The other night, I went for a walk. Alone. In the dark. I walked to Java Jones with the express purpose of writing a column about how I have the right and the power to do just that – walk alone at night.
As women, we need to make smart decisions, protect ourselves and avoid dangerous situations. I walked at 10 p.m., down busy and lighted streets with pepper spray in hand. But I refuse to let fear control me, or keep me a prisoner in my own home. Educating myself is the first step – we need to educate ourselves so that all women can be safe and free from fear.
The rapes of the past weeks have brought sexual assault to the forefront of many people’s thoughts. This is very important and powerful. The attacks were horrible and nothing can lessen that fact. However, we must recognize that these kinds of attacks are rare.
Acquaintance rape is not rare. It is prevalent in our community. We must be aware of the dangers in our streets at night, but without letting fear interfere with our awareness of the real problems in our community. By focusing too much on being afraid, we are ignoring the places where we are most vulnerable.
Seventy-five percent of rapes are acquaintance rapes, according to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Assailants of the same racial background commit 80 to 90 percent of violent crimes against women. And 84 percent of rape survivors never reported the rape to the police.
These statistics show the recent attacks are exceptions to the rule. So why do the rare cases get all the press? Most times, when the survivor knows the rapist, there is so much guilt and self-blame that a woman will convince herself that it wasn’t really rape, even if by state standards and gut instinct it was. Additionally, rape survivors often fear that they will not be taken seriously and so they do not come forward. Finally, it is much harder to report a perpetrator who is our friend, neighbor, classmate, teammate or brother. It is much easier to scare women into changing their behavior than it is to change our language, jokes and behaviors that foster a rape culture.
While tabling on Oct. 2 for Students Stopping Rape, I was approached by a man who wanted to discuss some of our statements on sexual violence. He told us a story about a girl he knew who went out one night drinking with some friends that she had “known for a long time.” The three spent the evening at bars, “drinking and talking about sex,” as the man put it. Eventually, the three ended up back at one of their houses, where the men wanted to have sex. The woman refused, and they proceeded to hold her down and rape her.
The man acknowledged the tragedy, but had this to say about it: It was her fault for drinking and joking sexually with her two male friends. It was her fault for allowing herself to be caught alone with her two male friends. It was her fault for wearing a cute little dress with her two male friends.
It is a sick world when a woman cannot be safe with people she knows and trusts. But it was easier for this man to shift the blame onto the woman, as if the rape was some kind of punishment for “putting herself” in a dangerous situation.
Women do need to be smart about a situation, do need to take precautions such as where and when they walk, carry pepper spray and educate themselves about how to handle uncomfortable or unsafe situations. However, it is never someone’s fault that they were raped. It is NEVER okay to force yourself on someone, no matter what they wear, if you are alone together, or if it was “implied” that she was interested in sex. By state law and common decency, no means no, every time.
Most men would not do any of these things. By speaking up when you see your friends cat-calling, telling jokes about rape, using phrases like “got raped by a test” or talking about getting pushy with a woman, you can help end the culture of rape. Standing up to friends is never easy, but only in this way can we proactively work to end sexual assault.
All these facts do not in any way demean or lessen the enormity of what these women have endured. My heart goes out to them, and I hope they know of all the wonderful resources available to them at the UCSB Women’s Center, at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center and with the Rape Prevention Education Program peers. Students Stopping Rape and RPEP meet Wednesdays at 5 p.m. in the Women’s Center. Take Back the Night meets Mondays at 5:30 p.m. in the Women’s Center.
Tara Goddard is the co-chair of Take Back the Night.