Safety advice: Let's be real and honest about it for a minute

Safety advice against rape is more often than not given out aimed at women in cissupremecist binary language. When I am referring to "women and girls" in this post, I mean all female-presenting persons who are at the receiving end of this advice. The advice given will always vary to some degree for different folks living in different areas of the world; this post is more specifically reacting to recent and ongoing Canadian and American stories.

From the time we are old enough to crawl around, we're taught various ways to protect ourselves. It starts off as "Don't put that in your mouth", "Don't crawl face-first down the stairs", and "Don't stick your hand in the dog's mouth." When we're learning everything for the first time, we need these specific pieces of information to help us survive long enough to be able to be left on our own for any extended period of time.

As girls get older, the advice changes and tends to become more broad and vague in an effort to protect us from stranger danger and the mythical rapist in the bushes. This advice can be helpful, but often it is not nearly specific enough to do us any good.

A great first step would be to teach people that they are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know and trust. But, for the sake of this post, let's focus on the advice women are given in relation to stranger-rape.

Personally, there are some ways I try to keep myself safe from stranger rape. I don't know a single woman who doesn't have her own personal list of tips and tricks.

I tell people where I'm going (where possible). I used to keep my cell phone charged just in case so I can call someone if I need help, but now I can't afford my own mobile.

When walking alone at night, I hunch my shoulders and do my "masculine" walk - basically how my wife walks, not swaying the hips at all, very "mannish". I walk quickly and with purpose.

I teeter between being hypervigilant and purposely tuning people out to ignore street harassers, depending on time of day, how many people are around, and based on my instincts.

When I go to my car alone, I check the backseats (and trunk if it's an SUV) and then lock the doors when I get in. I don't hold my keys between my fingers because I know that can cause more trauma to my hand than to an attacker. I just hold them in my hand, ready to go.

That's just the stuff I can think of that I do consciously. Does any of it work? I have no idea. It could be as effective as wearing a Anti-Rape Charm Bracelet. I haven't been attacked while using those safety measures, so they bracelet could well be working. More likely, I haven't encountered any rapists, but I do what I do to feel safer and that will just have to be enough.

What *don't* I do? Avoid stairwells, alleys, and elevators. I've gotta get from point-a to point-b, so I determine in the moment which makes more sense. I can't go everywhere with an escort, I can't avoid all sketchy areas of town or alleys, because often those are my actual destinations. And, especially during the shorter winter days, I can't avoid being out alone after dark.

Plus, when it is -40 out, the faster route can be the safest if it means I'm exposed to the elements for a shorter period of time and less likely to get hypothermia or frostbite. Living in Canada, avoiding rape isn't the only aspect of our personal safety I have to look out for.

What would I like people to pass on as safety advice? Trust your instincts. Don't let politeness and social convention keep you beholden to someone who is setting off your alarm bells. You're allowed to decide you don't want to be near someone and exercise your boundaries, even if you can't verbalize the reason or they may think your reaction is "rude".

I've branched out and asked others for their personal safety tips to see what they personally do, and what they recommend.

Sophie, a sexual rights activist and educator with The Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project, uses the following advice when training sex workers to take precautions while working:

*Firstly, I teach people that if they can, have a smartphone with GPS capabilities. Being familiar with Google Maps can help a person become aware of the area around them that is farther than they can see. I advise them to check the areas they plan to be around on google maps.

*If a person is going to be out by themselves or alone with a stranger, I advise them to take a picture of the vehicles they are using, with the identification plate, when possible, before entering the vehicle and then send those pictures to a friend. It may seem strange, but it does help them become easier to locate, if anything happens.

*Use cell phone locator apps. Where's My Droid? and the iPhone equivalent not only help you find your phone in case you misplaced it, they can also be used as tools to help your friends find you. Make sure that two or more of your close and trustworthy friends have the password to activate your phone locator. That way, if you are in danger and can't send them details about your location, they are able to find your cell phone using the GPS locator, and, hopefully, you. An alternative to this is the locator services offered by some cell phone companies.

*Before joining someone (for example, on a date), text some friends to tell them where you are and where you will be. Check in with friends before and after any dates or meetings.

*Use the Circle of 6 App, developed to assist in case of an emergency.

*Staying in well-lit environments when you're out at night isn't necessarily going to help a person who has to pass through dark areas, simply because that's where they have to go. More practical advice is to stay in well-lit areas, if possible, and to carry a flashlight. Carry the flashlight and your keys in your hands.

