Recently there has been a slew of media activity about women and rape, sparked in part by Joanna Lumley's controversial 'advice' to young women. Lumley warned not to "be sick in the gutter at midnight in a silly dress... because somebody will take advantage of you". This in turn prompted Gloucester MP Richard Graham to jump on the bandwagon and advise women against high heels and short skirts, on the basis that it makes it more difficult to run away in the event of a run-in with a rapist. Points about how clothes do not spontaneously appear on a woman prior to leaving the house but are in fact designed and marketed specifically with the idea that they should be worn on a night out aside, there is something deeply unsettling about the attitude people seem to have towards rape victims.
I don't mean to tar Lumley and Graham with the same brush as Todd Akin when it comes to opinions on rape; I think that their comments were more based on misguided ideas than any truly ingrained victim-blaming mentality. Neither seemed to have any malicious intent and it would be churlish to infer otherwise. Their opinions, however, do draw attention to the depressing trend in conversations about rape to list all the ways that the victim could have avoided their fate before even beginning to penalise the perpetrator. The idea that a hemline or heel height should be held accountable is offensive to men and women alike. Rape victims are not Sirens who lure in unsuspecting attackers, and rapists should never be treated as if they are merely people with a lower threshold to withstand desires of the flesh than others. Rape is a direct and deliberate act, not a result of a lack of control.
What disconcerts me most about these discussions, even more so than the nonchalant and offensive treatment of rape victims, is the insistence of discussing sexual assault not in terms of people, but in terms of bodies. 'She was asking for it', the oldest and unfortunately most prevalent victim-blaming adage, is almost invariably linked to the inability of men to control their primal urges when faced with a scantily-clad women. This is wrong on so many levels. Bodies are not separate entities from people - when we talk of rapists, we are not talking about wild lust and irrepressible bodily reactions but people, with intentions and responsibility to face up to their acts of cruelty. When we discuss rape victims, it's not thighs and breasts at the centre of the discussion, but human beings. It may well be easier to couch rape in abstract, personality-free terms, but that is not and never will be how it is. Neither bodies nor clothes cause rape; people do.
One of the best examples of this deliberate detachment of emotion and act is the stock example people give when talking about avoiding rape, which is comparing rape victims to property of some sort - emphasised by Richard Graham's repeated references to 'risk management'. Those who happened to be drunk at the time of their attack are met with analogies of unlocked houses from which possessions are stolen, flashy watches that lead to muggings, and so on. Dehumanising women by likening them to material goods is hardly anything new, but the extension of this comparison to rape victims is one that I personally find disgusting. As a student who is admittedly much too drunk much too regularly, it's deeply troubling to know that should I ever undergo the terrible experience of being raped, countless people will chalk it up to the sexual equivalent of having my front door unlocked.
Graham and Lumley, however unwittingly, are representations of the depressingly widely held notion that rape victims have no concern for personal safety, and that any trouble that befalls them is therefore their own fault. In reality, there is no precaution that you can take. You cannot lock your body like a car and consider yourself home safe or ward off potential attackers with thicker tights and higher necklines. The world demands an impossibly high degree of self-awareness from rape victims that simply isn't expected of those who are robbed or mugged. We are taught not to steal, lie and fight, but we are not taught not to rape - we are told instead, that we should not be rape victims. The status of 'victim' is seen as avoidable, rather than the status of 'rapist'.
I do agree with Richard Graham on one point - that this is an issue that needs to be discussed. But not in the same way it has been done for decades. In a world where politicians believe that sexual assault is nothing more than 'bad sexual etiquette', lawyers deeming rape victims to be partially responsible for their attacks because they aren't 'respectable' and a startling number of victims choosing to stay silent rather than risk coming forward, it is time to stop harping on about exposed body parts and begin to be concerned about the people attached to them.
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