Why staying safe isn’t victim blaming
Recently University of NSW emailed their staff and students reminding them about personal safety. To me that demonstrates a caring employer. But not everyone saw it that way. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, stated that the “email has received backlash from students for placing the onus on victims of sexual assault and harassment to stay safe.” Perhaps they were expecting the staff to place posters around campus stating: “Please don’t sexually Assault anyone”? A casual staff member of the university was quoted as saying the email read like a “rape myth bingo card.” Of course, as does so often happen, there were accusations of ‘blaming the victim,’ an accusation which is meant to make some feel guilty.
Suggesting that there are reasonable measures one can take to safeguard against being the victim of someone else’s criminal, immoral, neglectful, or just plain nasty behaviour is not blaming the victim. Further, taking responsibility for our own safety and wellbeing is not suggesting that perpetrators are not guilty. Offering some advice, before or after the event, because you care about someone is not blaming them nor is it excusing perpetrators. It is simply caring. Perpetrators can still be held 100% responsible and potential victims can still take reasonable measures to minimise their risk. An increase in self-responsibility does not mean any decrease in the guilt of perpetrators.
As an example, suppose I leave my car unattended with the keys in the ignition while I go shopping. Further suppose that my car gets stolen (yes, I know my car can get stolen even if I don’t leave the keys in the ignition). If you tell me “You shouldn’t have left your keys in the car,” the PC brigade would accuse you of ‘blaming the victim.” First, I agree 100% that I shouldn’t have left my keys in the car. Second, I agree 100% that the thief should not have stolen the car, but we don’t live in PCville or Should-land and there are plenty of people who when they see a car with the keys in the ignition will help themselves. Are they 100% guilty? Absolutely! Are there precautions I could have taken to minimise the risk of theft? Absolutely!
Consider another example. Earlier this year I was having dinner with an old mate in a nice quiet little community outside of New York City. We were in a restaurant and he noticed my wallet on the table. He said, “Anthony, do me a favour: when you are back in Manhattan don’t leave your wallet on the table in a restaurant the way you have done here or it will be gone.” He was not trying to make me feel guilty or judging me in anyway. He just wanted me to avoid being the victim of a thief; something he had seen many times before. I was grateful to him for that advice as it indicated that he had more wisdom in such situations and was, so to speak, “looking out for me.”
Maybe I’m biased because I had a policeman for a father. Too many times in his long career he had to deliver bad news to families because their son, daughter, brother, or sister was the victim of a selfish criminal. For me and my sister growing up, there were strict non-negotiable rules about where we could go, what we could do, and who we could be with – not because we were irresponsible, but because he knew that outside of the home could be dangerous and he could not always be there to protect us. He was not interested in ‘what should be’ but rather ‘what is.’
Now let’s return to the example that brings out the most criticism. The sad truth is that there are maladjusted men out there who prey on women. We have laws in place that make it illegal for them to assault and abuse women but they do it anyway. Laws don’t always guarantee personal safety. There are measures that women can take to minimise the chances of being another statistic. Of course, there are no guarantees and there will always be times when no matter what a person does to protect themselves some deranged person will find a way to attack. But if we can lower the risks through sensible education programs and discussion then I think there will be major benefits to society. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that women should remain at home, as is the case in some societies – only that it is wise to exercise reasonable caution.
Now for those who think our best shot at safety is changing the behaviour of others, then go for it. I sincerely hope you are successful in changing people so that they no longer engage in behaviour that hurts others. Social history does not augur well for such a one-sided approach. I believe in teaching men to be men and be respectful and in imposing strong deterrents for violating the rights of others. But the sad truth is, there are always going to be people in society who don’t care about consequences either to others or themselves. What then? Until then, we need to look out for ourselves and one another.