I’ve been pondering these two images for the better part of a year.
And they are both incredibly disappointing.
I want to be happy about them both. I want to hold up Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s conspicuously clothing-free sign and AR Wear’s focus on making women feel safe as massive improvements on bog-standard rape “prevention” “advice.” Compared to the last set of military instructions I read (TL;DR: lie back and take it to avoid injury) and the miscellany of useless clothing-related tips, these are frankly magnificent.
They should both see that as damning with very, very faint praise.
One could articulate AR Wear’s clothing line or WPAFB’s public service announcement as advocating nothing more than “common sense,” suggesting that women avoid dangerous situations or create obstacles for potential attackers to avoid becoming victims. There is an element of truth to that idea. Some of WPAFB’s talking points would indeed deflect (a certain kind of) sexual assailant, and a less-than-determined attacker might give up on someone wearing clothing designed to be difficult to remove. Might.
But no one’s thought process should stop there. The rest of our society’s thought process generally doesn’t. Most English-speaking persons take tiny steps beyond this “common-sense” approach, to “…and therefore someone who doesn’t take these precautions is partially or even fully at fault for any rapes they might experience, since they didn’t take the sensible precautions.” Some among us go even farther, to “…and therefore someone who doesn’t take these precautions is advertising blanket consent for sex acts, because if they weren’t consenting they’d take precautions.” If you don’t, it’s on you.
It is here in particular that the standard analogy to theft and similar crimes falls particularly flat. Depending on our neighborhoods, we lock our doors, install hilariously ineffective alarm systems, and keep our most expensive items off our front lawns, and we regard people who don’t take these precautions as foolhardy or naïve. The thing is, though, we also tell people from toddlerhood that stealing is wrong, and most of us have that figured out. But the overwhelming cultural message that we send about rape is that it’s barely even tragic, let alone morally repugnant, as long as the victim can be construed as having brought it on hirself, such as by drinking to the point of impairment, wearing “provocative” clothing, or making new friends in public places. A disturbing fraction of us admit to being willing to rape, or to having done so in the past, as long as the word “rape” isn’t used. Comparing it to stealing in a world where most people are not told with any authority that stealing is actually wrong and where vast swaths of the population regard stealing as acceptable as long as the victim didn’t do enough to protect their possessions, and then telling people what they should do to avoid being burglarized, knowing that people who don’t take those precautions (or don’t take them enough, or…) will be blamed for not having done enough…that’s far more apt.
And WPAFB’s sign and especially AR Wear’s clothing line are additional tools in that toolkit. Already, we have witnessed a trial in which the defendant’s choice of skinny jeans was used against her, to insinuate that she must have cooperated with the supposed attacker or else he’d never have managed to get them off her. And that’s ordinary clothing, neither invented nor marketed as a means to keep rapists at bay. If AR Wear becomes popular, it will feature in defenses of rape, alongside the claim that anyone who isn’t wearing anti-rape underwear, who removes it under coercion, or who becomes too incapacitated to resist its removal de facto consents to whatever their attacker is doing. And then how long before the pickup artists declare open season on the unarmored?
In this society, that subtext gets appended to every such half-measure taken to prevent rape, no matter how well-meaning: If you don’t, it’s on you.
But that’s not the only destructive aspect of these interventions. The vast majority of rapes are committed by someone familiar to the victim in either the victim’s home or that person’s home. Advice about avoiding secluded areas and staying away from strangers is moot at best, and provides a false sense of security at worst. Armored underwear does nothing for someone who changes their mind after removing them or who feels trapped or threatened. One of the most insidious consequences of these “rape prevention” efforts is to therefore write these scenarios out of the popular idea of rape entirely, creating the invented and dangerous categories of “date rape” and “gray rape” and encouraging victims not to think of these events as criminal.
To say nothing about how all of these schemes, even when they work as intended, do not actually prevent any rapes. When the only advice is “watch your drink” and “avoid going out alone,” the endgame is not to get a rapist to not rape—it’s to get a rapist to make a victim out of someone else instead of you. This goes for every conceivable rape prevention scheme that polices the actions of potential victims rather than rapists. Every one of them has an asterisk at the end: If you don’t, it’s on you. If you do, it’s on the next girl.
We should aspire to be better at this than guppies.
What we have is effectively a society where signs warning people that their water might be contaminated with coliform bacteria are omnipresent, but zero effort is put into getting people to stop doing things that contaminate water, with some people actively encouraging water-fouling. We have both when it comes to theft. We have only the one when it comes to rape, and that’s led to a lot of shitting in the water with entirely too few repercussions.