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The common ground

| Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April has been Sexual Violence Awareness Month, and the last two weeks have only strengthened the groundswell against rape on Notre Dame’s campus. Staff and students alike have been eager to counter the troubling accusations raised in Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground,” as well as the all-too-familiar email reporting a sexual assault.

I have nothing but support for the anti-rape activism as it stands. The prayer services, Take Back the Night Marches and Denim Day are all great ideas. My hands are reddened with applause, though I do wish it didn’t take the scrutiny of a major motion picture to spur the University into such visible action. The text of the message is on point. I merely take issue with the subtext.

Consider one of the most popular slogans of the modern sexual assault prevention movement — “Don’t teach women how not to get raped, teach men how not to rape.” It’s a simple message that calls to mind many of the societal failures of cases like the Steubenville rape, in which media voices sympathized with the perpetrators and the “promising futures” they had lost, rather than with the traumatized victim. Further, it illustrates the utility of consent education, as many who commit sexual assault do not understand that their actions constitute rape. University of North Dakota professor Sarah Edwards published a 2014 study in which one-third of reporting men admitted they would force a woman into sex if they would suffer no consequences, but only 13 percent reported they would “rape” a woman under the same circumstances.

However, such thinking also perpetuates a dangerous false dichotomy by suggesting that anti-sexual assault efforts ought not merely to expand their scope and reach out to men, but also to stop educating women on how to reduce their likelihood of victimization. The subtextual message is that women don’t need to take any precautions against criminals, because that would be “victim blaming” and it’s the criminal’s responsibility not to commit crimes. Obviously, this puts women at risk — some rapists will not accept or will actively reject attempts to “train” that behavior out of them, and anyone who fails to take precautions will be statistically more likely to be victimized.

This is in no way to say that women who fail to take precautions are to blame if they are sexually assaulted. The rapist will always bear full legal and moral responsibility for his (or her) deplorable actions. However, the matter of where the blame rests is trivial compared with the trauma suffered by the victim of a sexual assault, which we should be trying to avoid altogether. If you drive without a seat belt and do not watch out for other drivers, you are statistically more likely to be in a fatal automobile accident with a drunk driver. You won’t have been “asking for it,” and it won’t have been your fault, but you will still be dead. Just to be on the safe side, isn’t it best to teach defensive driving and seat belt usage?

One common response to such logic is that women are already bombarded with information on rape avoidance, and any further advocacy would be wasted effort. While it would be nice to think so, this is apparently not the case. I recall one prominent feminist in The Observer who stated her goal was a campus in which she could go running around the lakes at night, alone, with her headphones in, and not have to worry about becoming the victim of a crime. Unfortunately, you can spend all the time and money you want educating men, and that wish will never come true.

And there’s the rub — the anti-rape activists on campus seem to feel we must choose one strategy to the exclusion of the other. In reality, the best results will be achieved when women take precautions against victimization and men are simultaneously socialized not to become rapists. I’m an engineer — redundancy is key to preventing a system from failing those who rely on it.

Maybe the best way to solve this problem is a semantic shift. Instead of marketing these tips to women as useful to avoid rape, it might work better to market them to the full student body as tips to avoid becoming the victim of a crime. After all, most of these tips (stick with a buddy and watch for people messing with your drink) work just as well at preventing assault or robbery as they do at preventing rape. And while no one would argue that someone who’s mugged while stumbling home drunk and alone deserved their victimization, everyone would agree that such an incident could probably have been prevented.

Some headway is finally starting to be made in the college sexual assault problem. Let us use all available resources to end this problem for good.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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