Here’s some tips on how to stay safe, along with other stupid things men say to women after someone is sexually assaulted. Note to readers: this story contains a confession by writer Chris Graham, and another epiphany.
Remember Eurydice Dixon. How could anyone forget, right? And remember the backlash when, following Eurydice’s brutal rape and murder, Victorian Police issued a ‘timely reminder’ to women in Melbourne to take greater care with their personal security? How could anyone forget that either, right?
Well, it seems the folks over at the University of NSW did, because on Friday afternoon, following reports of a sexual assault near the campus, an executive from UNSW sent all staff and students an email headed ‘Safety and vigilance on campus’. The message sought to provide women, well… over to UNSW…Safety and Vigilance on Campus-1
Let’s see if we can break down what UNSW is really communicating here.
‘Someone got raped last night, but it wasn’t on our campus. That said, it was near our campus, and we really should say something, because if we don’t and the next rape actually occurs on our campus, we can point to the email we sent to all our staff and students and say ‘It’s very sad but we did kinda warn you’. That lessens our moral culpability, but most importantly it will also help us seriously mitigate any reputational damage the rapist and his victim might cause us. Thus, what we’re going to say is this: ‘While we do what we can to make you safe, your personal safety is still your personal responsibility. Follow these helpful tips so you don’t go and get yourself raped.’
Or words to that affect. Because while that might not be how the email is intended to be read, it’s certainly open to interpretation to be read that way. And at this juncture, I should offer a confession. My spin on the UNSW email is obviously quite provocative, but it’s not what I thought yesterday.
On Friday afternoon, I was sitting in a café with two female colleagues (plotting the downfall of a government), when one of them received the email, from a distressed UNSW staff member.
A discussion of mutual exasperation ensued, whereupon I entered it by saying words to the effect of, “OK, I understand the frustration and anger of women at this, and I’m not suggesting UNSW can’t do more to make women feel safe, but is it really that unreasonable for UNSW to remind people about their safety? Where is the actual harm in the email?”
Well… here’s the harm (and thanks to my colleagues for gently explaining it to me).
The problem with telling grown women that they need to adopt certain habits and behaviours in order to make themselves more safe is that you’re not telling them anything they don’t already know, and haven’t already known since they were old enough to understand the concept of stranger danger.
Thus, women already know that walking home at night can be a dangerous thing (although not quite as dangerous as actually being at home and living with a man), because women have had to confront the threat of rape their whole lives. It’s worth noting, that is the exclusive domain of women. Men might worry about being robbed or assaulted, but there’s a vast difference between the crimes.
So women don’t need an email reminder with helpful tips every time another woman is sexually assaulted. What they do need is greater community focus on the behavior of men towards women, an acknowledgement from men about the real fears women confront every day, and a commitment from men that they will listen and do what they can to improve their own behavior, and the behavior of other men around them.
I think that complete lack of lived experience by men goes some way to explaining why we – myself included until Friday afternoon – seem so clueless on what, on reflection, seems like a pretty simple concept.
Unfortunately, the problems with the UNSW email don’t stop there. Firstly, the content of the email does precisely nothing to deter offenders from offending. It’s not even written for them, which begs the question, why write it at all? Secondly, the email also tells women who are the victims of sexual assault or rape, that there were things they could have and should have done to prevent what happened. In other words, that they are partly to blame.
They are not to blame.
On that front, over the weekend, NM has been contacted by an undergraduate student and sexual assault survivor from UNSW who received the email. You can guess the result:
“That email was really harmful to me as a sexual assault survivor, it made me incredibly upset. It brought back memories and feelings of more blame, because that’s exactly where my mind went.”
Another rape survivor at UNSW who contacted New Matilda said she would now not ever want to contact security because she would assume they would blame her for having not done enough to prevent her assault.
Or, in the words of End Rape On Campus Australia Director Nina Funnell (a New Matilda contributor):
“This advice won’t succeed in deterring perpetrators from attacking women, and since it’s not aimed at them, we shouldn’t expect it to. What this advice has achieved, is this: it’s increased feelings of self-blame in those women who have already been assaulted – particularly if they were engaged in any of the activities that University Security advises against. This advice has already deterred future victims from ever reporting to the University Security service, for fear that their own actions will be scrutinized and judged.
“In other words, this email has actually enabled offenders by making reporting less likely, and by increasing the shame existing victims already have through self-blame.
“If the university security had any real integrity or deep knowledge of this issue, they wouldn’t be eliciting this sort of advice.
“Least of all, can anyone imagine how the woman at the centre of this attack would feel knowing that her personal experience is now being used to drum up fear in other women.”
Finally, the most perplexing thing about the email is the source – i.e. UNSW. It’s not like one of the world’s premiere institutions of higher learning doesn’t have very easy access to the sort of information that might prevent this sort of stupidity from happening in the first place.
By way of example, here’s a tweet from UNSW academic Dr Bianca Fileborn – an expert in this very field – and one of the recipients of the email.
currently employed by the university before sending that out… 2/2
— Dr Bianca Fileborn (@snappyalligator) September 14, 2018
If you’re a man, and you’re still lost, flip it around and you might find it a little easier to understand. If you’re at the pub having a beer and some random idiot walks up and punches you in the face, you’re probably not going to react too well to police (or the publican) sending you an email to let you know that you could reduce the chances of being randomly assaulted by not going to the pub for a beer.
Obviously, there’s a vast difference between a punch in the face and rape. But you get my point.
Sometimes, it takes a lot of repetition for some messages to sink in. But the message on this occasion is not that women need tips on increasing their personal safety. It’s that personal safety is a basic human right, and we all have a collective responsibility to work harder to ensure it’s fully extended to ALL members of our community. Because at the moment, what we’re doing is clearly not working.
And on that front, if you’re a man, and you read this far, you can’t say you weren’t warned. Now email the story to your mates.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.