As a woman, I think about rape a lot.

I’m not constantly in fear of it. But I’m aware of it in a way that makes me wary. Intellectually, I find myself analyzing conditions that lead to rape. And of course emotionally I would like all rape to stop immediately.

There are those who say the onus of stopping rape falls on the victims, that they have somehow justified their rapist’s actions through some behavior of their own. And there are those who say the onus of stopping rape falls on the perpetrators, that they should exercise self-control and that victims are not responsible for what happens to them.

I find both of these opinions to be too idealized to be practical in real world scenarios.

The blame for the act of rape falls squarely on the rapist. There is nothing that justifies what they do. No action on the part of their victims makes it okay for them to attack and violate. And so yes, we need to be looking at how to marginalize this sort of behavior until it is broadly unacceptable.

But in the meantime, rapists are still going to rape. Unless people–women and men–want to be victims, they should prepare themselves and their children.

The first tool in a person’s arsenal is the “gut feeling”. This should be cultivated at an early age and honed throughout life. I highly recommend owning and regularly reading Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear; this book demonstrates through examples how you can turn that crawly feeling you get in skeevy situations into actionable information. It also offers excellent advice on defusing escalating scenarios, such as household fights that might be heading towards domestic abuse, disgruntled workers, and stalkers. The main takeaway is this: If someone gives you a bad feeling, don’t stay around them. If a situation gives you a bad feeling, get out of it.

The second tool is what some people might call “common sense”, but which I will call situational awareness and preparation. You’ll learn about this in The Gift of Fear too. Basically, when you are planning to go anywhere or do anything, you should be aware of where you will be, what type of place it is, who you can expect to meet, where the exits are, how long it would take you to get out of there, how public or private it is, whether or not there are places where a person might be lured out of sight or abducted, and more. When you park your car, you should pay attention to the cars around you. When returning to your car, you should do the same, and have your keys out and ready before you get there so there’s no delay. Always lock your car, and if you can see underneath it or underneath the cars next to you before you get there, definitely check. Even if you left it locked, look in the backseat before you get into your car.

When you go into an establishment like a restaurant, sit so that you can see the entrances and so there is a wall behind you if possible. Pay attention to the people who come in and think about how you would get out of the room or building quickly if you needed to. It is possible with training to sense when someone is staring at you. Start looking out for this sort of behavior.

Public restrooms are a place to watch out for. Restaurant restrooms are probably safe, unless the restaurant doesn’t feel right to begin with, in which case don’t even eat there. But gas station restrooms and rest stop restrooms can give you a bad feeling. Depending on the time of day, they can be empty, perfectly private for an assault. When possible, don’t travel alone, and don’t visit these restrooms alone. (I normally use fast food restaurants for my “rest areas” when traveling; they’re safe, family-friendly and have clean restrooms.)

In terms of preparation, there is no point in trying to change the way you look to dissuade rapists. There are a million different fetishes under the sun. What you find conservative, he may find provocative. Don’t let fear of being raped change who you are; don’t give rapists power over your personal style. Adorn yourself in whatever ways you want. About the only advice I would give in terms of clothes, shoes, and jewelry is to watch out for items that might make it difficult to run, or might make it easier for someone to hurt you. On the flip side, you might look for accessories you can use as weapons.

The third tool in your arsenal against rape is self defense techniques. Once you are mature enough to know when to use martial arts–for knowledge and defense, never for attack, as Master Splinter said in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–then there are some devastating techniques you can be taught for protection. Bear in mind, the ideal is to escape or avoid dangerous scenarios entirely. But that’s not always possible, and if you find yourself under attack, and your gut is telling you you are in real danger, you should know the fastest and most effective ways to bring your opponent down. This includes offensive maneuvers and even striking first if you must. It also means fighting “dirty”. You’re not trying to win “points”, you’re trying to survive. It doesn’t matter how large your opponent is, if you can get a good strike in to the right area. After you’ve done that, just keep hitting them until they can’t get back up.

