Guest post: How to respond to those viral ‘rape prevention’ emails

// 6 October 2009

Katie Toms continues the theme of how to respond to viral emails urging women to be careful and stop themselves being raped/sexually assaulted, sharing with us the email she now sends in reply. Katie writes about music, books, art and gender among other things, for various publications including The Observer, where she worked for two years

To the man who started this viral email:

If this was a real story how come when I do a search on the media database I subscribe to, which has access to all publications written in the English language over the past 30 years – local newspapers, national newspapers etc, there is no record of this incident?

Please don’t send out anymore emails along these lines. Women have enough childcare issues, equal pay issues and a ton of other crap to deal with without your input thank you. We don’t need your help to feel further oppressed than we already are. It is enough that we are made to feel unsafe after dark on the streets and frightened about getting into taxis on our own without more of this kind of scare-mongering. I for one won’t be made to feel powerless and helpless by emails like this and I won’t be modifying my behaviour one iota.

However please do feel free to send round robin emails calling for men to do something about male violence against women.

The reality is that most violence against women occurs in the home and is carried out by a partner or ex-partner:

1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.

Two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners.

It seems like every day there is another example of a man who killed his wife and children and then killed himself, excused in the media and elsewhere as a result of job losses, economic crises etc.

No-one calls this a gender war, but that is what it is.

In contrast the amount of female on male murders is slight, but always celebrated and hyped, and women will typically receive harsher sentences than men for the same crime. (See http://www.justiceforwomen.org.uk/ for more info.)

Most women know their rapist, yet less than 6% of the small amount of rapes reported in the UK result in a conviction.

Not all men are rapists and murderers, but you don’t have to be a male perpetrator of male violence to do something about it, just as I don’t have to be a female sufferer of male violence to do something about it.

Men need to start calling their gender to account and educating their sons, brothers, fathers and male friends.

I know a handful of men who are actively taking a stand against male violence against women. (See http://www.whiteribboncampaign.co.uk/)

There should be many, many more.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Maya Angelou

Comments From You

saranga // Posted 6 October 2009 at 12:24 pm

thanks for posting this. last time i got a how to prevent yourself being raped email I did send a snarky reply, but it wasn’t particularly eloquent. the response i got was please follow the rules because i’d hate for you to get raped.

ugh.

Having said that, I am at a loss as to how to reconcile my political convictions (that I shouldn’t have to protect myself and that I have every right to walk alone at night, with long hair in a ponytail, with high heels, and without a hevay handbag to throw at an attacker) with the fact that i don’t want to get attacked and surely it is common sense to protect myself when I go out.

How do other f word readers deal with this? (apologies if it’s off topic)

gadgetgal // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:06 pm

@ saranga:

Hi – I’ve always been torn about that one too. I’ve been told/emailed the same helpful(?) hints and I guess it depends upon the context – when I took some self-defense classes they reiterated some of this stuff but it was for practical, non-judgmental reasons, and when my mother mentioned some practical ways to look out for myself it wasn’t done to excuse someone else for committing a crime, it was to help me when she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect me anymore. As to whether or not to listen, that was left entirely up to me – I’ve chosen to follow most of it, but not all, either because it was impractical or because I didn’t think it was good advice.

I guess the way to judge whether the advice is useful or just scaremongering blaming nonsense it is to ask why they’re doing it and what they expect out of it – if it’s done for the above reasons and as a suggestion only, not a directive, then it’s mostly ok, and if the facts back it up (like whether or not you’re more likely to be threatened in a dark alleyway than a crowded well-lit street) then there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just when it’s turned into an order and becomes compulsory that it becomes a problem, because it takes some of the blame away from the actual criminal.

It’s weird, it brings to mind a friend of mine who was staying overseas and walking around off her box late at night in an area of Mexico that was well-known for the high levels of sex crimes against women. She said herself it was a daft thing to do, and as her friend I felt I could agree with her and tell her so because I worry in case something happens to her. However, if anything did happen to her in future because she did the same thing again it would not in any way be her fault, and I certainly wouldn’t bring up the advice again to say “I told you so” – I’d be too upset that someone had harmed her, I think, and also I know it could happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless, and the fault always always always lies with the rapist, not the victim.

So basically I don’t see anything wrong with doing basic things to protect myself when there might be some kind of danger (unfair though it may be that I should have to), but I don’t want to get blamed either way if anything does happen, it would never be my fault!

