The Sexist

Rape Analogy: The “Walking in a Bad Neighborhood” Theory

Last week, several commenters on this blog suggested that wearing a short skirt is like walking alone in a bad neighborhood—it's an unsafe behavior that makes women more vulnerable to sexual assault. I live in a neighborhood that has been dismissed by some as a "bad neighborhood." So when I see comparisons to sexual assault that go like this . . .

If I’m walking late at night in a bad neighborhood with few people around and someone sticks a gun in my ribs and robs me, I wasn’t asking to be robbed and I wasn’t consenting to being robbed. I was not taking appropriate precautions against getting robbed. I was robbed and as I wish to avoid being robbed, I will endeavor to not put myself in circumstances where a criminal will take advantage and rob me.

. . . it is obvious to me that the person floating this little analogy has not considered the reality of the person who cannot avoid these "circumstances." The person that compares sexual assault to getting mugged after "walking in a bad neighborhood" does not consider the mugging victim who lives in that bad neighborhood because he can't afford a place with less street crime. He does not consider the mugging victim who works late into the night so that he can pay his rent. He does not consider the mugging victim who does not have the means to fastidiously avoid his life circumstances.

More than likely, the mugging victim in this analogy has the privilege of avoiding bad neighborhoods. He lives in a good neighborhood, works in a good neighborhood, eats in a good neighborhood, hangs out with friends in a good neighborhood, and gets wasted in a good neighborhood. He grew up in a good neighborhood and will raise his children in a good neighborhood. If he ever does cross over onto the wrong side of the tracks, it is strictly a voluntary—and wholly avoidable—diversion.

Tell a Georgetown resident that he needs to stay in Georgetown to avoid street crime, and he can easily satisfy that safety requirement; tell an Anacostia resident that he needs to stick exclusively to Georgetown, and your common-sense solution becomes a lot less tenable. Upon hearing this strategy, the Anacostia resident will likely laugh his ass off; the Georgetown resident will have a more insidious reaction. He'll start to feel a little bit empowered about his own safety. He'll start to think that he has avoided being held up at gunpoint because he's made good decisions in his life, not because he was born into privilege. He'll start to feel a little bit superior to people who live with street crime as a matter of course.

Acting like a woman, in many ways, involves performing behaviors that are out of the ordinary: shaving your entire body, coloring your lips and cheeks, lengthening your eyelashes, extending your legs on high heels, "doing" your hair, dieting obsessively, waxing, plucking, padding your breasts, painting your nails, stuffing your tummy into tight spandex casings, wearing skirts and dresses and pantyhose and earrings. The behaviors associated with femininity occupy a strange space in our culture. While they are obsessively reinforced as "normal" behaviors for women, they simultaneously work to situate women as abnormal, different, "other."

To the average heterosexual cisgender man, refraining from performing these behaviors is just a fact of life. For women, these feminizing behaviors are enforced from birth, and are extremely difficult to avoid. And when women do refrain from performing these behaviors—when they don't shave their body hair, don't cinch their waists and inflate their breasts, don't teeter on high heels, don't wear makeup, and don't wear skirts, just like men don't—they risk being dismissed as "abnormal" women. In a culture where the privileged experience of the average heterosexual cisgender man is the baseline for "normal," women are seen as outsiders no matter how they act.

And so when a woman is sexually assaulted—no matter what she's doing—it's easy for the culture at large to insist that she's done something out of the ordinary to bring it upon herself. Because women's lives are out of the "ordinary." Because heterosexual cisgender men are born with the privilege of not being systematically targeted as victims of sexual assault. When you say that women who wear too-short skirts, or too-high heels, or too much make up are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who act too much like women deserve to be raped. When you say that women who drink with the boys, or have casual sex like the boys, or walk alone like the boys are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who don't act enough like women deserve to be raped. And what you are really saying is that women deserve to be raped because they're women. In a culture where women's behavior is viewed as alien, it is this attitude that qualifies as "normal."

When it comes to sexual assault, every neighborhood is a bad neighborhood for a woman.

Other rape analogies debunked:

* The "Natural Disaster" Theory
The "Stroll in the Jungle" Theory

Submit your rape analogies for analysis here.

Photo by luisvilla, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • wrongsideofthetracks

    "But since you seem to understand that “power” is a complex and somewhat amorphous concept, then you can probably agree that it’s hardly a simplistic “bumper sticker.”"

    No. Power is a simple concept. Because "power" can take different forms does not make it complex. "Rape is about power" IS simplistic, like most political bumper stickers.

    "“Rape is about sex,” however, has a pretty specific meaning and some pretty specific implications. Damaging and dangerous implications, I might add. This is what we’re arguing against."

    That rape is SOMETIMES about sex does have pretty specific meaning and some pretty specific implications.

    For one, it implies the need for legitimate discussion about drugs, arousal, physical strength, body language, romance, foreplay, sexual frustration, consent, competition, erections, teasing, winning, "women's prerogative",sexiness, porn, assertiveness, dress, and male libido is way past due.

    Secondly, it implies that if America is ever gonna reduce CERTAIN kinds of rape then we are gonna have to improve the sexual behavior and attitudes of the entire species, not just men and not just women!