Once you have learned some techniques, you should spend time mentally training, imagining various situations and what you might do to disable your opponent and escape. A good self defense class should also run you through some scenarios, but it’s impossible to practice some of the best techniques. Yes, they are that dangerous. Padding wouldn’t help because it would make the practice unrealistic. With the sort of self defense techniques I’m thinking of, your attacker could wind up maimed or possibly dead. This is why you should not learn these techniques until you are mature enough not to use them.

But once you do know them, you will be that much more prepared for the worst.

With these three tools–trusting your gut, situational awareness, and self defense techniques–you can feel more empowered to live in the world of today. Making smart choices doesn’t mean you have to hide yourself at home. In fact, the whole point is for you to be able to get out there and speak your mind.

Many people, women and men, who speak out become the targets of hate speech and abuse. Sometimes the fear of these threats becomes so great that people withdraw, their voices silenced. When this happens, public discourse loses something vitally important: the public. These fringe harassers are not the majority; their voices are just the loudest. People who are interested in things like decency and real solutions need to be able to talk about hot-button issues without fear. Taking steps to protect ourselves will help.

And then there’s the long view. The steps outlined above are nothing but bandages covering the third-degree burn that is oppressor entitlement on world societies. Protecting ourselves is important, but we need to start applying skin grafts.

Why does rape happen? My impression is that rape is emotional. It comes either from a seed of obsession that is nourished over a long period of time, or from a sudden burst of emotion. Either way, the victim is not seen as a person so much as a means to work out or through that emotion. In the case of obsession, the rapist doesn’t want a relationship; he wants control and pleasure. In the case of sudden outbursts, the rapist is overwhelmed with a rush of feeling and uses the most convenient means of getting it out. We see more of the obsession type here in the US; an example of the outburst type is what happened to CBS’s Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.

There are two main problems, then, that need to be dealt with. First, men need to learn to see women (and other potential rape victims) as people, not as things they can use for their convenience and throw away. Second, men need to learn how to deal with their emotions properly.

It starts with our kids. They need to know they can’t always get their way, that the world doesn’t owe them anything, and that preying upon others is unacceptable. They need to know that everyone is different, but everyone deserves to be treated with respect. They also need to know that it is okay to cry, to talk or write or create art or run around or do any other healthy activity in order to work out a difficult emotion.

And it continues into our schools and workplaces. We need to stop holding up domineering personalities as the main role models and start valuing all personality types equally. We need to cultivate a culture of community rather than a culture of arbitrary competition. Deadlines and competition are necessary to a degree, but they need to be more reasonable…at least reasonable enough that coworkers don’t resent one another for taking time off.

We need to pay women and men equally for the same work, and we need to not put up with anything from one group that we would not put up with from the other. No more “boys will be boys” or “well, she’s a girl”.

We need more women elected to public office, more women anchoring serious news shows, at least one late-night comedy/interview show starring a woman, more female lead characters in movies and TV shows and video games.

We need to chip away at this impression of woman as “other”, make women identifiable to men (and women, for that matter) as human beings, such that objectification becomes more and more difficult.

The long view is very long. I doubt I’ll see its goals achieved in my lifetime, especially with the backsliding we’ve been doing lately. But for the sake of the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, we have to keep trying.


I’ve started following the inimitable Soraya Chemaly on Twitter; she’s always writing or posting links to articles that intrigue and inspire me. Today she linked to a piece on Rookie magazine called “It Happens All the Time”.

In a nutshell, the article consists of the women of Rookie discussing the harassment they’ve faced in public, just trying to get stuff done or get from point A to point B. Towards the end it goes into how frustrating it is that men don’t seem to understand that this is not flattering–it is completely unwelcome, gross, disturbing, and frightening.

Some of their examples are pretty extreme. I can’t recall a time where I’ve ever seen a stranger touching himself while looking at me. However, things have happened. I tend not to think about them much.

There was the time in Walmart (back when it was called Wal-Mart) when I was an adolescent, and I was several steps behind my mom in the lingerie department. A man I didn’t know came up to me, began stroking a bra, and said with a smile, “Shall I buy you something?”