Rosa // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:07 pm

I’m ashamed to admit that lifelong (well, 30+ years) exposure to negative messages about women and how they should/should not behave has led to me developing a sort of internal behaviour modifier. This comes in the shape of a prosecuting barrister in a rape/sexual assault trial – assuming the case came to trial, of course! When I’m standing in front of the mirror before going out – anywhere – I hear him asking the complainant what she was wearing. I want to be able to answer, ‘a long, heavy jacket, baggy jeans and trainers, so pick the bones out of that one, mate!’

HOW late was I out? Alone? How many drinks? You got into a minicab? Why were you initially polite/friendly to the defendant if you didn’t want to have sex with him? Etc etc.

I’m afraid I do sometimes let this internal behaviour modifier dictate my actions and clothing choices. Are those boots too tarty/high heeled? Is my skirt too short? When I go against it, which I always try to do, I can hear the ‘you did WHAT?’ questions. I find it really annoying at times, other times it doesn’t bother me too much.

So you couldn’t really say I was ‘dealing’ with anything.

If I think like this and I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted, I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel for those who have. Especially if it happened despite them obeying all the ‘rules’ and taking every bloody little nitpicking precaution possible.

Sarah // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:30 pm

I suppose I reconcile it by reminding myself that you can’t avoid all risks in life (and will make yourself very unhappy and restricted by trying to do so), and that walking home alone is not really a particularly dangerous thing to do for most of us. And that being sexually assaulted by a random man in the street is a pretty rare occurrence, you’re more likely to be raped by your husband/boyfriend/date, male colleague/friend. And that there’s no evidence that I know of that a particular shoe-style or hairdo has any correlation with risk of being raped. I am not going to cower fearfully in my house after dark for the rest of my life, or refuse to go out without a bodyguard or whatever, on the off-chance someone some day might try to grab and rape me in the street at night. Men are at risk of being mugged/attacked when walking alone, I know several personally who have had these experiences and it’s an awful thing. But no one extrapolated from this to suggest that all men everywhere should live in fear and never venture out alone.

Obviously people do commit terrible crimes of all kinds, and it’s reasonable to take steps to protect yourself and your belongings. It’s reasonable for men to do the same. But the problem with these emails is that they encourage disproportionate fear over a probably rare event, and encourage women (and only women) to curtail their normal lives and day-to-day activities out of an ever-present fear of being raped. Note I’m not suggesting that being raped is a rare event, unfortunately I don’t think it is. But the sort of randomly-chosen stranger attacks insistently promoted by these emails, while they do happen, and are a terrible thing which I don’t mean to detract from, seem like a way of drawing attention away from the more common problem, the one more difficult to face – rape by partners and loved ones and family-members, rape of women with disabilities or mental-health problems or learning-difficulties, often by their carer, rape of women in the sex-industry, all the things we don’t like to talk about. It’s easier to stick to the narrative of the pretty party-girl, ‘asking for it’ with her high-heels and long hair and slutty short skirt and the audacity to think she can enjoy life.

sianmarie // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:36 pm

thanks for posting this. we got an email like that at work last week and it made me furious. i’ve written about it on my blog as well. these emails do nothing constructive except raise the tenor of fear in women’s lives.

saranga – i know what you mean. i think it is ok to make sure you are safe without that conflicting with your beliefs that women shouldn’t feel safe on the streets. i mean, everyone can be vulnerable on the streets, to muggings etc, men and women. i would definitely encourage people to stay safe but i think the issue is that men, who are more vulnerable on the streets, aren’t encouraged and taught to be afraid. so, be responsible, look out for yourself and those around you, but don’t see yourself as a potential victim.

hope that makes sense!!

Jess McCabe // Posted 6 October 2009 at 1:41 pm

What @Sarah said.

The point is that women are regularly admonished to act in every more constrained ways to avoid attack down a dark alley, despite the fact that we are more at risk from partners, friends, aquiantances. We’re told to constantly police our own behaviour, with the threat that if anything does happen we may be blamed for being in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes, drinking, whathaveyou. Yet there are no calls for men to take action to prevent rape and sexual assault.

Mary // Posted 6 October 2009 at 3:21 pm

please follow the rules because i’d hate for you to get raped

Thank goodness it’s that easy! Imagine if you could follow all the “rules” and STILL get attacked!

