ANU lecturer highlights the dilemma of rape avoidance

Why is it that I still ask my adult daughters how they are getting home late at night?

The answer is revealed in last week's data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics: the number of sexual assault victims reached a nine-year high in 2018, more than 26,000 sexual assault victims, of whom over 22,000 were women. Murder, robbery, burglary, all down. Not sexual assault.

There's always an outcry when women are given advice about how to avoid sexual assault - and that's because it's drenched in a flood of victim-blaming. Shouldn't have done this. Shouldn't have worn that. Shouldn't have gone there at that time of night.

Protesters march in Melbourne last month calling for an end to violence against women following the tragic murder of Courtney Herron on May 25. Picture: AAP

Protesters march in Melbourne last month calling for an end to violence against women following the tragic murder of Courtney Herron on May 25. Picture: AAP

Mostly the advice is utterly pointless because women are not in any way to blame for sexual assault. After years and years of women expressing their fury at the way the police describe sexual assault, the tone changed this year when Courtney Herron was murdered. The Victorian assistant police commissioner, Luke Cornelius, admitted: "The key point is [that] this is about men's behaviour, it's not about women's behaviour ... women, and men, are absolutely entitled [to] and should feel safe to go about their normal day-to-day activities."

But we don't and we can't. In 2018, 22,000 women, the ones who survived their rapes, can attest to the fact that it is not possible for women to go about their normal day-to-day activities.

Can women avoid rape? There's a difference between blaming victims and acknowledging agency. One political philosopher does have a view - and she offers it only because we want to be safe while we work for society to catch up. Katherine Curchin, a lecturer in social policy at the Australian National University, feels the conflict strongly. On the one hand, she recognises how important it is for women to have autonomy but on the other hand women want to be safe from men who are rapists.

"These are cruel choices and in a better world we wouldn't have to make them," she says.

As a philosopher, she wants to nut out the dilemma: is there a legitimate role for rape avoidance advice for women as part of a larger suite of efforts aimed at reducing the prevalence of men's sexual violence?

Curchin well knows that focusing on the behaviour of women and girls makes it look like women are the problem, when we know it's men - some men - who are the problem. In a journal article published this month in the Women's Studies International Forum, Curchin acknowledges that much rape avoidance advice is poor but contends that if there's a taboo on providing rape avoidance advice, it may come at the cost of making women less safe.

"Some rape avoidance advice is so obviously founded in rape myths, it's not worth considering," says Curchin. But she believes there are steps individual women can take to lower though not eliminate the risk of sexual assault. Her aim is to "empower women to impede the operation of violent men . . . [and] we must raise boys to treat women and girls with respect and we must hold men accountable."

Rapists target women who are drunk, or ply their victims with alcohol, and then isolate them from their friends before raping them.

ANU lecturer Katherine Curchin

Best tip: Most sexual assaults happen at residences, according to the ABS. So, it's very important that you circulate the names of specific men who you know are perpetrators. These will be men you know, not strangers in the park. Tell your friends to help keep them safe. It's hard because our defamation laws actually discourage this so don't write anything down; and definitely don't post to Facebook.

Second best tip: "Research on the effectiveness of self-defence classes is still a work in progress but one study shows us that female undergraduates who received feminist self-defence training were less likely 12 months later to have been sexually assaulted than their peers who had not taken the training," says Curchin. The great thing about this tip is that it also teaches women to be less nice (I know. Sounds harsh. But nice never protected us from being raped.)

Third tip (which everyone will hate but hold on, Curchin has good reasons). Before we get to that, let me remind you that 94 per cent of rapes happen without a weapon used against the victim. Rapists target "women (often women they know) who are drunk, or ply their victims with alcohol, and then isolate them from their friends before raping them," she says.

It's definitely the most controversial advice and one that Curchin wouldn't have to give if men - some men - were better. But they aren't. So women once again must take responsibility while we work to make society and men - some men - better.

Taking these actions doesn't mean women are responsible for rape. It means men are. Just as we get vaccinated against influenza, think of these tips as protective. Yes, women should be free to get utterly pissed and be safe. But until men - some men - change, women won't be safe. Which reminds Curchin to say that we must also support women who've been heedless of any advice. Sexual assault is not a woman's fault. No-one deserves to be raped.

As she says: Those who issue rape avoidance advice face a trade-off between women's practical interests in enhancing their personal agency and their strategic interest in building a better world - a world with a deep and widespread commitment to everyone's right to be free from sexual violence.

The world we deserve.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.
This story Sex assault is not a woman's fault first appeared on The Canberra Times.