Educating Mia: On Preventing Rape and Other Fairytales

SlutWalk Sydney

SlutWalk Sydney (Photo credit: creatrixtiara)

I don’t really know how to start this time.  I wrote this out, walked away to refresh my brain and took foolish a peek at twitter.  This is still the topic de jour and while I’m glad people are expressing views, perhaps which may even make people think, there is an article which declares the author of what I am about to deconstruct ‘unrepentant’ and it is an unfortunate thing indeed.  For the sake of brevity (and it avoids linking you to the website itself, no ‘views’ for you from my corner of the Internet, thanks!) you can see the latest article here.  That should get you up to speed if you don’t know what I’m on about yet.

I put it to you tonight that there is ample reason to be upset by the article I am referring to; it’s written in a sensationalist style with emotive language but fails to support any claims with real evidence, that it insensitively claims there are ways to avoid rape and sexual assault which any loving mother must teach her daughters and that anyone who asks ‘but what about..?’ to dig deeper into the issues involved lives in an alternate utopian dreamland.  According to this article, you cannot be a good mother and also demand that the discussions we have around sexual assault and rape are framed around the perpetrators rather than how victims can avoid their own doom.  I am by no means an expert on everything and do not represent all women who have been hurt by the perpetration of sexual violence.  I am a mother, I know how to look for evidence and I implore you to look more critically at articles like Freedman’s and not take the implied message at face value.  It is because I am a mother, to a son, that I take this (or any) opportunity to pull apart the public discourse on this highly emotive topic.  Freedman’s article is broken up from here on and highlighted in coloured text, my thoughts underneath.

This isn’t victim blaming; this is common sense   (Her title, not my claim by any means)

The entire premise of Freedman’s article is based on two personal articles written about college/university on-campus experiences.  Which might pass muster if the piece she wrote was entitled “I will warn my daughters about binge drinking if they live on campus at university because of the ingrained rape culture that still permeates” but she didn’t.

And let’s say there was something you could tell her that would dramatically reduce the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted during her lifetime.  Would you tell her?

A statement like this would require some evidence to back it up.  What proof does Freedman posit to show that either a vast majority of sexual assault victims were drunk when assaulted, or, that sober victims of attack more often than not can avoid/fight off/escape an attack from a sexual predator?  It’s emotive and dramatic but without any evidential basis whatsoever.

This hurts victims.

This encourages the myth that alcohol causes and/or contributes to rape.  This thinking validates pointing the finger at the victim.  For a claimed feminist, Freedman looks like she’d make a pretty good criminal defence lawyer in a rape trial.

I’ll tell her that getting drunk when she goes out puts her at a greater risk of danger. All kinds of danger. I’ll tell her that being drunk impairs your judgement, slows your reflexes and dramatically reduces your ability to asses risks and escape from harm.

This is still coming from the false assumption that sexual assault and rape are inherently linked with alcohol consumption.  I’m going to let this one through to the keeper for examination even though the statement applies much more to why drink driving is illegal and dangerous rather than demonstrating any measurable impact upon ‘avoiding rape’.  Many people, myself included, have hypothesised about what they would do if someone attempted to touch their body or assault them in any way.  That is the link Freedman makes, that if drunk, you could not react the way you hypothesise you might.  The way you hope you would.  Being sober is no guarantee of anything.  And makes it sound as though a woman with a wine glass is a sitting duck.  Doesn’t that message bother you?

May I take this opportunity to introduce some science.  Brace yourselves.

You may have heard of the Fight-or-Flight Response common to the animal kingdom.  There is a nice technical description from the Genetics Department of the University of Utah here; pictures and even a video.

