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No Health without Safety

{this article was submitted as part of WCASA’s call for reflections on themes related to National Women’s History Month}

By Lily Grant

If I had been born 50 years ago, my life would have been incredibly different. I would have had predominantly male doctors who were under no obligation to inform me of any side effects or contraindications of medicines they prescribed. My likelihood of finishing college would be about 40% (Special to CNN), and I would have no right to a safe and legal abortion. Undoubtedly, women’s lives have improved by leaps and bounds even in as short a time as 50 years. It’s important to recognize these achievements, especially during Women’s History Month, but we can’t lose sight of the ground that still has to be covered.

When I first set out for college, I heard from everyone that the undergraduate years are a time for exploration and learning, an opportunity to test your understanding of the world and see if it holds true. In my first two years here at UW-Madison, I’ve tried to do just that: I’ve attended debates, tried subjects I would have ignored in high school, and made an attempt to get in touch with the community around me. My four semesters here have taught me a great deal, but there is one unavoidable truth that remains in the background, one that appears unlikely to change any time soon: I am not safe. None of us, my friends, classmates, and relatives, none of us are safe.

Everyone knows the tips college-age women are supposed to follow in order to avoid rape: don’t walk alone at night, never leave your drink unattended, have a rape whistle or a can of mace on you at all times. I’ve heard these repeated by UW staff and Madison police. These standards reinforce the myth that rapists are strangers, crouching in a dark alley waiting to pounce as you walk by. In a society like ours, where 62-84% of women are acquainted with their rapist (oneinfourusa), asking a male coworker or casual friend for an escort home may actually put a woman in more danger.

This is not to say that any and all men are potential rapists, but the fact that the majority of rapists are violating women they know is important. It points to an overall trend that women’s bodies are not seen as their own property, even by men who know them. This was appallingly clear in the recent Steubenville rape case, when two young men allegedly drugged a sixteen-year-old girl and carried her unconscious body from party to party, where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in front of witnesses who mostly remained silent (The Atlantic). [Ms. Grant’s piece was authored before the judge in the Steubenville case handed down the decision finding the defendants delinquent, the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict – ed.]

This case is an extreme example, but the twitter feed and the video from that night that were released to the media bear striking resemblances to other portrayals of women’s bodies in the media.  Recent cultural events like the Oscars spread the message that women’s bodies don’t belong to them–with gags like Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw your Boobs” song, calling actresses out for topless appearances in movies (some from rape scenes) in order to humiliate and degrade.

Closer to home, the new fad of confessions pages on Facebook has brought these attitudes to light; the page for the UW is peppered with jokes-that-aren’t-jokes like “no means yes, yes means anal,” which has gained almost 100 “likes” from other viewers of the page. Anyone who protests is shouted down by the claims that these comments shouldn’t be taken seriously. This attitude perpetuates the misconception that jokes are meaningless, but in reality jokes reveal a great deal about the cultural context that creates them. In this case, the underlying attitudes are that women don’t get a say in what happens to their bodies, and violations of their personal space make for an amusing story to be posted on a public page.

Clearly, despite the best efforts of the sexual assault awareness groups on this campus and elsewhere, a frightening number of students (men and women) aren’t getting it. They don’t understand what rape is because they aren’t analyzing the attitudes that allow rape to persist.

There is another serious problem with providing students checklists to avoid rape: it places the responsibility for preventing rape squarely at the feet of women. Aside from being stressful, restrictive, and practically impossible, it means that there is no accountability for rapists. Think about it; it is extremely rare to hear the words “don’t rape.” Obviously, the implications are harmful for survivors, especially because this unilateral responsibility to end rape perpetuates victim blaming. If it is a woman’s job to avoid rape then it must be her fault if someone manages to rape her. However, this practice is also detrimental to men; they are afforded almost no chance to learn not to rape in a popular culture that almost never makes them take responsibility for their own actions or empowers them to intervene in a situation like Steubenville, even when they know it’s wrong. There are rape prevention programs on every university campus, but none of them are mandatory, so their scope is limited. Programs like Coaching Boys into Men and Men Can Stop Rape focus on violence prevention through self-respect, and respect for others. They’re fantastic organizations that focus on male role models teaching boys and young men how to stand up in a peaceful way. But these groups can only reach a certain number of people and can’t teach everyone who could benefit from learning. Furthermore, male rape victims are invisible in this culture or, at worst, are taunted and accused of lying.

Knowledge is the first step to prevention, and I honestly believe that if all people were taught the reality of rape, how it happens and why, then more of them would make the right choices.

If we really want to take a stand on this issue, and challenge the subtle attitudes that allow rape to persist, then we first have to make it clear that respect is vital; rape wouldn’t be an issue if the right to one’s own body was universally respected. For my part, I think a strong start would be to make Gender Studies a General Education requirement here at the UW. If any university makes the statement that learning about gender inequality in our society is just as important as physics, biology, or literature, it might be easier for the students to put themselves in the shoes of survivors and those in danger, and really think about the consequences of their actions.


Lily Grant is a volunteer at the Wisconsin Women’s Network and a student at UW-Madison.

This article is also published on the WWN Blog.

Posted in Campus, Commentary.

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