On Bootstrapping and How Not to Get Raped

One of the biggest widespread mistakes this culture has made in dealing with rape and sexual assault is in the repeated insistence on telling people (primarily women) how not to get raped. Colleges spend scads of money every year on education sessions, passing out free rape whistles, tipsheets, and safe ride services. City police forces and other agencies offer workshops. Women and girls are told to do this, not do that, attend self-defense courses, carry mace. All of these things are done in the name of public service, in the name of rape prevention.

Preventing rape, on its surface, sounds like a very good thing to be doing. But, as many critics have pointed out, this particular approach has a very obvious flaw: it makes victims responsible for rape and sexual assault. By saying that victims have an obligation to prevent rape, the implication of such programmes is that when people are sexually assaulted, it is because of something they did (or didn’t do). It is their fault, and their responsibility, because the actions of their assailants were under their control. If they had wanted to avoid sexual assault badly enough, they would have been able to prevent it.

Those implications carry over into wider society. Many people believe that people bear at least some degree of culpability in their own sexual assaults, and that’s reinforced in a variety of ways. The media comments on what victims were wearing, where they were at the time of assaults, and their professions. In court, they’re dragged through the mud in an attempt to give them a bad reputation, as though this has bearing on whether they are responsible or if the accused should be given a break. Celebrities and members of the public distinguish between ‘rape-rape’ and ‘real rape’ and ‘forcible rape’ and other fascinating varietals of rape, as though it’s somehow quantifiable and scaleable.

Implication being, of course, that there are false rapes.

From the way rape is depicted in pop culture to the way that young women talk about rape in college environments, there’s an overwhelming and repeated message that rape is the responsibility of the person who is raped. That any time someone experiences sexual assault, it’s appropriate to interrogate the victim to find out what happened and why; both to blame the victim for the situation and to reassure the interrogator that it can’t happen to anyone else. After all, if the victim did nothing wrong, that would suggest that sexual assault can happen to anyone, and actually isn’t under the control of its target at all, and this is a deeply troubling thought for much of society.

Very few rape prevention programmes focus on the more pressing issue: teaching people not to rape. If you want to stop rape, the obvious approach is getting rapists to stop doing it, because they are the ones who are actually responsible for rape and sexual assault. Their attitudes about victims, their beliefs that some people are targets, their need to exert power and control over people through violation, these are the issues. Not the fact that some men are femmey, that some women wear short skirts sometimes, that some people walk in cities after dark on their way home or to work.

The people responsible for rape are rapists. Period. And this is a fact that such programmes, as well as society in general, seem very uncomfortable engaging with. Few colleges, for example, offer rape prevention programmes aimed at teaching college students how to avoid raping people, or how to intervene when it looks like someone might need help. The current focus of such programmes becomes objectifying, in many ways, making it seem like your body is something on display that can be stolen and abused unless you guard it carefully, which is, of course, reminiscent of very outdated and gross attitudes about bodies, sexuality, and autonomy.

The whole idea that victims are responsible for their own assaults is also, though, reminiscent of another common cultural attitude in the United States, and it’s worth linking the two together more explicitly. The entire narrative about rape and victims smells strongly like bootstrapping, setting up a narrative in which the people least able to control their environment are doomed to failure and then blamed for it. This is a country where people refuse to engage with systemic poverty and oppression because of the way the bootstrapping narrative has so thoroughly entrapped thinking and beliefs.

And thus, this is also a country where people looking at dynamics of sexual assault blame the victims instead of the assailants, expecting people to bootstrap their way out of sexual assault. If only you didn’t want to be raped hard enough. If you tried harder, you wouldn’t be sexually assaulted. You just need to be persistent, and you’ll have bodily autonomy. She hasn’t been raped, because she follows the safety tips, therefore you should have been more focused on not being sexually assaulted. The bootstrapping narrative dovetails so beautifully with attitudes about sexual assault that it’s honestly chilling.

And explicitly connecting these narratives expands the scope of the conversation about the problem with rape prevention programmes as they stand now, creating room to discuss ways in which they need to change. This isn’t just about creating a world where we educate people on the finer points of not being rapists. It’s also about creating a world where we educate people on the dangers of blaming people for situations that are utterly outside their control and ultimately determined by entirely external factors. Like, say, living in a misogynist society where women are treated as property.