The phrase “fight or flight” was “coined by Cannon (1927, 1929) in the 1920s to describe key behaviours that occur in the context of perceived threat. This term has not only been influential in later conceptual and empirical work on anxiety and its disorders, but the phrase also has become relatively well-known in popular culture” (Schmidt, Norman B; Richey, J. Anthony; Zvolensky, Michael J. and Maner, Jon K.  2007).  Put simply, when the body perceives a threat or is suitably ‘alarmed’, adrenaline pumps through your body placing you in a biological hyper-alert state. Heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and blood sugar increase while blood is diverted from your limbs to your head and trunk.  This response is activated what is referred to as the Reptilian Brain – here there is no room for thought (Mamilian/Limbic) or emotional reasoning (Primate/Neocortex).

This is what we imagine when we say, “If someone touched me like that I’d just kick him in the balls”.  It is the ideal reaction and wouldn’t that be great if Fight or Flight guaranteed that?  I will never forgive myself for not kicking my attacker in the testicles, I can tell you!  I have that guilt despite knowing that there is peer reviewed psychological research which explains that there is a recognised third reaction in the human body – caused by chemical release at the time – not my failure to be prepared and certainly not anything to do with alcohol impairment.

The independent biological response system that kicks in also includes the Freeze Response.

The Freeze Response is “believed to have adaptive value. In the context of predatory attack, some animals will freeze or “play dead.” This response, often referred to as tonic immobility includes motor and vocal inhibition with an abrupt initiation and cessation. Ethologists have documented non-volitional freeze responses in several animal species” (Schmidt et al 2007).

This type of response to threat has apparently received little scientific exploration in humans, the one exception, according to Schmidt et al, being PTSD/rape literature wherein “several studies have described a rape-induced paralysis that appears to share many of the features of tonic immobility. This literature suggests that a relatively high percentage of rape victims feel paralyzed and unable to act despite no loss of consciousness during the assault. Since fear, predation, contact, and restraint are common to both rape and the induction of tonic immobility in animals, it has been concluded that these phenomena are essentially isomorphic”.

The entire premise of warning females (indeed, males also) not to drink because they’ll be unable to fight off what according to Freedman’s piece is almost certainly imminent predatory behaviour, thus preventing their own sexual violation, is a misnomer.  A possibly well-intentioned but ultimately misplaced suggestion.  As it is not based in fact, this ‘warning’ more likely serves another purpose.  A more sinister one.  It encourages victims of sexual violence to blame themselves even more than they already will.  It perpetuates the myth that drunk girls are easy targets.  That boys can’t help themselves.  That one is leaving the keys in the ignition of one’s car…in a bad part of town.  What else could happen?  If only she’d locked up.  Been in a better area.  Hadn’t dropped the ball and let a rapist have their way.  Made it easier for someone to act criminally.

Would you say that about the heavily pregnant lady recently held up at knife point in Melbourne?  Did she ‘fail to prevent’ her own mugging by being visibly pregnant and making herself ‘an easier target’?  No, we just think whoever did that is really low to target her.

Would you say that about the pensioner walking back from the shops recently who was brutally bashed and had his head stomped on though he didn’t fight his attackers?  Clearly a bit slow on his feet, perhaps he should have stayed at home and not made it easier for someone to bash him?  No, we just think whoever did that is incredibly low and cowardly.

What is this acceptance of rape and sexual assault as an inevitability that forces women to police their own behavior at a level unprecedented for men?  Why is the language around sexual assault so incredibly skewed against the victim?  We have judges ruling that children encouraged their own abuse by ‘acting older’ (I’ve read accounts from pedophiles claiming 2 year olds ‘came on to’ them).  Steubenville. #justicefordaisy.  We have people like Freedman and ‘feminist’ Caitlin Moran discussing the cons of women wearing heels and using the ‘keys in the car’ example frivolously in the direct aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Australia.  I was incredulous and wrote something at the time.  As did countless others.  It is this reason that I find it about Freedman’s choice to grandstand “as a mother” on this topic again particularly upsetting.

No one has suggested that parents won’t, or shouldn’t, say, “Hey, be careful.  I love you”.  That is not the conversation we need to be having, especially in the public domain.  It’s a no-brainer.  What does need attention is the language we use in the public discourse, popular culture and especially via influential media sites like Freedman’s.  There is a seemingly perfect, powerful chance to start a conversation about the insidious culture that means we feel we have to warn our daughters about becoming someone’s prey.

