Correcting the Messaging Behind Prevention Tips

by Melissa Bonnici

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the tips that we give others to prevent sexual assault. The phrase “Sexual Violence Prevention” often evokes a set of tips, often told to women and girls. These tips include but are not limited to:

  • Don’t walk alone, especially after dark.
  • Carry pepperspray or a whistle.
  • Watch your drinks.
  • Don’t wear revealing clothing.

While these tips are often well-intentioned, this approach to sexual violence prevention is severely flawed. First, some of these tips are based on myths. For example, not wearing revealing clothing stems from this idea that men who see women wearing revealing clothing will be aroused and will act on it, as if the clothing caused the assault. This is false. Most perpetrators cannot even remember what the victim/survivor was wearing.

Besides being based on myths, some of these may actually have detrimental effects. Sometimes, pepper spray or other self-defense weapons are actually taken by the perpetrator and used against the victim/survivor during the assault. Further, walking alone could actually encourage women to ask men to walk them home – which, for some women, has ended in assault.

Perhaps the worst aspect about these tips is that they may actually deter people from reporting an assault. If they were told they shouldn’t walk alone, and then they did and were assaulted, they may blame themselves – and not the perpetrator.

Again, these tips are well-intentioned and can be useful. To dispose of these tips completely would be a mistake. Some of the tips have worked well for people, and these tips can be empowering to people and make them feel safer. It’s absolutely their choice if they want to do them. It’s not the idea behind these tips that need to change; it’s the messaging behind them that needs to change. Instead of saying, You shouldn’t walk alone, we should be saying, I am concerned for your safety, please feel free to call me if you ever want someone to walk you home. Instead of saying, You should learn self-defense, we should be saying, Do you think you would feel more empowered by taking a self-defense course?  Essentially, we need to change the statements that include “should” to “you have this option that may help or empower you.” And we have to remind everyone throughout these statements that if anything were to happen, it is never their fault, no matter what they were wearing, drinking, or doing.

These tips, in their current format, may deter people from reporting an assault. If we tell people they shouldn’t walk alone, and they do and something happens, they may blame themselves – and not the perpetrator, letting them walk free. If we change the way we try to help others, we may bring about a safer world, in which survivors/victims can come forward without fear of being blamed and perpetrators are brought to justice.

 

References from:

Understanding Sexual Violence. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.fris.org/SexualViolence/SexualViolence.html

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