It seems like you can barely swing a well worn cliche around these days without hitting a sombre editorial lamenting how women suck at life. From the more asinine concerns around their geriatric-at-35 singlehood (could it be that you’re too picky, ladies?) to slightly more obnoxious frets about their clothing choices (when did empowerment start to resemble a porn set, amirite Angela?!), you’d be forgiven for thinking women stumble around all day like a wind up toy, only changing direction when they bump into a table leg or have a kindly man pick them up to gently urge them back towards the Safe Zone.
As irritating as this sort of fluff is, there’s something else that’s been worrying Concerned Citizens lately. Namely, why do women walk around without due diligence, refusing to take responsibility for their own safety in the badlands of society’s streets? While it’s true that reading maps is just one of the many, many things that women are bad at, even a cursory glance at urban cartography should reveal to them the giant land mass directly outside the perimeter of their home and local church that screams, ‘HERE BE MONSTERS’. And so, knowing how dangerous the world is for them, why don’t they listen and realise that they need to take more care?
In the condescending echo chamber that shudders into life every time conservations around harassment and sexual assault come up, there’s one argument that comes up time and time again. Where logic is concerned, it’s so ludicrous that it hardly bear acknowledging even by the process of contradiction. However, because people continue to use it to such stupifyingly large degrees, I thought it was high time that someone turned a hand to dismantling it once and for all. Let us begin.
If you leave your keys in your car, don’t be surprised if someone steals it.
Listen, it’s simple ladies. If you drive your vagina around and leave it double parked on a dark street with the keys dangling in the ignition and an apple pie on the dashboard, how can you expect someone not to amble past and just take it? I mean, if I were to just wander off and leave my wallet sitting on the table in a cafe, should I be surprised if I return later to find it gone? More to the point, if (as one commentor so helpfully asked a few months ago) I were to spread all of my possessions on my front lawn and retreat to the comfort of my living room for a Here Comes Honey Boo Boo marathon, can I really complain if I emerge, hours later, bleary eyed from the self induced high of a televisual acid trip, to the astonishing revelation that my worldly goods have been pilfered by opportunistic suburban thieves? Indeed, I cannot!
The lesson is simple: there are petty criminals lurking around every corner just waiting for hapless dames like you to walk around with money spilling out of your meat purses, so you should always put the club lock on your Honey Boo Boo.
It’s hard to believe, but such arguments are usually offered with a kind of arrogant ‘checkmate’ tone to them, as if sexual assault is merely the inconvenient by-product of Forgetful Girl Brain and not one of the most traumatic violations a person can experience. Worse, these kind of dismissive hypotheticals place victims at the forefront of blame. When we create and perpetuate caveats like this, we confirm to victims of sexual assault something that many are already deeply troubled by. That they could have done something different. That they asked for it. That they didn’t fight hard enough. That they deserved it.
The idea that we could possibly allow any victim of assault, sexual or otherwise, to think that they had somehow asked for it is so anathema to the idea of human decency that it beggars belief. Nobody asks to be raped. And vaginas don’t come with a goddamn steering lock.
Yet this argument persists because I think we’ve never really addressed the root of its logical inconsistency. A vagina is not a car, and rape is not the same thing as opportunistically taking someone’s abandoned wallet from a coffee table. Do you know why? Because if I leave the keys in my car - AND I’M SITTING IN MY CAR - anyone who comes along and tries to steal it will have to physically assault me in order to take it. If I sprawl all of my possessions on the front lawn of my house and then embark on my Honey Boo Boo marathon, that’s not an invitation to rape - it’s a sign that it’s hard rubbish day.
Presenting vaginas as disembodied possessions just waiting to be stolen isn’t just inaccurate (and searingly offensive - how many people who cursed Peter Slipper for comparing vaginas to mussels have invoked the old car key argument?) it also completely denies the reality of assault by shifting it into some kind of arbitrary narrative of property theft. Enduring rape has exactly zero things in common with the insignificant inconvenience of having to replace your credit cards, and it certainly isn’t done by stealth. When a woman puts on a short skirt, she isn’t signalling her exit from the building that is her body. She hasn’t left her car running on an empty street and wandered off to find some frozen yoghurt. All she’s done is put on a short skirt. You still have to ask her if she wants to have sex with you. You should still want to ask her.
Viewing a woman’s clothing as any kind of sign that she’s abandoned ship just confirms the idea that women aren’t truly in possession of their sexuality - that it exists for them to guard and for other people to take. Crucially, the reason so many men are upset by this prospect and use this argument in such fearful ways is because their concern stems from a desire to protect women from sexual assault rather than prevent it, thus allowing it to continue unabated by never really putting in the effort to take a stand against it.
If it’s true that rape was traditionally used (and continues to be used in some instances) as a weapon not against women but against men, it stands to reason that one of man’s greatest fears is being unable to protect the women he loves from this so-called reality of sexual violence. So what is actually being said when we ‘remind’ women that they’re vulnerable is this: Men cannot be there to protect you from ‘the monsters’ all the time, so for heaven’s sake, would you please meet them halfway and give them peace of mind by not behaving in ways that they think encourages others to rape you and disempower them. It’s not unnatural to want to protect the people in your life - but in this instance, it’s immensely unhelpful to assume that the best advantage women can have is male protection rather than a commitment to create the kind of world in which they can be equal beings, entitled to protect themselves.
What we should be saying is this: there is no excuse for rape. Period. What we should be doing is taking the level of effort and energy currently heaped into educating women on how they need to modify their behaviour in order to prevent sexual assault (which doesn’t work and doesn’t account for the fact that the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim). We should be educating everybody that sexual assault of any kind is never okay, and you can't just jump in a woman's front seat and drive her away as if she has no one but her careless self to blame.
Next time: How men can help in the quest to radically change women’s safety on the street. And it has nothing to do with offering protection.
Clementine will be talking feminism, writing, life and love with Nelly Thomas and Catherine Deveny on Sunday Nov 4 at the Bella Union at Trades Hall, Melbourne. Tickets are available here.