I’ll tell her that there is a crystal clear connection between alcohol and sexual assault, both for the victim and the perpetrator.

Please, can I see the evidence upon which this is based?  Why has Freedman also taken the time to insist that alcohol is a part of how rape happens (that the perpetrator is drunk, too)?  More on this idea below.

So what’s the problem? Some people are angry at the idea of highlighting the link between drinking and sexual assault.

No, they are not.  They may be looking for more evidence than pointing to ‘frat boy culture’ (which I find repugnant but two articles from the internet does not explain How Rape Happens And How To Avoid It).  They may be annoyed that you chose to focus on the alcohol consumed by females rather than the binge drinking, mob mentality of adolescent males – but again, this focuses on such a minority of sexual assault and rape realities.  I’d suggest people like me aren’t angry at what you’ve highlighted so much as what you’ve chosen to ignore.

Some people insist that when we mention the connection, we are victim blaming.

These ‘some people’ are the women Freedman claims to speak to, and speak for, via her site, on television and radio.  They are the women she markets to, very well, and makes a living off the back of.  It is fairly well understood by now that around one third of these women will have experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault, possibly rape, in their lifetime.  They will certainly include women who have, or are currently experiencing, violence in their own homes.  I know from my own interaction on social media that the ‘some people’ also includes men, members of the legal system and experienced journalists and despite the slight Freedman handed out about the upset coming from only those without children, many mothers and fathers are amongst ‘these people’.  What is the impetus for dismissing such a large cross-section of the community like this?  With each eye rolling tweet from Freedman including the link to her original article.  Oh…

Seriously, though, this needs addressing.  What constitutes victim blaming surely rests in the hearts and minds of the said victims, does it not?  Freedman’s proposition is as flimsy (and downright offensive) as ‘I’m not a racist but…’ and perhaps she could peruse some educational material on the matter given her interest in issues for women.  Or even simply acknowledge that some hurt has been caused.  It was good enough for Serena Williams, it should be good enough for Mia.

Finally, ‘the connection’ between sexual assault and alcohol is as logical as the connection between rape and all of the other alleged causal factors.  Like these:

  • Being a woman
  • Being a child
  • Wearing a dress
  • Laughing at his jokes
  • Walking home
  • Being at work
  • Being visible
  • Like, just BEING

There is ONE connection between a victim and a rapist.  This is that the rapist chose to rape.

Somehow, in some quarters, the right to get wasted has become a feminist issue and this troubles me greatly.

The “right to get wasted”?  “Feminist issue”?  Troubles you, does it?

I can’t really address this as it is just so preposterous!  Emotive twisting of the issue to make it appear that the nay-sayers are just drunk bitches.  Feminist THAT.

But teaching girls how to reduce their risk of sexual assault is not the same thing as victim blaming. It’s not. And we must stop confusing the two.

You cannot reduce your risk of being sexually assaulted or raped with any surety in ANY environment.  I did not think it was news that rapists rape young people, sober people, strangers, people they know, people they claim to love and people who make a living in the sex industry.  Rape is not ‘Oopsie Sex’.  If you beat your chest about girls’ responsibility to prevent their own rape, packaged in parental love, you help make this victim blaming echo louder.  I am even more disappointed that Freedman did not as yet show one ounce of understanding or empathy for the individuals who have contacted her or shared their stories in a brutally brave way to help her understand where the alleged ‘anger’ is coming from.  It’s a little bit of anger but it is also patently obvious that it is mostly human pain and suffering that she is scoffing at.

According to a study into sexual asssault by the Australia Bureau of Statisics: “Victims of sexual assault were more likely to believe alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to the most recent incident they experienced if the offender was a friend (76%). This was significantly higher than the overall proportion of victims of physical assault who believed alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to their most recent incident (59%).

