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“Don’t Walk Home Alone”: Advice informed by rape myths

“Don’t walk home alone at night.” We’ve all been given this advice. We’ve all felt the injustice of it. Why should women bear the responsibility of rape? Why should we change our behaviour on account of rapists? Yes, we need to ‘educate our sons,’ but in the meantime, we need to think more carefully about the advice we are giving to women.

There are two reasons why telling women not to walk home alone at night is exacerbating the problem. Firstly, it reinforces the misogynistic assumption that women are to blame for sexual assault; the unspoken implication is that walking home alone is irresponsible. Secondly, it perpetuates rape myths. One in two rapes against women are carried out by a partner or ex-partner, which means that many survivors subjected to rape in their own home*. Telling women that walking home alone is dangerous makes it difficult for them to accept that they can be raped at the hands of someone they know extremely well.

What you assume, when you offer this piece of advice, is that rapists are strangers. You are also suggesting that rape is an isolated event, that happens when a person is physically vulnerable. Often, this is not the case. If one in two women are raped by a partner or ex-partner, those rapes are likely to be recurring. Instead of telling women how to behave, we should be educating them so that they can recognize when a partner is abusive. We should also be doing a better job of policing people who are a threat to their ex-partners. Telling women not to walk home alone is patching up a bullet wound with a plaster.

Not only do rape myths stop us protecting women from rape, but they also make it almost impossible for the legal system to convict rapists. Like every other organisation, the police are made up of individuals with unconscious biases. It is impossible for a police officer, lawyer, or Judge not to bring their assumptions to the workplace. If we want to increase the number of people being convicted for rape, we need to address biases in society. Currently, one in one hundred cases recorded by the police result in a charge being filed in the same year. Note, I said charge, not conviction. Something is going wrong when it comes to the treatment of rape accusations. I am tired of hearing that rape is hard to prove. Rape is only hard to prove if you subscribe to the myths surrounding it.

For example, many rape survivors are made to justify their lack of visible injuries immediately after they have been raped. People often freeze or go limp in response to a threat. It protects that person from greater injury; it is a natural, logical response to rape. In cases of domestic abuse, the situation becomes even more complex. When emotional manipulation plays a part, it can be difficult for people to understand their own feelings. They may not realize they have been raped until after the event. Sometimes, not until they have left their abusive partner.

What about consent? Another assumption rape survivors must tackle is that the only way to refuse consent is to say no. In reality, there are so many ways a person can show they are not willing to have sex. They might be silent, move away, or not respond to touch. I refuse to believe that people find these signs hard to interpret. In cases of domestic abuse, it is even more important not to boil consent down to a yes or no question. Women who feel threatened by their partner, or who are desperate to please them, are likely to ‘consent’ to sex even when they do not want it. The law would have us believe that such circumstances are impossible to prove. However, anyone who has been subjected to domestic abuse will tell you that the signs of emotional manipulation are obvious. That person is likely to become withdrawn, underconfident, and defensive of their partner. In short, their behaviour changes significantly. These signs of abuse could easily be evidenced by eyewitness testimonies. It is not hard to prove that someone has been emotionally manipulated. However, for the legal system to accept this, it must acknowledge that it is not doing enough to tackle its own biases.

I will no longer be placated with excuses. I did not go to the police, because I honestly believed that nothing could be done. I do not feel that way anymore, but I know that getting my rapist convicted would be an uphill struggle. Each generation is being put in the same impossible position. Conviction rates are decreasing, despite reports of rape going up. There is no quick fix. We need a grass roots campaign to help people recognize that rape myths are just that. We need to evaluate our justice system; attitudes will not change unless people are held accountable for their crimes.

*All statistics come from Rape Crisis England & Wales.

- Emily Handel

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