Monday, March 28

Don't blame women

I have lacked inspiration for blog posts over the last couple months, but a Times Colonist article today has got me worked up enough to end my two-month hiatus. In a nutshell, there was a horrific crime in Victoria over the weekend; police allege four men forced a female university student into a car, driving around while repeatedly sexually assaulting her.

The crime is disturbing and does not require further commentary. What does is the warning issued by police after the crime:
"Police issued several warnings to women following the attack. Women are advised to travel in groups and stick to well-lit areas, carry a cellphone, refuse drinks from strangers and not leave drinks unattended. If drinking alcohol, women are urged to plan a safe ride home by cab or with people they know."
This warning leaves a very bad taste in my mouth for three reasons. First, it's troubling when police suggest people change their habits because of criminal behaviour. It's one thing to advise people to lock their doors and to tell children not to accept candy from strangers. But to tell people they shouldn't go for a walk alone at night, or without a cellphone, is a limit on personal freedom that seems excessive to me. There are still some hold-outs who don't own cellphones because they can't afford them or have no need for them. And it's not always practical for people to travel in groups in the evening. If the police are suggesting that we shouldn't feel safe going for walks at night, our society is in really rough shape.

The warning is also very troubling because it implicitly blames the victim. What the four men allegedly did was horrible. It was in no way the victim's fault. To suggest, even very indirectly, that perhaps this happened because the victim didn't watch her drink, or was walking alone, or wasn't carrying a cellphone, is not something I would have expected to come out of the public relations department of a major Canadian police force.

Finally, the warning is troubling because it specifically targets women. Sure, women are statistically more likely to be sexual assault victims. Some quick online research suggests women make up 90% of sexual assault victims, but that means men make up 10% of the victims. And not surprisingly, those same stats suggest men aren't as likely to report sexual assaults as women — one could guess that's because there's a stereotype that it's not acceptable for men to be victims of sexual assault. By singling out women with their warning, the police are only perpetuating the stereotypes by implying that sexual assault can't or shouldn't happen to men.

The police should take a lead from politicians dealing with terrorism. Level with the public about what happened and advise them in broad terms to be "vigilant." But don't encourage people to bow down to criminals by curtailing basic freedoms. And don't single out women — sexual assault is an issue that transcends gender.