I think it’s a good thing to learn to trust your instincts and develop your own sense of what feels safe and what doesn’t. Remember that absolutely nothing is guaranteed 100%: people will advise you to get taxis, not to get taxis, to stay with friends, to be careful around friends of friends, etc etc. There’s no situation where you are guaranteed 100% safe, so the only thing you’ve got to go on is your sense of trust and safety and what compromises to your freedom you’re willing to make. Learn to trust yourself and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong, whether they’re trying to persuade you to take risks that you’re not happy with or telling you that you shouldn’t take risks that you think are worth it: it’s when you’re own sense of what’s safe and what isn’t is undermined that you’re most vulnerable.

So, if you go out late at night and feel nervous and unhappy because you’re scared, that’s not going to add to your quality of life. But if you go out late at night and actually feel pretty good and enjoy prowling around, go for it. If you feel unsafe going out with heels and a little skirt on, but feel great wearing big stompy boots, do that. Just figure it out for yourself, and make that your guide.

gadgetgal // Posted 6 October 2009 at 3:48 pm

@ Mary

You’re right on the mark – better to trust yourself than any lists of dos and don’ts from a random email someone you don’t even know sent to you! They annoy me all the more because of the presumption that we can’t figure out our own safety for ourselves, and it’s always dubious advice anyway if you don’t know the source.

Lara // Posted 6 October 2009 at 3:49 pm

I’ve witnessed a man being initimidating, threatening to a woman in a public place, maybe even hitting her and my male friends just go ‘Ooh domestic’ even if she’s crying and saying ‘Please please stop leave me alone’. I’m not going to intervene while a man is being violent, but what stops a man of the same size going over and asking, “Excuse me are you okay?” REALLY ANNOYS ME.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 6 October 2009 at 5:52 pm

Katie is spot-on if the male senders of these deliberate ‘scare tactic’ emails are really so concerned about women’s safety and equally women’s right to enter the public sphere just as it has always been presumed a non-negotiable male right to access public spaces, then these males should join White Ribbon Campaign. Male senders of these emails should spend their time more productively by actively challenging those males who believe it is their innate right to treat women as dehumanised sexualised commodities. Far too many men believe male violence against women is not their problem because they never commit these offences but not challenging male beliefs and behaviour ensures male violence against women is not only ignored it is also condoned.

These emails are designed to keep women subordinated to men and to seek the ‘protection of males’ whereas in fact is overwhelmingly known men who are the ones committing violence against women and children.

Perhaps the answer is for all men to be allocated a certain time period each day wherein they can enter the public sphere. The remaining hours will be ‘women only.’ Imagine the outcry if this were to be enacted.

News flash – reducing male violence against women is men’s issues not women’s. Deliberately blaming and holding women accountable for not taking sufficient safety precautions is designed to keep women frightened and subordinated to men.

The law does not assign blame when charging men with violence against women, rather the legal process is about proving beyond reasonable doubt whether or not a defendant did commit the crime. Apart from rape all other court cases focus on the actions and behaviour of the defendant. Only when males are charged with rape and/or other forms of sexual violence against a woman/women does the legal system delve minutely into the actions/behaviour/dress of the victim.

polly // Posted 6 October 2009 at 8:15 pm

I regularly walk home on my own, I’ve lived in loads of places that are supposed to be dangerous, and I’ve never had a random man leap on me in the street. Why? Because it is a VERY rare occurrence. Yes sometimes, horrifyingly, it happens, but it isn’t going to stop me living my life.

I’ve never yet seen any advice anywhere saying you shouldn’t get in a car because you might die, but about 30 people die in car accidents per week in the UK.

I think it’s useful to think about what the motives of those who start these kind of viral e-mails are, (ie they enjoy scaring women) and more to the point what function the (wholly disproportionate) fear of stranger rape serves. It’s actually a fairly clever method of social control of women – getting them to limit their own behaviour and believe that they need the ‘protection’ of men if they dare to go out in public. It also helps to detract the focus from where the real risk of rape lies of course.

Mary // Posted 6 October 2009 at 10:10 pm

@gadgetgal – yes, totally! I get so annoyed by people who raise the question of “but don’t women have a responsibility to keep themselves safe?”, as if there were thousands of us gormlessly wandering around who have NEVER HEARD that there might be people out to attack us and their information is all new and exciting!