There was the time on the school bus when I was wearing a long t-shirt and tight leggings, a style I’d copied from my trendy cousin, and a high school boy came up to me with a leer and put his hand on my thigh. (I never wore that outfit again.)

There was the time as a teenager when my bottom was grabbed by someone who was not a stranger and who did not understand that I didn’t want him to do that, even when I told him. He had also told me, when I was younger, that I looked sexy, but at the time I thought that was a good thing.

I haven’t done a lot of walking around, other than on college campuses and hiking/biking trails, and my experience with public transportation is minimal, so I haven’t had many bad experiences that I can recall as an adult. I have been flirted with before, but infrequently and in ways that didn’t bother me. Rereading this one, I can see where it might be gross to some people, but I don’t know. I guess I was in a good mood? And it’s not like it happened every day. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone yell anything at me on the street, other than panhandlers looking for money.

There is one panhandling incident that freaked me out. I was in downtown Augusta. I’d just parked and was walking to a restaurant. A panhandler came up really quickly and hugged me, pinning my arms to my sides. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully, “I’m not gonna rape you!”

Yeah, that’s the way to get me to not worry.

I was thinking about the various ways I could get out of his iron grip (destroy his kneecap, head-butt him, knee him in the groin) when he finally let go and asked for money.

Regardless, despite a few uncomfortable incidents, I feel like I’ve been remarkably sheltered compared to other women. Part of it is self-sheltering…I don’t go out in public in a vulnerable way very much, and I listen to my gut when it says to leave an area. Part of it is probably due to the fact that I’ve never lived in a place where I didn’t need a car to get around. I also tend to pay attention more to patterns of behavior rather than individuals–I’m the one reading the signs and noting where to go, but I couldn’t tell you what anyone was wearing, for example. It’s possible I’m completely oblivious to some really disgusting behavior. If so, ignorance is definitely bliss! (Or maybe men are just classier in the South?)

But this has me a little nervous about travel in the future. I’ve really been wanting to go to France, for example…is it that bad for women there? One of the women mentioned London. I didn’t experience anything during my quick day there, but I was with Brooke and David. How would it have been if I was alone?

Honestly, I’m not sure I would be comfortable traveling alone, even without having read that article. I’m already pretty wary of situations that can turn dangerous fast. It sucks, but it’s reality. I’m a woman, so I’m not free to just do what I want when I want. I have to think about my safety at all times.

The left lane: Not just for looking at

On my daily I-20 commute, I am constantly flummoxed and frustrated by drivers who appear to not see that there is a third lane to their left. These drivers will tailgate the person in front of them, then zip into a tiny opening between two cars to their right rather than pass in the open left lane.

Are they afraid they’ll get pulled over if they’re in the fast lane? Not sure that reckless driving is going to help. Or is that third lane, opened towards the end of last year and therefore new, invisible to them?

Granted, it is annoying for someone to drive too slowly in the middle lane. Slower traffic should stay to the right. But there are times when it’s good to hit up that middle lane, like when there’s traffic merging onto the interstate.

These left lane avoiders will ignore the merging situation and plow right into whatever’s going on in the right lane, oblivious to the cars trying to join the flow of traffic, rather than oh, say, I don’t know, follow the law and pass to the left!

I really wonder how much of the road people are watching. Do they only pay attention to what’s directly in front of them? How many cars are they watching? You can’t avoid accidents without watching all the cars and paying attention to the speed in every lane.

I treat driving like a game, the goal of which is to avoid accidents and maintain the flow of traffic. I watch far ahead to see what troubles might filter back to me, I pay attention to how each car is moving to see if someone’s telegraphing a turn or lane shift (because people can’t be trusted to put their blinkers on), and, yes, I am considerate. If someone needs to merge into my lane, I let them, and if someone wants to pass me and there is no lane to the left, I get over.

But I am constantly trapped between a tailgating left lane avoider and traffic merging into the right lane. There is no good way to get out of that situation other than moving into the left lane–the fast lane–and letting the tailgater pass to the right. As you can imagine, this utterly offends my OCD.

The left lane is for passing, not for being passed! If you want to pass, for the love of all that is good and pure in this world, use the left lane!