Back in February, I wrote about an incident involving a constable with the Toronto police who gave the women in a law class fashion-advice (“Don’t dress like sluts!”) when asked what women could do to protect themselves from being sexually assaulted. The SlutWalk movement it sparked has now been in almost a million countries! Okay, last figure I saw was actually just over 150, but I’m sure you can understand what my enthusiasm is about. So, when a global movement like SlutWalk gets started because of law enforcement thinking they’re on the latest episode of What Not To Wear, you’d think they would learn their lesson, right?
There’s a LOT of discussion over this. A lot of really good discussion. Not everyone knows what victim-blaming is, exactly. Most people would say, “It’s entirely unreasonable to put the blame on the victim for any crime, let alone sexual crimes.” Then they usually say something else. They usually say, “But…” Because try as they might, some people just can’t wrap their minds around the idea how anyone (read, any woman) in her right mind would wear that when going there at such-and-such-a-time. I even encountered a local feminist-activist who, when speaking about street harassment told me, “The woman whose tactics we will be using for combating street harassment tested them by getting dressed up all sexy, in high heels and a short skirt and low-cut top, to, you know, invite harassment…” That’s victim-blaming. It’s also rape-culture perpetuation. She may as well have said, “If you dress sexy, you should expect attack.” It can change how people -specifically women- behave in an attempt to ward off attack. That attempt can be damaging not only because it keeps a woman from expressing herself in her appearance, but because it also gives that woman a false sense of security. As well, should a woman wear similar clothing, and be assaulted or harassed, it can easily be said she was also inviting attack/harassment, and we cannot invite these things. There’s also an element of misandry, which I have to believe was unintentional; if her clothing can invite a man to attack, then there’s this underlying implication all men are offenders. This otherwise intelligent, well-intentioned person who knows victim-blaming is wrong and has been taught all about it, did it anyway. It’s pervasive. It’s embedded into our language and our culture, and that needs to change. Heck, I’ve been caught using words which could easily be considered victim-blaming.
So we take the time to explain some facts about sexual predators and the (non-existent) link to clothing.
“Okay,” is often the reply. “But what do we do then?” Because when faced with ideas of those for whom we profoundly care being harmed in any way, the first thought is often to lock them up, whether literally in the “safety” of a home, or figuratively, by restricting their options about clothing/expression and other activities. And it seems the answers just aren’t forthcoming.
First let’s address the advice that’s given. I know you’ve already read the post linked above, but let’s just quickly touch base with it again for clarity, and to elaborate a touch on just how dis-empowering that advice could really be.
Covering up will not stop a criminal act from being committed.
If the lech in the case of the TTC was unable to peer up their skirts, he would look down their tops. If he wasn’t able to look down their tops, he might rub up against them or grab… The issue isn’t the skirts, it’s the perpetrator. If the police wanted to give out good advice in this case, they might simply say, “Be aware.” This empowers the students who now still get to associate themselves with their school, with their dedication to education, and to show their solidarity with their peers. Awareness removes the power of the perpetrator, who would rather operate in secrecy and make you cower in fear or change your ability to express yourself as you have been. Similarly, outnumbering the perpetrator by being a part of a group (or even a pair) of people who can be allies against him -with something as simple as awareness- instills power. Telling the students to not wear skirts removes their power and right to be who they have been up until this point. Even feeling unsafe in the absence of threat is a terrible thing, but when we combine dis-empowerment with a predator, we have a tail-eating snake of fear-disempowerment-increased predatory behaviour-fear-disempowerment… By removing the power differential, we remove the predator-prey relationship.
Self-defence advice should be empowering. It should be based on a systematic evaluation of the situation to which it is being applied rather than being based on superstition or subjective anecdote.
Women and girls have the power to combat violence and objectification aimed at them, and it doesn’t have to involve taking my (or anyone else’s) self-defence class. Unfortunately, it does involve leaving some comfortable mythology behind.
When traveling alone, selection of his prey may be somewhat easier for a predator. This in no way means this young woman is defenceless. If she feels unsafe, it’s often a good idea to choose an ally from the other passengers. Most of the time, another female is best, since guys may not “get it,” but if the only option is a man she may have to engage him in some way. Chances are good if she stands and backs away from a predator, she’ll get some attention from the female ally, as another woman will quickly recognize this situation as familiar (unfortunately, most women have been here before). This in and of itself may remove power from the offender. In the case of the guy, or the female ally who doesn’t notice, vocalization may be necessary. A simple, “Back up!” can work. As can, “No!” or “Don’t touch me!” and similar types of simple, direct statements.
If contact is made before the offender is noticed, “Don’t touch me!” coupled with moving away can do wonders. Remember, this is transit; there are usually other people on buses. If others become involved, including the driver, this may end up with police being called, or the offender being placed in a position of leaving the bus.
If nothing has happened, but there’s that creepy feeling in the pit of her stomach, always trusting in it is the best option. Chances are the offender has let some subtle hint of his lecherous intent show, and those hints can be picked up without realizing exactly what they are. Again, choosing an ally and changing seats (“Can I sit beside you?”) can remove the power from the predator, as well as his access. In this case, it probably doesn’t matter who the ally is, since we aren’t seeking their active participation or even their enlistment as a witness. This person is a shield, a barrier between predator and prey.
When leaving the bus, it might be in her best interest to have someone meet her at the stop. If someone isn’t already going to be there and a cell-phone is available, a call to make that happen is in order. This doesn’t have to involve fear, as the chance of being pursued off the bus is relatively slim. Instead, think of it as “moving towards comfort” by involving a trusted, respected ally for whom she feels affection – it’s a chance to visit and chat. If there isn’t a phone available and nobody to meet the stop, it’s a good idea the driver be involved and maybe the police be called. Again, think of it as moving toward comfort.
In the event an actual attack is carried out, regardless of its nature or breadth, keep in mind the type of person who preys on young women is not “attracted” by a skirt, makeup, nice hair or shiny teeth. He sets out to find a victim he can separate from the pack, just like his counterpart in the wild. And, just like in the wild, he will go to great lengths to conceal his presence and his intent. It is that intent that creates access, but access does not create intent.
Self-defence is about options, not rules. It’s about self, not about living defensively. If changes made for safety impact the self adversely, either the changes will be abandoned or the self will.
More can be added to this, but this post is what I feel comfortable leaving you with. Self-defence lessons consisting of learning to do another person damage aren’t necessarily the best way to make ourselves feel better and actually be empowered, especially when packaged with a whole bunch of “nevers” and “alwayses.”
If your students would like to practice methods for dealing with street harassment and assault, contact The Best Defense Program today.
16 October 2011
I’d been asked why I hadn’t amended this post to include the “clarification” the Toronto Police have supplied regarding the advice they gave the students. The reason I hadn’t until now is, it doesn’t matter. Apparently, the Toronto Police routinely advise people not to wear clothing which identifies where they are going. While this “clarification” has satisfied some critics, the issue is there’s nothing that suggests the students were being targeted because of what they were wearing or where they were going. The idea that a change in clothes would be an improvement of safety may make some people falsely secure, which does nothing to help the situation. It’s unclear to me whether the quote, “if they had, for example, jeans or sweatpants on, it wouldn’t be an issue” came from – the police, or the principal, and I’m not sure if I care who said it; both the police and the principal are in a position of power, and neither one should be passing on this non-advice as a means to keep people safe.