"Don't Drink"? How About "Don't Rape"?

by Dr. Christy Sim

consentHow many of us saw examples of phrases plastered all over social media that come in response to a recent sexual assault case and centers around how girls need to choose not to drink and party, as a means to protect ourselves from sexual assault?

Don't drink, girls! It's that simple!

Ladies: be aware. Don't get so drunk you pass out at parties.

Don't let yourself become more vulnerable by drinking.

The issue comes down to individual responsibility. Take care not to get so inebriated, you put yourself more at risk for rape.

Make wise choices. Keep yourself away from places that could have negative consequences.

Girls: use the buddy system. It's common sense.

We live in a sinful world. Women need to be careful and cautious.

Has anyone seen phrases like this? I know I have. Perhaps it even seems like simple logic.

My friend and colleague Pamela Jacobs (JD, consultant and national presenter) has the best response to these comments. "The only difference between a drunk girl who was sexually assaulted and a drunk girl who wasn't assaulted is that one of them was with a rapist."

By that same logic, the only difference between a sober girl who is raped and one who isn't, is… you guessed it. One of them was with a rapist.

So let's talk about the stark contrast between the quotes that started this piece and my friend's wisdom.

In the field of sexual assault prevention, where we provide care to those who experience that assault, we choose to respond in a way that calls for accountability of those who rape—over and above talking about ways to minimize risk of being a victim of assault. Because if we do not hold offenders accountable first, whether we like it or not, survivors feel like we are blaming them—because we make them the primary focus about what they should/shouldn't do rather than the person who chose to exert power and control over their bodies.

Consider this thought experiment: A survivor of sexual assault—someone whose body was literally violated by another person with unwanted touch, was humiliated, couldn't make the person stop, felt helpless and overwhelmed—reads the seemingly logical list of things she should or shouldn't have done in order to avoid assault. What conclusion do you think this person draws?  You guessed it:  "I shouldn't have been drinking. I shouldn't have been wearing that.  I shouldn't have…" In other words, she blames herself. She looks back on her situation and wonders what she did wrong.

Do you see how someone could arrive at the conclusion that our prevention lists, meant to minimize risk, look and feel like victim-blaming?

Check out Colleen Jameson's provocative Sexual Assault Prevention Tips.

If you're still with me, you'll understand that when a public case about sexual assault hits the media, our focus must be on the ones choosing to exert power over another by committing sexual assault, long before we think about giving advice on how to protect ourselves from the traumatic experience.

When a public case about sexual assault hits the inter-webs, we must insist there is a serious problem when one person believes they have the right to control another's body. This is true whether that be a drunk body or sober body, a body at a party or one at church. We call for accountability of those who perpetrate rape, first and foremost.

We demand respect for women's* bodies, no matter where those bodies are or what those bodies are doing.

And then, only then, as a secondary issue, do we talk about ways we can empower women and minimize risk of assault. But when we start talking like this, about techniques to minimize risk, we do so while also acknowledging full well that women could skip parties, never touch alcohol, do everything right…and still experience sexual assault.

don't rapeBecause truly, this is not about women—it's about those who perpetrate. It's about men who rape—and a small percentage at that (see "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" and "The Undetected Rapist" by David Lisak).

Sexual assault is about the offender who dominates and not about persons who didn't follow a perfect checklist of 'how not to get raped.' When it comes down to it, even the most perfect checklist of do's and don'ts really cannot protect women.

And that is absolutely terrifying.

This intense reality is a huge weight to carry and not to be taken lightly.

Therefore, when bloggers write and teachers teach and preachers preach about what could appear as a checklist (like "don't drink or party") as their primary focus in response to rape cases, they have skipped over the real issue, and by so doing, they have also minimized the extraordinary and overwhelming pain and agony of survivors. Their word choice makes it seem they have forgotten the fear women deal with daily—that no matter what women do (or don't do) to minimize risk, sexual assault is always a possibility, simply by being in the presence of a rapist.

What would any other prevention campaign that focused on victims instead of perpetrators look like?

