On Tuesday, the South African Police Service sent a series of tweets detailing safety tips to avoid rape. In an extraordinarily ill-considered turn of phrase, they tweeted that SAPS Northwest “are concerned about escalating contact crimes due to victims who roam the streets late at night”.
Just let that sink in for a minute. “Due to”. In other words, because of.
I responded to the tweet, explaining that rape doesn’t happen because of victims walking alone at night, but because (some) men choose to rape, and that rapists are usually known to their victims — something, incidentally, I would expect the police to know. I then suggested they police the behaviour of perpetrators rather than victims.
SAPS has since withdrawn the tweet and apologised “unreservedly” for their choice of words, which is a relief. But the problem does not just lie with the phrasing; it’s with the very idea of “tips to avoid rape”.
Whenever anything is written about victim-blaming, someone will leave a comment explaining that there are ways to reduce your chances of being raped — don’t drink too much, don’t walk alone, and so forth. Why not do what you can? It’s not blaming, it’s risk mitigation!
Here’s the thing: The vast majority of South African women are very well aware that we are at risk of being raped every damn day of our lives. This is not our fault. It is the fault of people who see us as chattel and who actively decide to take away our bodily autonomy.
We already do things to “minimise the risk”. We avoid dark streets. We keep an eye on our drinks. We walk to our cars with our keys between the knuckles of our index and middle fingers, in case we need to stab.
This has not protected a large number of women I know from being raped.
Do you think this is fair?
The problem with risk mitigation advice is that when someone did not follow one of these rules and does, by chance, get raped, the implication is that it was her fault for being careless. It was not. It was the fault of the man who chose to rape. It also ignores the fact that many women (and men) are raped or otherwise assaulted in other circumstances, such as in their own homes, sometimes by people they care about.
The next tweet from SAPS stated that “[a] number of cases were recently reported whereby victims were allegedly raped while walking alone during the night”. It would have been perfectly fine to state that there has been an increase in reported rapes in particular areas, as a general warning to the public. Of course, we would then also expect increased police patrols in these areas, to catch the alleged rapists.
Not only does the initial tweet place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victims (“You shouldn’t have been walking there!”), there is a big problem with that one little word, “roam”, which carries the suggestion of “roam free”. How dare we as women walk freely on the streets of our own country?
We do not need any more advice on how not to get raped. We need the people who have been tasked with protecting us to do their job.