Why Are We Still Telling Women ‘Be Careful’ Instead Of Telling Men Not To Rape?

Today, a 19 year old male was charged in relation to the rape and murder of a woman, whose body was found in Princes Park sporting precinct in Melbourne‘s Carlton North yesterday. It comes after a 21 year old woman told police she was grabbed by a man, thrown to the ground and sexually assaulted on March 28 on a road in nearby Parkville at 2.38am. Earlier this week, an 11 year old girl was abducted and sexually assaulted near a Newcastle school.

Three cases of violence against women within weeks of each other. But instead of sending a message to the nation about the abhorrent acts that have been committed, about the need for us to teach the men in our lives to, well, not rape and murder – we’re back here again.

With a stern warning for women to be more careful.

“My message is that people need to be aware of their own personal security and just be mindful of their surroundings,” Detective Inspector Stamper, who is working on the Carlton North case, told media this week. “If people should have any concerns at any time about their personal security, call triple-0.”

This isn’t a new attitude from police. Just last month, news.com.au reported about student assaults, interviewing a woman who went to the police about her rape and was cautioned with “be careful next time”. In 2013 when a teenager claimed she had been abducted and gang raped in Sydney’s Hills District, the message sent by Detective Superintendent John Kerlatec was ‘‘Police are urging women to walk in groups and stay in well-lit areas”. It’s not just the police, either. Every time women are attacked, we all see numerous Facebook posts and casual comments from radio and TV hosts urging women to take care, to be alert and aware, to change their behaviour for their own safety and to constantly worry about predators. A Facebook video about the Newcastle assault case has elicited plenty of comments questioning why the victim was walking to school, and her parents decision to allow her to do so alone.

Here’s the thing. SURE. Being cautious is a good plan in life. We already know this as women – we’ve spent our entire lives, from childhood, aware that there are fucked up men out there who could prey on us when we walk down dark streets – hell, they could prey on us in broad daylight. We’ve heard the stories. We walk with our keys between our fingers to our cars, we stay on the phone when walking down well-lit roads at night. It’s built into our psyche to be on high alert for predators at all times.

But when a person of high standing, someone with authority relating to a horrific act of violence against women steps up to the microphone and tells Australia that people (and we can read that as women given the act was against a woman, I feel) need to “be aware of their own personal security”, what he’s implicitly saying, even if he doesn’t intend to, is:

This is your fault.

When the message is this, it becomes our fault for being raped when we walk two blocks from the bus stop to our apartment at 2.30am after a night out. When we go on a dating app date to a busy pub, decide there’s a connection, go home with the man and get assaulted. When we go for an early morning jog around a park and get murdered. The onus is put on us to protect ourselves, not on the perpetrators who commit crimes.

I’m not saying everyone is intentionally blaming this woman for getting herself murdered. I’m aware most human beings are good, do not want women to be raped, and instinctually lean toward the “protect yourselves from harm” message because we can’t control the perpetrator, so we’d better warn women.

I’m saying when we issue this warning, we’re perpetuating rape culture. The “she asked for it because she was wearing a short skirt” mentality. It all carries the same message in the end – because the “be careful, don’t walk at night” response to rape and murder has the same undertone of the short skirt attitude, that it’s OUR behaviour that has to change.

So what can we do? Obviously a deranged rapist/murderer isn’t going to just stop raping and murdering because we tell him to. But… the majority of rapes aren’t committed by deranged rapists. There’s all the date rapes. The “good guys” like US college student Brock TurnerOne woman every week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia. Then you have the fact that 8 out of 10 women aged 18-24 have been harassed on the street.

It’s about changing the culture. The message authorities should be sending when crimes like this are committed should be “this is wrong, we will be hunting down the perpetrator, we are taking this seriously” not “ladies, be careful”. Changing the dialogue to lay direct blame solely on the perpetrator is a step toward changing rape culture.

Let’s also continue to educate the men in our lives – particularly the impressionable kids and teens – that sex isn’t something you take, harassment is not on, and the importance of respecting women and their bodies. Because the way to minimise the instances of men raping and murdering women is not by training women to live in fear, it’s by dismantling the ingrained misogyny that often perpetuates the violence.