Plus, of course, it’s frequently the same men who believe they “know” how women can protect themselves who are the first to undermine women doing just that:

“Let me give you a lift home, love. You shouldn’t be out by yourself at this time of night.”

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

“No, you really should get in the car. It’s not safe. There’s all sorts out at this time.”

“No really, I’m fine, thanks anyway.”

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, it’s not far.”

“No, tell me where you live – it’s probably on my way.”

“Really, I’m fine. Thanks anyway.”

“Well if anything happens to you, don’t say I didn’t warn you – bitch!”

Mary // Posted 6 October 2009 at 10:20 pm

(sorry, forgot there were two comments I meant to answer!)

@Lara – to be honest, it probably is quite reasonable for a man to have more to fear in that situation than a woman. A man who’s already het up is more likely to have a swing at another man than they are at a strange woman, for all sorts of reasons to do with machismo and territory and that. It’s one of the reasons why female bouncers are effective, because small women can often de-fuse situations whereas big men look like they can give as good as they get ramp them up. It’s not as straight-forward as bigger = less vulnerable.

I’ve been in situations like that where I’ve just glanced at the woman and said, “You all right?” and she’s nodded or whatever, and it’s been just enough to de-fuse the tension and cause the bloke to step down a bit without putting myself in danger. I’ve no idea what’s happened after I’ve kept going, of course, and I’m not claiming that it would deter someone who was hell-bent on assaulting someone. But if it’s a situation that’s getting out of hand but hasn’t quite got there yet, even just a minor interruption like that can make everyone stop, take a breath and think before they make the next move.

That said, I am NOT suggesting anyone puts themselves in danger: it’s very much only something to do if you feel fairly confident about your ability to deflect any negative attention and get away safely.

saranga // Posted 6 October 2009 at 10:36 pm

Hi all. Thanks for the direct answers back. They’ve made me think. I am in no way an apologetic feminist – i’m out and proud about my feminism all the time, so I wonder why i still think in terms of having to protect myself?

I know that, realistically, if I get attacked it will be by someone I know. I know that what i wear, how drunk or flirty I am, or how ‘whatever’ I am, doesn’t make it my fault if I were to get attacked. (btw I have never been attacked, but plenty of my friends have).

Yet, I have a little voice in my head that says, if I walk home drunk, loud, wearing a short skirt, through a ‘rough’ area, or do any of the no no’s, then if I get attacked my family and friends will say ‘but why did you do x, y or z, didn’t you know what would happen?’

At which point it won’t matter what i think, or who’s fault it actually was, but I will feel guilty and blame myself.

And my friends and I are (mostly) progressive. I know all the rational feminist points about why these warnings, emails etc are full of sexist victim blaming shit. It proves that despite my (what some may say radical) nature, I am still very poorly influenced by this rape apology and victim blaming culture that we have.

Arrggh!

saranga // Posted 6 October 2009 at 10:41 pm

@gadegtgal: In my experience I reckon it would be those men who would be most likely to cross the line and do something abusive.

Kit // Posted 7 October 2009 at 7:12 am

@saranga “…so I wonder why i still think in terms of having to protect myself?”

It might be just the general “just be careful when you’re out at night, alone,” messages anyone (even men) get that you’re feeling there. I know I tell my guy friends to be careful when they’re walking around at night on their own, and getting mugged or beaten up by a group of people is what I’m more concerned about when I do the same. I’ll be damned if I let that stop me from enjoying nifty nightime walks on my own though :)

MariaS // Posted 8 October 2009 at 8:35 pm

Two brilliant links to send in reply

Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed To Work – http://nonotyou.tumblr.com/post/168208983/sexual-assault-preventiontips-guaranteed-to-work

Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced – http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

Maxine // Posted 12 October 2009 at 9:57 am

I’d really love to have some handy statistics on the levels of rape in countries where full coverage clothing is standard and women don’t leave the house except in the company of male relatives/protectors to shoot this sort of argument down good and proper. All the articles I read point to *higher* incidence of rape in those circumstances (- though I’m sure it’ll be blamed on the ‘victim looked at me in a slutty way/showed her ankles/spoke too loudly’ sort of argument, there, too.).

My point: it doesn’t matter what a woman is wearing or doing, it’s the view of her body as automatically male property that is the problem. In fact, hiding away the female body seems to make it worse, as it adds to the dehumanising of the victims – where women externally appear to be interchangeable, it’s easier to imagine a right of access to any one.

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