Let us just take this one sentence from all of the research on sexual violence and rape available and consider it.  The victims were ‘more likely’ to believe alcohol or drugs ‘contributed’ to the most recent incident ‘if the offender was a friend’.  This is somewhat higher than victims of physical assault – say being bashed. 

I put the following question to you, given the extremely limited information Freedman offers her readers about the context and/or methodology of the ABS study.  I would also ask you, as someone with a previous career in social research, to question the conclusions that can be drawn from a document which appears to rely on the victims themselves to evaluate the circumstances of their own trauma.  Ask yourself, why might a victim of sexual assault believe that alcohol played a part in their assault?  Because we tell them it does.

“I was raped last night”

“Were you drinking?”

Why might a victim tick that box?  Because even the victims of rape and sexual violence are conditioned to lay blame anywhere except on the perpetrator.  First, it is the victim’s fault.  Second, it’s the influence of alcohol and drugs because Johnny is a really nice guy normally, you know?  Third, mixed signals or blurred fucking lines, if you will.   Your fault, your fault, your fault.

Myself, I was raped whilst at work, at a primary school, and the first question asked by the Police was ‘was alcohol involved?’  When I answered that I was an on duty teacher of small children so NO, the detective replied, “I’m sorry.  It’s the first thing we have to ask.”

Did you notice that victims of physical assault attributed less of the blame on the perpetrator being under the influence of something?  Why might that be?  Could it possibly be because when someone is assaulted after leaving a nightclub, or as they walk home from the shops on Pension day, we are horrified at the brutality of physical violence but far less likely to blame the ones who took the blows?

I was drunk and I bashed a dude – You got drunk and then hurt someone.  Poor guy is in hospital.  You thug!

I was drunk and I got mugged – Jesus!  Druggies will do anything to get money, won’t they?  The pricks!  Are you ok? 

I was drunk and this girl says I raped her – Woah, was she drinking, too?  I mean, did she try to stop it?  She was sitting at our table all night.  Everyone could see she wanted you…what a slut!

At the time (of Jill Meagher’s rape and murder), some prominent feminist commentators tried to shut down those conversations because they insisted it was every woman’s right to walk the streets at any time in any condition and expect to be safe. To suggest anything else was victim-blaming, they said.

What actually happened was that people expressed their unimaginable fear and terror as we literally watched our ‘worst nightmare’ crimes unfold through the CCTV footage that helped catch Jill’s killer.  The said commentators responded to the inevitable aftermath of clichés about women staying in after dark, wearing heels, having alcohol and not having a male escort you home – these were framed, as they so often are, with ‘That’s what happens when…’ and ‘What did she think would happen..?’ which is indeed Victim Blaming 101.  Some also wrote about the very real notion that had Ms Meagher not subsequently been killed, her attack and brutal rape may have in all likelihood received a more frosty public response.  Thankfully, it’s considered slightly more uncouth to attack the behaviour of someone who doesn’t survive their horrific experience.  But not by everyone.  People still did it.  I consider the way Freedman and Moran scoffed at Ways To Avoid Being Raped to be on par with describing What Jill Did Wrong.  That hurt other victims.  That upset women who thought, Hang on, if this happened to me, you’d be discussing my footwear?!  That is scary.  And again, not the conversation that needs to be had.  Women are raised from Day One to be alert for male danger.

Freedman is suggesting that she initiated a new social dialogue and Utopian Femmos stifled her.  What she actually published about her talk with Moran was appalling to many and focused on Freedman herself as the person needing a voice.  This is silly.  And are we really supposed to believe that anyone was attempting to shut her down?  Freedman is the only one with a website named after here in this story.

The point these women, myself include, tried to make at the time was that Women Acting Safely (whatever the hell that actually means) was not the topic that so badly needed a public forum.  Male violence WAS.  All the comparisons to leaving keys in the ignition of a car remain extremely simplistic and dangerously so.

Is it wrong to want to steer the public discourse towards the right of every human to be safe from harm?  To beseech upon the media outlets (of which Freedman is one) to challenge the language we frame these horrible events in?  If it is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.  I can only seek to compare it to tackling racism or other harmful social ills.  Excuse me if my attempt to compare is clumsy.

