Sexual Assault: Don’t Let Fear Curtail Your Life Experience

Posted on August 16, 2013


Soraya Chemaly’s article at Salon, “Five Ways That ‘Staying Safe’ Costs Women,” explains how “trying to avoid sexual assault costs women money, time, and energy.”

Right up front, she gives the statistic: 75% of rapists are known to their victims, but women are trained from an early age to “do things in groups… so that they aren’t vulnerable to sexual assault.  …these rules reinforce a gender hierarchy dependent on girls being vulnerable and boys being invincible. Teaching girls to constantly modify their behavior in order to avoid stranger rape is a form of social control. …But even when we know the statistics, it’s hard to walk away from a lifetime of acculturated fear… Our freedom to explore is seriously impaired.”

I really bristled at a lot of her observations on the steps most women take – indeed, are expected to take – to avoid being vulnerable. Personally, I suspect that this is some kind of holdover from the bad old days when a proper young lady’s “virtue” was guarded at all times by chaperones, and she went straight from her father’s house to her husband’s.  Anything else carried socially unacceptable implications.  She wasn’t being protected from rapists in dark alleys; she was being “protected” from herself.  

My lifetime (at least, so far) has most definitely not been one of “acculturated fear,” although the occasional meddling old hen might have tried to help me along in that regard.  I was, from time to time, informed in that overly concerned yet faintly disapproving manner of such clucking hens, that “young ladies” should not do this or that.  As I began to mature, “this or that” more often included “appropriate” hours to be out or “appropriate” places to go, or admonitions that I should have a reliable young man with me, or that I should not drive long distances alone, or… whatever, but whatever it was, it was always stifling.  Oh, I certainly noticed that there was supposed to be this “gender hierarchy dependent on girls being vulnerable and boys being invincible”; but I simply, flatly rejected it.  No way was anyone going to impair my freedom to explore.  We only live once; I refuse to waste that time cowering at home or waiting for a “bodyguard” to escort me someplace.

Wherever I was stationed, I made the most of seeing the sights.  One weekend in Panama, I planned to go see an old Spanish fort about an hour up the coast.  None of my officer friends were interested, so I was inclined to go alone.  “Pleeeease don’t go alone, Lila!  It’s dangerous!”  “Well, then, come along,” I said.  “Meh,” was the response.  “We’re just going to stay in and watch TV.”  “Okay – if I don’t show up to work Monday, you know where I was headed,” I said, and off I went.  It was fun, I found new places to go scuba diving, I ate the local food, I talked to people.  Everyone I met was pleasant, and nothing bad happened.  This has been a pattern for me pretty much everywhere, and I think my experience of the world has been the richer for it.

This is not to say that I am outright foolhardy.  If 75% of rapists are known to the victim, well, 25% are not.  And then there are other crimes: robbery, carjacking, kidnapping for ransom (a veritable cottage industry in some places).  If someone wants to come along on trips like this, so much the better.  And I never do something like scuba diving, say, or skiing or horseback riding alone – not because I fear crime, but because other things can go wrong in potentially catastrophic ways and it’s nice to have someone to call 911, give first aid, or just, you know, get a coroner and a hearse to cart me off.

As far as fear of crime goes, your single best defense is situational awareness.  Prevention does not mean you have to stay locked in your house.  If you have a friend you can go places with, great, but don’t rely on them.  When you are out and about, know where you are going before you go.  Know what areas to avoid.  Know where you can get help.  Have some handy phone numbers to call in an emergency.  If you’re in a foreign country, a little extra homework is in order:  know a few basic phrases and carry a phrasebook (this opened a lot of friendly doors in Saudi Arabia).  Read up on the local news in advance (this has been very useful).  Know the address and phone number of the US Embassy or closest US Consulate (I have never had to use these but will always have them handy anyway).  Blend in as much as possible (I cannot stress enough how much better off I was on my own in Moscow, rather than as part of a big tour group).   Look around you and pay attention to how others behave.  Stay alert and interested in your surroundings.  In short – be sensible and in control.

But most of all, have fun.  That’s what life is for.