*Know what kinds of public service buildings are around you, if possible. You can use Google Maps for this, too. Just look around for places like police stations, 24 hour stores or restaurants. Knowing where they are can help you if you ever have to get away from someone fast.

In a general sense for passing along safety advice for others, making vague recommendations about women needing to "be safe" and "use common sense" isn't helpful. Concrete, actionable advice is helpful.

In terms of concrete, that would be letting women know where and when any specific attacks have been taking place, and some descriptors of the attacker. This will give women the tools to be able to avoid those areas if they can or to be looking for people who fit that particular description.

Actionable would be teaching people about bystander intervention, to empower and educate the public on intervening if they see something suspicious or a potential crime in progress. Actionable would be the police helping neighbourhoods set up watches and patrols to monitor at-risk areas, or to help set up better lighting in these "darkened alleys", or to hold public education workshops about sexual violence to help stop it before people perpetrate it (e.g. - that attacking and groping women isn't a "joke" and is an unlawful offense).

Non-concrete is telling people to "stay safe", or "avoid bad neighbourhoods". Everyone wants to be safe and people live in "bad neighbourhoods", and "bad" is entirely subjective and passed on by word of mouth, not published on Google Maps.

Non-actionable is telling women to always travel in groups and not after dark and never through "dark alleys". We don't get money from the government to pay for 24/7 escorts, to ensure we only have to work during daylight hours, to ensure we only live in "good" neighbourhoods, or to ensure that our travel routes never include "dark alleys". These don't speak to our realities, and it's insulting to tell us that avoiding rape is as easy as wishing ourselves into better lives where obeying those commands are an option.

Even advice like "take self-defense classes" ignores some pretty important factors about our lives. 1) Not all self-defense classes are created equal. Goodness knows if the one someone chooses will help or just siphon their money. 2) Not everyone has the time or money to attend these. See above about women not getting extra living expenses to cover these kinds of costs or to make more hours in the day to attend. 3) Not everyone is able-bodied enough for these classes. 4) It's naive to imagine that people who attack strangers on the street never check out these self-defense classes to see what is being taught, or that they're not practiced in hand-to-hand combat. Can these classes help some women under some circumstances? Sure, I'm certain they can. But they're not a magic bullet that should be sold as sure-fire rape prevention.

Women have had these safety tips drilled into us from before we were allowed to go to the corner store on our own. It's important to listen to us when we are telling you what isn't working in keeping us safe so that we can pass along better safety advice. It's not enough to lazily regurgitate stuff that's been told forever. Listen to women on this matter.

If you have any more tips to add, please leave them in the comments below.


  1. *sigh* comment too long. *cut*

    Speaking as a male who has been victim (more than once.) to rape (of more than one kind.) A lot of these tips are relevant and actively practised by men as well. Not just out of fear of rape, but of physical harm of any variety. The attacker who rapes, is just as likely to be the same attacker who would mug or assault for the hell of it. They are opportunists seeking the weakest pray to make themselves feel bigger and stronger and better about who they are.

    Don't feel alone in the act of looking down an Alley for dangers before deciding whether to take that route, or clutching your keys defensively ready for attack or escape.

    When meeting people, have a cell-phone buddy. (Use Wifi and a free text app if you must.) If you see the person you're meeting's vehicle, send the colour, type, plate, or any other information you can to your text buddy.

    Remember deactivated cellphones still dial 9-1-1.

    Be as specific as you can when calling for help. I remember when I was a child in a school assembly being taught. "THIS PERSON IS TRYING TO TAKE ME AND THEY ARE NOT MY PARENT." You must be this specific when announcing your attacker or most people will not respond.

    At UofT on froshweek the advice was actually to shout "Fire" if in a crowded place (subyway etc.) Because people are more likely to act if they have an immediate and imminent belief in a threat to themselves. (We are a selfish animal by nature.)

    "Self-defence" is a cop-out description of a martial art. Ask them what styles or forms they teach. Good every-day styles: Aikido, Judo, Muay-Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Shorin-Ryu (multiple styles.), Kenpo, Jeet kune do, and others. Speak to the trainers about subsidies, they exist. Also a great way to meet people, and to replace your gym membership or trainer should you be so fortunate.

    And I hate to say it, but, trust no one. (This is probably why I work IT Security.)
    Violent rape may regularly come from someone unknown or unexpected, but you can just as easily be raped by a sibling (check) a sitter (or their child, check.) or a spouse, (check.) People are shitty, and only knowing who you are, and standing up for yourself will keep you safe.


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