpetrators of sexual violence instead of the victims, we can make a positive change in our society and end sexual assault.
We are not saying that people should not try to make safe choices. Certainly, many people feel empowered by doing things like taking self defense courses. We do not discourage anyone from taking advantage of general safety tips. But we simply cannot support risk reduction as a sexual assault prevention strategy, for the reasons discussed above. Instead, we ask you to join our fight to end sexual violence through education, training and eliminating the root causes of gender violence. Sexual assault is not inevitable! Working together, we can change our society — and end rape culture as we know it!