Do we see "Mothers Against Getting in Cars While Others Could Be on the Road Drunk Driving"? No. We see mothers saying, "Don't drink if you're going to drive! Otherwise you might kill someone and/or yourself." They deal with the problem that is, not with protecting ourselves from the result of the problem.

Do we see "Protect Yourself While Others Could Be Under the Influence of Drugs"? No, we see "Stay Above the Influence! Just Say No!" These drug campaigns deal with trying to stop people from abusing substances, not protecting ourselves from those who abuse them.

Do you see the difference between how sexual assault is dealt with in the quotes that begin this piece and other campaigns? Do you see how sexual assault responses try to deal with victims instead of the root problem?

So why is sexual assault different? Why do we try to talk about not drinking, being aware, going in pairs, or not partying?

I think we treat sexual assault differently for at least two reasons. First is the fact that we care deeply about women who could be raped and want to protect them. And second, I propose it is because of our fears. Deep down we all know we can't protect ourselves or those we love from sexual assault any more than we can protect ourselves from drunk drivers. But unlike being a victim of drunk driving, sexual assault is a deep violation of women's very humanity. It is an internal disrespect of our bodies. It is losing control over what happens to us. It's an intense and horrible dehumanization.

So we talk about checklists as an attempt to gain control over a fear that causes us deep anxiety. We make sure we meet every opportunity possible to save a woman's life because we care about her.  But what we end up doing is ignoring the root issue as an attempt to keep ourselves safe and feel better.

The result is that everyone who has experienced sexual assault looks at these messages and feels it deep in their bones: "There's something I should have done. There's something I shouldn't have done." Basically, the person begins to feel that "it's my fault."

But hear me out. It is never a person's fault that they were victimized. Never. No matter what they did or didn't do. No matter if they were passed out drunk or if they were at the most dangerous frat party of the year. It is never the responsibility of a victim to keep themselves from being assaulted. It is the perpetrator's responsibility to NOT rape.

So let's change our responses when these stories hit the news. Let's deal with the deep fear and the root issue of this problem. Let's call out responsibility where it belongs. And let's support survivors with our responses. Because if we really care about women and we really want to deal with what scares us, the best way we can protect them is to empower them with tools that help them feel they are not to blame, help them know their experience matters regardless of what they didn't do or did do, and to let them know that we will hold their perpetrator accountable for the actions against their bodies. This is how we will effectively show we care.

* We acknowledge that men are also victims of rape, with no less devastating consequences. But college women experience rape at about four times the rate of college men, and are much more likely to be blamed for it, so we have framed this article in terms of female rape victims.

Dr. Christy Sim has a doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness with her main area of emphasis and research centering around healing after domestic violence. Her dissertation was titled "Body, Theology, and Intimate Partner Violence: Healing Fragmentation through Spiritual Play." She currently works at the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and sits on the Institutional Review Board for Claremont School of Theology, where she assesses care for vulnerable populations being researched by PhD and Masters students, but will soon take on the role of executive director of Stronger, an international faith-based organization that designs and trains in healing curricula for women who experience intimate partner violence.

In her chapter, "Celebration of Strength," published in Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith, she tells her own story of leaving an abusive relationship. You can follow her on Twitter @DrChristySim and on FaceBook as Dr. Christy Sim.

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3 Responses

  1. D says:

    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for writing and posting this message and discussion.

  2. Helen Wojciechowski says:

    Excellent! So easy to blame the victim when the problem is caused by the actions and choices of the perpetrator. 'Don't rape' is a message that all young men, and women, need to hear, along with 'No, means no!'

    I'm the mother of two sons, from their earliest days we taught them to respect other people's 'No' with a range of consistent messages.
    'When someone says no, they mean it' ~ 'It's your job to respect other people's 'No' ~ no matter how much you want them to say yes' ~ 'No, is a perfectly good answer' ~ 'If someone isn't free to say 'No' then their 'Yes' means nothing'.
    As far as I'm aware they've taken these messages into their adult life and will pass them on to any children of their own ~ great article Christy ~ thank you

  1. June 15, 2016

    […] "Don't Drink"? How About "Don't Rape"? […]

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