A few weeks ago I attended the first session of a RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) Self-Defense course for women. It was presented as something empowering and was promoted by the counseling center at my university, so my friend and I thought we’d try it out. Unfortunately, where we expected empowerment, we got victim-blaming. I was under the impression that self-defense could be taught in a way that didn’t walk the line of victim-blaming, but now I’m not so sure. Although the intentions in teaching self-defense are good, in the end it is not empowering to tell women that they can prevent themselves from being raped. It’s victim-blaming.
The class began with a PowerPoint presentation of “risk reduction” techniques. Slide after slide, we were given lists of things that we were supposed to do/not do. The advice became more and more absurd, from getting a specific kind of blinds for your windows to refusing help when your car is broken down on the side of the road. I was personally called out on one piece of advice: don’t ever answer your door if you’re not expecting someone. The instructor asked if any of us had ever done that, and I raised my hand. Just that week I had answered the door for a dishwasher repairman, whom I wasn’t expecting, but gladly let in because our dishwasher was broken. He was a perfectly pleasant man who fixed our dishwasher in less than five minutes. The instructor’s consequent reprimand and look of disbelief said to me, “How stupid are you for letting a stranger into your apartment?!” It seemed that the onus was one me if something bad were to happen, because I was foolish enough to answer the door.
Uh, nope. The only one ever responsible for a rape is the rapist. Needless to say, this interaction made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. I began to feel that the general message being portrayed was that as a woman, I should never trust anyone, especially men. And while this might be the “safe” thing to do, it is no way to live. All of the “advice” we are given only heightens our paranoia and makes women feel like they must do these things or be raped, which leads them believe that they are responsible for preventing it. In addition, the sheer amount of restrictions placed on women in the name of safety is absurd. Why should I have to consciously change the way I live and tiptoe around carefully just so my bodily autonomy isn’t violated? That’s bullshit. The behavior of the rapist is what needs to change, not mine.
After the first class, my friend and I did not go back. We both felt incredibly uneasy about it, and after I further examined my feelings I understand why. Insinuating that rape is preventable by anyone other than the rapist is not empowering. Because we live in a culture that continually puts the responsibility on women not to be raped, our focus does not need to be on self-defense. Our focus needs to be on the people perpetrating the crimes, and the society that allows these crimes to happen. As Anne Theriault writes so eloquently, “Rape is not an accident that happens to you because you didn’t take enough precautions or because you weren’t paying close enough attention. Rape is a deliberate choice for violence and harm made by another person.”
We’ve all heard the commonly given advice to women about what we shouldn’t do: don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t go out alone at night, don’t drink, don’t talk to strangers, etc. Like the advice given to me in class, this list equates to victim-blaming. When you get down to it, risk reduction often doesn’t even work because most rapists are acquaintances or romantic partners, rather than strangers in dark alleys. Not going out alone at night isn’t going to stop your boyfriend from raping you. Being sober isn’t going to stop anyone from assaulting you. The misconception that rape only occurs in some abstract scenario in a deserted alley perpetuates the myth that women can prevent their own assaults. In reality, this is simply not true. Even if you take every possible precaution, rape can still happen. And that is never your fault.
So I become very frustrated when I hear about the innovation of Anti-Rape Underwear and the call for women to moderate their drinking habits to avoid being raped. These things only serve to keep the responsibility on women to prevent rape and sexual assault. What about educating men about the connection between alcohol and rape? The connection is an important one, but we won’t make any progress if we only include victims in the discussion. I see the Anti-Rape Underwear as a modern-day chastity belt that is completely unnecessary and misses the point entirely. The point, which continues to elude almost everyone, it seems, is that rapists bear the full responsibility for their crimes. The victim is never, ever to blame. Until our society begins to understand this, I will not be attending any more self-defense classes.