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3 January 2013

Laurie Penny on rape culture and apologists

We must fight the voice that says: stay home, keep your legs closed and your eyes lowered. In 2013, we face a choice.

By Laurie Penny

‘‘It’s always sad to see young women become victims of sexual offences,” wrote Heather Keating, the head of Hastings Police, on her Twitter feed on the last day of 2012. “Don’t Drink too much on New Years Eve [sic] and regret your actions!” There’s a slim chance she could have been talking to men, telling them not to get drunk and assault someone, but that’s not a message that law enforcement has yet managed to promote successfully in the 21st century. Sadly, Keating’s meaning was as clear as it was predictable: women should take responsibility for “protecting” themselves from sexual assault because sexual assault is just a fact of life.

It was a good year for rape apologists in 2012. We had American politicians telling us that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape”, that “some girls rape easy”; we had a British politician telling us that date rape is simply “bad sexual etiquette”. But as Jessica Valenti wrote in The Purity Myth, “being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”

Keating’s words, by contrast, recall the depressing dogma of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who told a group of female students in Toronto in 2011 that they should avoid “dressing like sluts” if they didn’t want to be raped, kicking off the SlutWalk protests around the world.


Keating later qualified her tweet, insisting that “I am trying to protect victims of crime”. Undoubtedly she is. Structural sexism does not always come from a place of hate. When our great-grandparents’ generation urged their daughters to marry young or face social purgatory they thought they were doing so in their best interests. A hundred years later, when we tell our friends and children and younger sisters not to stay out late, not to walk in certain areas of the city after dark, and not to go out and get hammered in Hastings, we are thinking the same thing. We tell women and girls these things, not always because we secretly hate them, but because we care about them, we want to protect them, individually, from a world that we know isn’t as equal as we sometimes pretend.

This is what we are fighting when we fight rape culture – not just career misogynists spreading their bile over the airwaves like so much tacky mucus, but the quiet voice inside us that whispers, “Not so fast.” The voice that tells us that if only we stay home and keep our legs closed and our eyes lowered we’ll be safe.

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Unfortunately, however, rape culture gets you coming and going. It is precisely about fear, about creating a culture where women are afraid to participate in public life as men do. A life lived in fear of sexual violence, a life where you cannot take the risks that men take without anticipating physical attack or, worse still, being attacked and then blamed for it, is not a life lived freely. It isn’t even going to protect you or those you love: in a recent study, more than half of all rape victims in the United States reported being raped by an intimate partner, a boyfriend, husband or lover. Most rapists are known to and trusted by the person they assault. Behaving “responsibly” is not, ultimately, any protection against sexual violence. 

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Here’s what is understood when a senior police officer broadcasts a public message warning women not to do something they’ll “regret” on a night out: this is the way the world is. Rape and sexual assault are facts of life and, much as we may disapprove, much as we may want to see rapists brought to justice, there is nothing we can do to combat structural violence. That kind of rape myth is damaging enough when it comes from a friend or a parent. It’s far more harmful when it comes from law enforcement, or from an official government source.

A promise of justice

Sometimes change can happen all at once. We have seen that in the past fortnight, as the citizens of India rose up to demand a new settlement for women. The unnamed 23-year-old student who died after a gang rape on a bus that left her intestines pulverised had taken precautions. She was travelling with a male friend. That had long been seen as the only thing that could be done to avoid sexual assault, widely accepted as part of women’s lives in India.

Sometimes a tipping point is reached. This past week, the people of India held vigils to say: enough. Rape should never be something that women have to put up with. Not in India, not in Europe, not anywhere. Politicians have come forward to promise justice, after riots and demonstrations in every major city. Suddenly, across this country of 1.2 billion people, women and their allies are beginning to work, in the words of Alasdair Gray, as if they lived “in the early days of a better nation”.

Here’s what we must begin to say to today’s young women, all over the world. Rape does not have to be a fact of life. It is not your responsibility to be cautious, to restrict yourself, to be quieter and better-behaved so that men don’t rape you. If you choose to live your life in fear of male violence, nobody will think any less of you – the fear is pertinent and legitimate, and sometimes there are grave consequences for women who talk too loudly and flirt too much and take too many risks. Yet there are also consequences for those who don’t.

A life lived in fear, as the women of India and their allies taught us in the final days of 2012, is not a life lived freely. In 2013, we face a choice. Do we accept the current prevalence of sexual violence and teach our daughters always to be afraid of it – or do we work as if we lived in the early days of a better nation?