Urging female college party-goers to take responsibility for their safety: sound advice or victim blaming?

women-partyEmily Yoffe’s article of October 15, recommending female students attending college parties avoid getting so intoxicated that the odds of falling victim to sexual assault increases, has polarized feminists responding to the article. Some viewed the article as reiterating practical, sound advice, while others viewed it as victim blaming and nurturing rape culture.

Our support for her advice, both here in the girlsCAN! blog and on Twitter, has also received a bit of backlash from some tweeters. It’s proven impossible to clarify our point in 140-character chunks, so we’re taking advantage of the unlimited space this blog offers to clarify our position and also comment on some critical points.Much of the controversy comes from non-shared definitions of words and concepts, particularly ‘responsibility’ and ‘blame’ as they pertain to the concept and issue of personal safety. This post will clarify our position in an attempt to remove any misunderstanding.

But first, it’s important to note that everyone commenting in the above mentioned Twitter conversation is a feminist, and therefore there are certain beliefs that we all share. Specifically:

  • Gender equality is the goal (we believe it’s the natural evolution of our society)
  • All forms of gender discrimination, particularly sexual assaults, must end
  • Attackers are 100% responsible for their actions, not victims
  • Blaming victims for being attacked is unjustified, and therefore inappropriate
  • Attackers need to be held responsible for their actions, every time
  • The current cultural attitude with respect to sexual assault needs to change from blaming victims by default to holding attackers accountable for their actions

These points (and others, since this isn’t an exhaustive list) are understood and shared by all feminists. We shouldn’t be spending time and mental/emotional energy accusing our feminist peers that they are somehow acting counter to feminist goals.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree on methods. Like any other group, there will always be times when a course of action has advocates and critics. But we need to examine the issue, not expend valuable energy questioning, much less attacking, the loyalty of feminists to feminism and its goals. These common beliefs and goals need to be taken for granted, not continually called into question. Otherwise we risk not attending to the genuine issue.

The root of gender discrimination is not found in the beliefs and actions of our feminist peers. We know this, so we need to keep that in mind when we’re discussing the issue with each other.

As for the particulars of the conversation, specifically regarding the definition and interpretation of ‘responsibility’ and ‘blame’ for the personal safety of girls, here is our position:

First priority: define ‘taking responsibility for ones own safety’. This simply means taking actions prior to entering, and while in, a situation in which risk exists to ones personal or property safety. It does not mean that, having been attacked, a girl should take responsibility for the attack. I’m not sure why anyone would think that people working for a charity dedicated to gender equality would advocate such a stance.

In addition, critics of both Yoffe and our tweets insist that there’s nothing a female can do to mitigate her risk, and this is absolutely not the case. Personal safety techniques have been taught and successfully applied for decades by females and males, young and old, students and business people, abroad and at home. They’re not foolproof, but when implemented have a measurable risk reduction effect.

Gender discrimination, which includes sexual assault, is a very complex, multidimensional issue. Yoffe’s article dealt with only one dimension of the issue—the ability of female party-goers to favorably or unfavorably affect their personal safety based on their actions.

A number of critics took issue with the fact that Yoffe didn’t also mention that it’s the attackers who are to blame for attacks, not victims. While Yoffe could have expanded her article to include that dimension of the issue, she didn’t. Omitting this important aspect, however, did not undermine her advice: that female party-goers can increase their safety by not becoming incapacitated by alcohol. This advice is sound, and applies just as much to males since they can also be attack victims.

And this is where communication broke down. Many people didn’t like the idea of encouraging girls to take responsibility for their own safety—which is our position. It was felt by some that this advice was synonymous with placing blame on attack victims. But that’s simply not the case. Urging girls to take responsibility for their own safety, and the safety of those they care about, is common sense. See our clarification paragraph above.

We all do things to mitigate potential harm every day. We lock our house and car doors. We drive the speed limit. We don’t drive drunk. We look both ways before crossing the road. We wear helmets when riding a bike. We don’t walk out of an ABM flashing a wad of cash. These kinds of harm mitigation/prevention actions are common sense, and when someone advises people to take these simple precautions, they aren’t vilified.

Now, clearly, taking such precautions doesn’t guarantee that something bad won’t happen. All we can hope to achieve by taking these steps is to lower the odds of bad things happening. And that’s exactly what girls do when they take responsibility for their personal safety: they reduce the likelihood of being attacked. Not to zero. That’s impossible.

We’d like to make an important clarification: taking steps to increase safety does not mean that if one is attacked that they are to blame. Responsibility for ones own safety and blame for an attack are distinct things. The attacker doesn’t have a responsibility for the victim’s safety, the potential victim does. Conversely, if someone is attacked, they are not to blame for the attack, the attacker is. Taking responsibility for personal safety and being blameless if attacked are not mutually exclusive. We believe strongly that no attack victim is to blame for being attacked.

The alternative to girls taking personal responsibility for safety, in the short term at least, is for them to place responsibility for their personal safety in the hands of the attackers. That doesn’t sit well with us, which is why we supported Yoffe’s advice. Taking on personal responsibility is something that girls—everyone—have 100% control over. They can decide to take steps to mitigate risk or they can decide not to. What they don’t have control over is predators’ behavior, so if girls have a choice between putting their safety in the hands of a predator (hoping the predator grows a conscience?) or taking control of their own safety (eg: going to parties with friends, not drinking from a punch bowl, never leaving their drink unattended, not compromising their ability to spot danger by being too drunk, etc.), then we advocate girls choose the later. Every time.

In the long term, the goal is to alter the way males (we’re talking about male attackers in this discussion, although we acknowledge that males can also be attack victims) perceive and treat females. The ultimate goal is to create an environment in which girls are never attacked, regardless of their level of sobriety. But we’re not there yet. We need to continue to advocate for the way it should be while taking precautions for the way it is. That’s all Yoffe was saying in her article.

With respect to affecting the odds of being attacked, people do have a degree of control over this potential outcome, and they owe it to themselves to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim, at least to the full extent possible. Again, this doesn’t guarantee that another female won’t ever be attacked. Everyone is aware that’s not realistic. But efforts to make oneself safer are effective enough that they are worth taking, and making girls aware of techniques that increase their personal safety is the responsible thing to do.

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