If someone talks about the harm racism causes (which, for my money, is to be decided and called out by the people who are harmed by it – people of colour – not for the perpetrators or individuals seated high upon thy privilege to determine) are they not able to say, “An Indigenous woman should be free to live her life free from racist abuse and discrimination”?  What the fuck are we trying to do if not work towards that ‘utopian’ end?  I am not someone who has ever been humiliated by, or discriminated against, based on my ethnicity but I don’t need to be to say, “Hell yes!  That is your right!  You should be respected!  And I will call out shaming language and media when I see it”.

Am I so weird for thinking that way?  Media shapes culture, influences perceptions and Makes A Difference.  One way or the other.  I am very happy to be on the side that speaks up for an ‘ideal’ whilst acknowledging some shitty realities.  I’m quite clever like that, trying to walk and talk.  Freedman’s choice of language suggests that I can’t do that and neither can you.  Or your daughters.  Especially in heels.

She (Moran) told me about lying in bed at night with her husband and listening to women wearing high heels click clacking down the street on their way home at 2am and what a terrible idea she thought that was. Not only did it alert a potential predator to their presence, it meant they couldn’t run if they had to escape danger.  When the interview was published, some feminist bloggers expressed outrage at both me and Caitlin for what they saw as victim-blaming. Many confused the observation about shoes with the thankfully outdated idea that so-called provocative clothing – like short skirts – could increase your chance of being raped. But we weren’t talking about ‘leading a man on’. We were talking about running away.

Honestly, I’m pissed off to even keep cutting out excerpts.  But I need to point out some things here.   I read and re read the post she is referring to.  I’m not linking to it here.  If you want to set fire to your own eyeballs, google away!

High heels as a Sexual Predator Alert Signal:  Just NO.  This would suggest that perpetrators sit in peoples’ front gardens waiting for the sound of heels.  No.  Accepting this bulldust would negate any rape of say, a jogger, wearing their trainers, in broad daylight.  How insulting.

You can’t escape an attack in heels:  Sigh.  See above about Fight, Flight or Freeze responses.

It’s very easy – I’ve come to understand – to have idealistic views about how the world should work. But those views mostly exist in the theoretical realm. Apply them to real life and real people, people you know and love and fear for and they evaporate.

No, but ignore desperately needed examination of rape culture, male entitlement and the judicial system and you help to guarantee that nothing will ever change.  Complain about wacky idealists who are giving a voice to the voiceless, offering a new perspective on the matter and you do the cause great harm.  Freedman appears to be deliberately obtuse here when she could have chosen to also give a broader platform to calls for positive change for females everywhere.  Disheartening in the extreme when this message is pummeled home by another woman, I am sorry to say.

But theories can’t always withstand the conditions of real life. Which is why I believe it’s crucial to educate girls about the link between alcohol and sexual assault and warn them about the increased risk to their safety that comes with getting wasted.

This statement again presumes a link which at best is only relevant to a subsection of sexual assaults and rape.  The only research offered as evidence of this link was self evaluations by victims after the fact, without knowledge of the scope of the study or the sample group.  This is important information if anyone is to draw conclusions about definite links.  And I repeat, this is not a ‘new’ conversation.  Under what premise is this article written?  It seems a bit strange that it was published immediately after Freedman’s piece with the catchy title “Are you a mother or a porn star?” which was a nice reinforcement of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy so loved by patriarchal forces.  The Angel/Slut, Good Girl/Bad Girl idea that fits SO NICELY into rape culture and victim blaming.  The response on social media and in personal conversations was disgust and a fair amount of confusion.  What on Earth was the driving force behind that piece?  What was Freedman trying to do?  Don’t read it.  Or don’t yell at me if you have to now.  It was trash journalism and the antithesis of the feminism Freedman claims to fancy.  Crap like this compounds the issues which affect the safety and respect of girls everywhere.  Which is it, Mia?  When you cheaply take down another mother for her clothes, presentation and sexual history one day do you expect that your credibility stands up the next day when you deny judgemental and damaging language?  Humbug.