    Finally, it implies that the strategy of "Rape is about power" ain't working, and it ain't gonna work.

    That you believe these implications are damaging or dangerous does not make it any less true. In the end I don't think avoiding the truth is helpful.

    You would think people that really care would be willing to listen, but unfortunately they prefer politics over results.

  • bellacoker

    I didn't say that rape is about displaced revenge; I said lynching in the South wasn't stopped by teaching African Americans more effective ways to avoid being lynched.

    It was stopped by non-lynchers recognizing that this was not a crime against individuals, but a way that some White people controlled the freedom of most Black people through random acts of violence. In the same way, some men control the freedom of most women through systematic acts of violence. That violence isn't sexual because the crime is about sex, it is sexual because the rapist can't think of a way to more effectively terrify and control women.

  • Toysoldier

    That violence isn’t sexual because the crime is about sex, it is sexual because the rapist can’t think of a way to more effectively terrify and control women.

    That seems improbable, particularly given human creativity when it comes to hurting others. The main reason why the argument that rape is solely about power and specifically about controlling women is that rape is not limited to female victims. It is also not limited to adult victims or to male perpetrators. When one considers the myriad of ways in which rape occurs, it becomes far more complex than "rape is about power."

    The other issue is the phrase "rape is about power" begs the question "power to do what?" The problem with that question is that there is no easy answer. Sometimes people want power in order to protect themselves. Sometimes they want power to hurt those who hurt them. Sometimes they want power to hurt others so that others know their pain. Sometimes they want power to hurt those they hate. Sometimes they want power to force their views on others, and so on.

    However, the one thing that is clear is that those who rape must do so for a sexual reason because they could exercise power over people in many other ways. There is a specific reason why rapists choose sex as their method, and I suspect that for each person who commits rape the reason is likely unique to them.

  • Charlie
  • MdAmor

    Rape is a horrible crime against women and what they are wearing, saying or doing has no relevance to that fact! Nobody has any right or reason to force themselves on another person!

  • Dana

    Let's get something straight here--rape isn't just about force, isn't just about attacking, isn't just about torture. There's an entire spectrum of behaviors on the rape scale from just "he didn't give her time to say yes or no" to "he did stuff so horrible I'm not gonna spell it out here for fear of triggering someone and oh, by the way, he beat the shit out of her and left her for dead, and that's not even getting into the rape-murders." To define rape as overt violence and torture in the sense of striking someone and/or causing someone deliberate pain is to minimize the other forms that rape can take.

    In my case I was drunk and so was the guy and he just sort of reached out and grabbed me. I was young, I was inexperienced at handling men, I was in a situation where I could not just pick up and go home (I was in military training in a strange town and drinking underage besides), so I felt it better to just go along. Given a clear choice I would not have had sex with him.

    I'm not angry about it now and I have no idea, 17+ years later, where I'd even begin to have him prosecuted. I don't remember his name and he was a foreigner and for all I know, he went home. But what happened that night messed up my sexuality for years while I scrambled in vain to reassert control and call my own shots. I'm lucky someone didn't rape me again, or give me HIV, or worse.

    And he never hit me, never called me nasty names and the next day, in fact, he was even sweet to me. But you better bet that as soon as he dropped me off where I wanted to go, I got the hell *out* of there and avoided him like the plague from then on out. And that took some doing because he worked at a place where I had to go to purchase personal supplies and such.

    I certainly could have avoided the incident entirely by not going along with him in the first place and especially not getting drunk. But a friend of mine who was with us (she was married and I was supposed to be her "chaperone" because all she wanted to do was drink) did the same things I did and he never laid a hand on her. To say that certain behaviors "increase the risk" is to say that behaving in certain ways sets up a powerful field of gravity around your person that FORCES a guy to rip your pants off and do things to you. That's ridiculous. For all that men keep coming up with these stupid pseudoscientific reasons why they need to be in charge of everything while women should just go home and pop out the babies, they sure are helpless in the gravity well of a skirt that is three inches too short. If it's that difficult for y'all to take some responsibility, maybe it's time the women took over. Just sayin'.

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  • Lisa

    awesome article.

    bottom line... whatever we wear, wherever we go, whatever we do... A rape can not and will not happen unless there is a rapist present.

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  • Elle

    I think the fundamental problem with the rape myth involving short skirts is just that there is no such thing as "incitement" to rape. A person who wants to exercise control over another human being and violate him/her sexually is going to do that on the basis of opportunity, desire, and vulnerability. Also, the myth also defies data showing that most victims of rape know their attackers, most women who are raped are not women who are walking down the street scantily clad. Also, do the people who buy into the short skirt myth think that children shouldn't look so cute and rosy cheeked in order to avoid child predators? Honestly... it's the sickness of a human being who could violate another person, don't blame the victim.

    One criticism of this piece, I've never felt pressure to wear make-up or dress a certain way. The pressure on women to look unnatural isn't really relevant to your argument here, it's not representative of all women. If you're trying to say rape is unrelated to appearance, you shouldn't try to defend the way some women dress.

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