A 17-year-old girl was walking home from work around 6:20 p.m. in Albury, Australia, when three man allegedly followed her, dragged her into the bushes, and sexually assaulted her at knife point. As horrific as the attack was, the mayor made it worse. While he condemned the men, he also said, "I always have encouraged women not to walk alone, to have someone with them at all times, because that in itself is an invitation for someone to take advantage of you."
What an outrageous statement. As if anyone, let alone a teenage girl simply walking home, "invites" rape. Is it any wonder that sexual violence crimes are grossly underreported and most rapists receive no punishment? Why seek help or justice when there is a good chance someone will directly or indirectly blame you for what happened?
The mayor's comments are similar to those made by homicide squad head Detective Inspector Mick Hughes after the tragic murder of another 17-year-old, Masa Vukotic in a park in Victoria, Australia, this year as she, too, walked home. He suggested that "People, particularly females... shouldn't be alone in parks." He encouraged women to walk together and to not go out after dark.
This offensive advice prompted Fiona Patten, a Parliament Member in Victoria, to call him out saying, "It is not the responsibility of women to modify their behavior, to censor themselves and to ensure that we take 'reasonable precautions' in order to protect our safety." Indeed it is not.
This is not just about Australia. For centuries, public spaces in many cultures were largely male domain where "respectable" women were rarely alone, but today, women of all backgrounds, in all regions of the world travel alone to attend school, college, and work; to go shopping, visit friends and family, and exercise. Yet the mentality of some men has not changed and in country after country, they demonstrate their belief that women should not be there, especially not alone.
Harassers and assailants disrespect, intimidate and insult women by evaluating their looks, telling them to smile, making sexual demands of them, following and touching them. And yes, in extreme cases, assaulting and killing them. National studies focused on street harassment released in just the past year have found that nearly 90% of women in Australia have been harassed; 100% of women in France have been harassed on public transportation; and nearly 1 in 4 women in the USA have been sexually touched or grabbed by a stranger in a public space. This starts at a very young age, even as young as 7 years old.
When it comes to government leaders, while some view women as equals, like Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in the USA , others infantilize them and subtly scold and blame attacks on them if they were in public alone, as did the two men in Australia.
A few years ago in the USA, a trial judge told a woman who was sexually assaulted by a police officer in a bar that "bad things can happen in bars" and "if you wouldn't have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you." In Turkey, after staff of a women's center reported street harassers, the province mayor Necmittin Dede said, "Women complaining about sexual harassment on the streets of the eastern province of Muş should deal with the problem by simply staying at home." (Ironically, the women at the center help survivors of domestic violence and knew that one's home can sometimes be more dangerous than the streets.)
Others squarely blame women for any harm that happens to them, pointing to their clothes as the culprit rather than the attacker/s. After two different bus drivers raped lone female passengers in Indonesia -- and in one case, then killed her -- Fauzi Wibowo, the governor of Jakarta told women, "Wear sensible clothes, don't wear 'inviting' clothes. You can imagine, if [a woman] wears a short skirt and sits next to the driver, it could be 'inviting.'" That same year, representatives of the Toronto Police Service infamously advised college students that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." In Swaziland in 2012, police banned women from wearing miniskirts, any shirts revealing their midriff, and low-cut jeans saying, "The act of the rapist is made easy, because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women."
This way of thinking is backward and is also unfair to men for presuming they cannot keep their hands to themselves and their pants zipped up when they see a woman alone, especially if she is wearing a skirt. It denies the reality that harassment and assault are learned behaviors that both women and men face, that they are forms of violence, and that they are about exerting power. All this must be acknowledged.
And, while I have no doubt that many people like the Albury mayor are being well-intentioned when they advise women to not go places alone, that is simply not practical and it takes us a step backward on the path toward gender equality. We need more persons in authority like PM Patten saying so.
The other outcome from this kind of victim-blaming is that it benefits harassers and rapists. It gives them a free pass to harm lone women in public spaces. Unless that's what we want, we must stop blaming victims and start working to prevent harassment in the first place.
Learn more in the book Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World (Praeger, 2015).
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.