Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Let's change the discourse on protecting men from false rape accusations

Safety advice against rape is more often than not given out aimed at women in cissupremecist binary language. When I am referring to "women" in this post, I mean all female-presenting persons who are at the receiving end of this advice. When I refer to "men", I mean all male-presenting persons who are traditionally overlooked in being taught this kind of safety advice.

Advocating that we hold both victims and rapists equally accountable for an assault when alcohol is involved is pretty well entrenched in our society's attitudes. It is part of the conflicting message that alcohol simultaneously makes rapists unaccountable for their own actions, while making victims responsible for the crimes committed against them.

Photo from SlutWalk Baltimore

It doesn't help to combat these kinds of victim-blaming messages, when they continue to come from prominent public figures, such as The Wall Street Journal editor, James Taranto. It also then comes as no surprise when comments appear on articles like these that look to muddy the waters of sexual violence by raising faux concerns about false rape accusations from women who have consensual drunken sex they "regret" the next day.

Tropes like "women get drunk and falsely accuse men of rape the next day" always seem to gloss over the fact that men are many times more likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes than to be falsely accused of sexual assault.

I recommend that we change the discourse on alcohol and rape. Since women are so often given safety advice on how to avoid being victims of sexual violence, how about we try that same tactic with men?

If you are concerned about your friends being falsely accused of rape by going home with someone after a night of heavy drinking with the intention of having sex, then step in. Practice some bystander intervention on your buddy and get him to go home alone. Is his safety not more important than having risky sex? If he doesn't trust her enough to believe she won't falsely accuse him of rape, then be that sober voice that tells him not to go home with her.

Since it is entirely possible for men to be the victims of sexual violence in such a hookup, watch each others' backs for that, too. Help protect your bros by making safety plans before going out, talking about whether everyone's going home together, signals if they're getting too drunk and need to get sent home, how to tell if someone is being too forward and making them uncomfortable, and how you'll look out for one another. The toxic messages young men are fed about needing to engage in casual hookups and risky behaviour to prove their manliness can put them in danger. Talk to your guy friends about stuff like this before you head to the clubs.

This doesn't mean blaming men if they don't follow any or all of this advice and are sexually assaulted. At all. If your friend expresses disinterest or discomfort in a woman who is hitting on him, do not pressure him to hook up with her anyways. Do not make jokes at his expense if he tells you someone groped him in the club or that he's feeling creeped-out by someone. If he discloses that he last night when he was intoxicated someone had sex with him without his consent, that's rape. That's not "getting lucky". Respect your friends' boundaries and stick up for them. You'll surely want them to do the same for you.

There are a lot more resources being created of late to help men and boys talk about masculinity,what it means, and healthy ways to discover and establish their identities. Here are a few:

Do you have any other resources to recommend for men and boys and you'd like to share? Please leave them in the comments.

Challenging rape jokes is a safety measure.

Trigger warning for rape apology, victim-blaming and rape jokes in the links leading off of this post.

This weekend there will be another protest in Spokane, WA over a bar giving a drink a name that amounts to a rape joke - Date Grape Kool-Aid. There has been a lot of media attention about it that has covered the ins and outs of what's happened on the side of the protesters and the business, so I'm going to focus on my personal reasoning for supporting the protests and boycott.

I've seen a lot of comments supporting the bar's naming of the drink, minimizing the offensiveness of it and stating that "It's. Just. The. Name. Of. A. Drink." They often go on to tell boycotters that they should be expending their energies on more pressing issues, and that a rape joke or drink name have never harmed anyone.

The reason I so consistently and vehemently oppose rape jokes, including this drink name, is because it's a part of my personal safety arsenal. It's part of me asserting and protecting my boundaries and ensuring I surround myself only with people that I can trust and who will have my back. Since rapists don't wear name tags and aren't accompanied by fog machines and suspenseful music, each of us has to make decisions on who they deem to be more-safe-than-not. It's never going to be 100% accurate, but it's really the best we can do.

If I surround myself with people who joke about date rape and sexual violence against women, how can I tell when the jokes should be setting off alarm bells? If I let people be so flippant about rape around me without challenging them on it, how do I know how they really feel about it or if they'll protect me? How can I tell when they're joking and when they're being serious, when so much of our own truths come out when we're smiling or laughing? Remember the kid who was videotaped laughing about the "dead girl" being raped in Steubenville?

In the context of a bar not only naming a drink after a rape joke, but unwaveringly insisting on making rape jokes and minimizing the offense and hurt caused by them, that sends up huge red flags. That tells me that this is not a safe place for women, because if I'm not assaulted by the owner, there is an increased risk of other sexual predators choosing that location as hunting grounds because of the atmosphere that is being actively fostered to support them. That's the thing about rapists - they also have internet access, not being confined to wifi deadzones under bridges, and they hear when people are giving them a social license to operate.

Now, I'm not saying the owner specifically is a rapist. I have no proof, no rumours, nothing to base that on. That's the thing about rapists and their stubborn refusal to wear those name tags. My point is that the owner himself has set off my personal red flags by being so insistent that his clients approve of and support his rape jokes, that it would fly in the face of every ounce of self-preservation I have to enter that club. And it would feel irresponsible not to pass on those gut feelings to others, just as we are expected to tell each other to avoid "bad neighbourhoods" or "dark alleys".

In line with my previous post about personal safety tips, how does accepting and encouraging rape jokes parse with telling women it's up to them to ensure they don't get raped? The short answer is, it doesn't. Could it be that women are only allowed to protect their boundaries against sexual violence up until it inconveniences someone? Up until it takes away someone's fun? Up until women become downers because, gosh, do they always have to think about rape, even though we tell them constantly in big and small ways not to get raped and that they always have to be on guard against rape?

This then is my safety advice for people of all gender expressions, because we know women are not the only victims of sexual violence: Don't tell rape jokes. If you flippantly make fun of rape survivors, it makes it difficult to know if the people you keep around you will have your back if you are attacked. Similarly, if someone takes offense to the reasonable request that they not make light of rape and degrade victims, at least not around you, keep an eye on them. If they cannot respect such a simple boundary, that's a red flag.

If the people you associate with, or the places you go, insist that you be hypervigilant about stranger-in-the-bushes rapists all while demanding you let your guard down to the people who actively test your boundaries around rape, this is unsafe. It's ok to listen to your gut and put your foot down and not put up with it. It may be socially awkward, but that's the game that rapists play best - making sure you're the one who has to be apologetic even though they're the ones who are disrespecting and acting aggressively towards you.

In the end, it's up to all of us to decide how we protect ourselves and what makes sense in our personal safety arsenal. This makes the most sense to me, and is one of the few pieces of safety advice that I would advocate across the board to everyone.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

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.