When I was a young woman coming of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the woman’s movement was just beginning to build understanding that sexual assaults were NOT the woman’s fault. Even if women were involved, as I was, in working on social justice issues, most of us believed that we only had ourselves were to blame if a man tried to harass or rape us.
If we were assaulted, most of us believed it was probably because we had dressed too provocatively, been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or “led the man on” by giving him the “wrong idea.” Ironically, since sexual assaults are most likely happen from someone you know, the men I had problems with were usually men who were also working for social justice.
Forty years later, I have mixed feelings about the on-line survey titled “Wake Up to Rape” of 1,061 Londoners between the ages of 18 and 50 in which many respondents said that the woman was at least partly responsible if she went back to the assailant’s house, flirted, wore revealing clothing, or danced provactively.
Nearly 75% of the women responding said that climbing into bed with the eventual attacker meant the woman was responsible, even if she was too drunk to make a decision or later changed her mind. One in three of the men respondents said they didn’t think it was rape if they made their partner have sex if she didn’t want to. Women respondents, especially between the ages of 18 and 24, were more likely to blame the woman than the men were.
The sad news is that the “blame the victim” beliefs still exist in a high percentage of women and men, leading to many sexual assaults going unreported and many victims feeling extremely isolated and not getting help. After all the work done by educators, mental health professionals, and self-defense experts, how can so many people still hang on to these destructive beliefs?
The good news is that the percentage of people who hold these beliefs is much lower than it was 40 years ago and that studies like this exist, are highly publicized instead of being ignored, and cause shock and outrage that will lead to increased education and understanding. And the good news is that self-defense, self-protection, and personal safety training is much more widely available than it used to be.
As educators in the personal safety and violence prevention field, our challenge is to balance the teaching of effective self-protection skills with clarity about the fact that the person who is responsible for an attack is the attacker, not the victim.
Yes, someone might make choices that are more safe or less safe. However, no matter how someone dresses or behaves, no one deserves to be attacked or forced to have sex against her or his wishes. Even if you get into bed with someone, you have the right to change your mind about what you are going to do or not do with this person and no one has the right to force you to do something you don’t want to do.
In Kidpower, we teach women and men, boys and girls, to take charge of their personal safety and to advocate for the safety of others. We tell our students that, if someone tries to harm them, this is not their fault, but that they do have the right to protect their own boundaries and the responsibility to notice and respect the boundaries of others.
In our self-defense workshops for teens, I often say, “I am not here to tell you how to dress or how to behave. That’s the job of your parents, teachers, and other adults. My job is to help you develop the knowledge and skills to make safe choices for yourself and others so that you know how to prevent most attacks and to protect yourself in case someone tries to harm you.”
Rather than arguing with people about what they will or won’t do, we have them practice skills and explain, “What you choose to do out in the real world is going to be your decision. What’s important is that you have the understanding and ability so that you are making decisions that are truly your own choice, rather than something you are doing because you don’t know you have other options or because of social pressure from someone who is not respecting your safety or the safety of others.”
We teach that lack of awareness, whether caused by being distracted or oblivious or by being drunk or high, makes you more vulnerable to an attack. This reality does not make an attack your fault, but it does give you information that can protect you from harm.
Using examples that are relevant to their lives, we coach our students so that they are successful in practicing self-protection and self-defense “People Safety” skills including:
- Being aware, calm, and confident;
- Projecting a peaceful powerful attitude;
- Putting safety first even if this causes offense, inconvenience, or embarrassment for yourself or others;
- Moving away from potential trouble even if someone is acting needy, charming, upset, or rude;
- Feeling one way and acting another;
- Managing personal triggers;
- Coping with rejection;
- Protecting yourself from hurtful words and emotional coersion;
- Staying in charge of what you say and do;
- Setting powerful respectful boundaries;
- Physical self-defense to stop and escape from an attack; and
- Being persistent in getting help.
Even with all these skills, we all need to remember that you can do everything right and still have something go wrong. Or, you can make a mistake or an unwise decision. No matter what, if someone attacks you, their violent behavior is never your fault unless you started the conflict by being violent yourself. No one has the right to attack you and, if someone tries, you have the right to protect yourself and to get help.