This is not an issue of morality. If you want to have casual sex, go for it. Safely. Just make sure it’s your decision and one you’re still comfortable with the next day.

Um…what?  The final line in an article about sexual assault and rape is this?  Apropos of nothing?  What can be extrapolated from this statement except that Freedman is in some way linking criminal acts of sexual violence with Sex You Regret Tomorrow?  If I didn’t have a problem before, I sure do now!

So I hope that clears it up.  Rape AVOIDED.  Mother of the year!

I hope that this self-serving opportunity taken by a click-driven blogger with her own website has not hurt too many others.  Again.  It has hurt me more than I thought.  I’m pissed off at that because who is she to me?  No one.  But the hurtful angle is in the number of people who read this stuff and nod, without asking questions.  And in Freedman’s needless framing of the responses from some people (I saw plenty that supported her and NO evidence of abuse at all on twitter, as it happens) as disposable because “they’re obviously not mothers” and “women in their 20s” who “want to get wasted”.  And her assertions are just those used by the colleague who was in the room when he tried to rape me.  Who joked about it.  Who warned me against “getting her into deep shit” and “ruining his marriage” if I told anyone.  And the Principal.  And other teachers.  And THAT, Mia Freedman, is where you do the most damage.  Whether you knew it before (you did, we’ve done this before) or only realise now as people try to appeal to your sense of reason.  Or something.

I could not prevent or avoid my rape.  I didn’t have heels on.  I was sober.  And my mother was indeed a Freedman, always warning of the dangers of being a visible woman.  I took care.  I lived on the edge of fear.  Then he got me metres away from little kids.

The acts of the perpetrator, I can work on healing from.  What fucks with your head and triggers off PTSD like errant fireworks of doom is the direction of this public conversation.  The same shit coming up again and again.  The people who get a voice.  The people who actually seek to silence others, perhaps by lying and claiming to have been bullied, Mia?  Abused?  Abuse is something you have no idea about. What a wonderful thing it would be if somewhere down the line you could open your mind and put the ego/clicks/righteousness aside and just hear us speak.  That’s my utopian dream.

PS  I just found myself quoted here in an article in The Australian newspaper.  Ha!  I am Little Lion (@thelionwhoroars)

Other voices you should hear on this topic:

Clementine Ford

Lauren Ingram

News With Nipples

Blue Milk 

Bianca Wordley

Everyone, including Mia Freedman, should go to nomore.org

Reference cited 

Schmidt, Norman B; Richey, J. Anthony; Zvolensky, Michael J. and Maner, Jon K.  2007,  Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Published online 2007 August 12    Accessed online at US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health on 22nd October 2013 at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204/

3 thoughts on “Educating Mia: On Preventing Rape and Other Fairytales

  1. Mother! !! My fault AGAIN!!! I was sooooo upset wen long long back der was an acid attack on a girl n my dad said tat the girl must have invited it. wat if it was me?? He wud say the same thing? ? I have no idea!! Just being a grl is like one sin!! The situation is like it s more scary to report something to someone than the assault itself!! y?? I ll be blamed! ! God save daughters frm such mothers .. n btw I have female frends who drink wid male frends ..no rape der!! only reason for rape is rapist!!! No one else n NOTHING else!!

  2. Good critique.
    When I have a self defense class people want to know about prevention. I can share some safety measures that I know helped me, but I don’t care for talking prevention. I always say, no matter what you do to avoid an assault, it is the assailant who decides to hurt you. It is a choice the victim has no control over.
    I was attacked in clear daylight, totally sober, and not wearing heels. There was no preventive matters to take in that situation. I survived because when he grabbed me I fought back and won. He could have been quicker or stronger, but luckily was not. I know advice on being aware and listening to my intuition has saved me in a few situations, but it all boils down to the fact that we cannot control the actions of another. The attacker chooses to hurt . It’s a choice to hurt someone. That article she wrote is BS.

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