How We Prevent Sexual Assault Simply Isn’t Working

*Trigger warnings: rape, rape culture, sexual assault*

Last week, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland hosted a series of talks and workshops to mark National Sexual Health Awareness Week. I had the privilege of attending the talk on sexual assault called ‘Preventing violence: From Information to Transformation’, given by ClÍona Saidlear of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), which looked at the way the Rape Crisis Centres in Ireland looked at and interpreted data surrounding the risk of sexual assault in Ireland, and how to promote change.
1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men will experience sexual violence as adults. In 1992, the UN ruled that all states have a duty to prevent sexual violence, and this became a legal obligation in 1993. Legal obligations go beyond criminalisation and prosecuting – they require states to identify the aspects of the culture which negatively impacts the statistical risk of sexual violence (rape culture), and create legislation and policies to combat this rape culture.
While the importance of consent is becoming part of our education, and there are countless ‘stay safe’ campaigns, the evidence of efficiency of these the current prevention efforts are limited. There is no real decrease in the number of people being sexually assaulted. And this is largely because the way in which we are promoting consent and trying to prevent rape and sexual assault simply isn’t working. In order for the rate of sexual violence to decrease, there need to be behavioural change among society, not just a change in attitude and the creation of awareness.
The RCNI experience a high demand for advice on how to stay safe, and as a young woman I have been told countless times about the ways in which I need to protect myself from sexual assault. On the surface, this seems reasonable enough – of course we’re going to want to mind ourselves and look after ourselves as best we can.
However, the implications of it being my responsibility to stay safe and prevent myself from being sexually assaulted are staggering. When we ask ‘how do I stay safe’ in this context, what we are asking is ‘given and accepting the prevalence of rape, and given the fact that I am a target of rape, how do I prevent that rape from happening to me?’.  When we ask young women (and it is always women, never men or children) to take responsibility for their own safety, we are accepting the fact that rape happens, without really trying to challenge that. And while rape and sexual violence have been happening for millennia, to meekly accept that it is something we just have to put up with, rather than challenging the rape culture in order to reduce the number of sexual assaults.
When we place the responsibility of preventing rape onto the individuals at risk, we make them active victims. And this creates the culture of victim blaming. When it is my own responsibility to prevent sexual violence happening to me, and something does happen, it’s seen as at least partly my own fault. Was I drinking too much, was my skirt too short, was I walking alone at night, was I showing too much cleavage? What did I do wrong when it came to preventing the sexual assault?
This message is one that we only really see being aimed at women – I’ve never once heard someone advise a man not to drink too much or he might be sexually assaulted, and nobody would ever dream of telling a child that their top is showing off too much skin and if they are sexually assaulted it’s partly their own fault. Yet it is not just women who experience sexual violence. So not only is this ‘stay safe’ message one which places the responsibility on the individual, it ignores the survivors of sexual violence who aren’t young adult/adult women. At what age does the responsibility for preventing sexual violence fall on young women? A 10 year old girl would never be held responsible for their own safety, but it seems that once you hit 15 or 16, the responsibility is all on you. It also presumes that sexual violene is something done by strangers, which ignores the fact that 74% of survivors of sexual violence knew the person who assaulted them. This message is also incredibly offensive to men – it’s saying to women that unless you make yourself less appealing (e.g. by not wearing such short skirts) or more dangerous (e.g. by carrying pepper spray or taking self-defence classes), men are simply not going to be able to stop themselves – so it’s our job to not appear vulnerable or too ‘prevocative’.
So what can we do to make things different? First of all, we need to put the responsibility of preventing sexual violence on the shoulders of society as a whole, not the individual. Society needs to enact change and to at least try to combat the rape culture we live in which promotes the idea that some women are ‘asking for it’. When we empower society to challenge rape culture, we create a society-wide response when someone is at risk of sexual violence, and an even stronger society-wide animosity towards those who rape or sexually assault.

If you have been affected by anything in this article, you can call the 24 hour helpline on 1800 778888 or visit http://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/ 

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