1 in 4 adult women have been sexually assaulted or raped. https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/statistics-sexual-violence/ With the number only increasing, whose responsibility is it; women to protect themselves or perpetrators not to assault? Now the answer may not be as black and white as you think. Because whilst it is surely the responsibility of the perpetrator to stop committing assault, the issue is they do not stop. Therefore, women are left in a predicament; either restrict their behaviours and movements in a bid to keep safe, or live life in fear of being victim of assault. The gendered nature of sexual violence cannot be ignored as whilst men, of course, can suffer from sexual assault, statistics show that most victims of sexual violence are women, and most perpetrators are men.
It is a normal occurrence for me to update my friends of my whereabouts, cover my drinks when I am at a bar, avoid going out alone late at night, and ensure my skirt is not ‘too short.’ And I am not alone, with most women doing the same. Whilst these precautions may seem like small, necessary sacrifices, they have been normalised to the point where we no longer question them.
When living as a student, I recall one instance when I had been cooking dinner with a friend in their flat which was a mere five/ten-minute walk from my own. After getting carried away chatting, it was just after 10pm and my friend was insistent that I ordered an Uber home. Whilst I initially felt ridiculous paying for an Uber for such a short distance, I decided it was better to be safe than sorry. But why has this become women’s daily life?
Rape culture has infiltrated our society and made placing responsibility for sexual violence on women inescapable. This refers to a climate where sexual violence is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture. Perpetuated through misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, this creates a society where women’s rights and safety are disregarded. Common occurrences include victim blaming, trivialising sexual assault, and teaching women to avoid getting raped. Resultingly, women are forced to take responsibility for their own safety if no one else will.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that each time women fall victim to male violence, there is an outbreak of discussion on how women can best protect themselves. For example, after the death of Sarah Everard in March 2021, the response from police and the public was to remind women to ‘stay safe’ as well as regulate them and their movements. Not only does this greatly restrict women, but it completely shifts responsibility for men’s violence onto women. It also implies that women are partly to blame and that if they had acted safer, the violence would not have occurred. Women know how to stay safe. But no matter how much women try to protect themselves; violence can still occur any time and any place.
Part of women’s need to stay safe has led to female safety devices becoming increasingly popular. Rape alarms, drink protectors, apps to alert friends of your whereabouts, they seem to be all the rage. Safety keychains are gaining much popularity, becoming extremely popular on TikTok, with the hashtag #safetykeychains, gaining over 254 million views. Whilst this new craze is branded by businesses as aiming to alleviate women’s fears over their personal safety, this seems like, yet another way society is placing responsibility on women. Not only this, but they are even profiting from it. The fact these items are becoming as normal as carrying your wallet around seems absurd. In recent months, a Samsung advert promoting their headphones came under fire. The advert featured a young woman running at 2am whilst wearing Samsung headphones. Criticisms centred around the ignorance and naivety when it came to female safety and the fact it seemingly encouraged dangerous behaviours. This was heightened by the death of 23-year-old, Ashling Martin shortly before, who was attacked while running along a canal in Dublin.
Whilst it seems ludicrous that women shouldn’t be able to go running in a public space at whichever time they wish, the sad reality is, in most cases, we can’t. Personally, I would never run alone late at night and I guarantee most women would say the same.
Ultimately, these instances make society’s shortcomings blatantly clear when it comes to female safety. Because, whilst the obvious solution is to pin responsibility on the perpetrator, this does not generally stop assault from happening. The reality is, men know that sexual assault is wrong, yet they still do it. Writer, feminist, and activist, Lola Olufemi believes that “rapists know that rape is wrong and still commit it because of a sense of entitlement to someone else’s bodily autonomy. This is not something that can be fixed by merely asking rapists not to rape.” The motivation for sexual violence often stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control. It is clearly a symptom of gender inequality. Therefore, we must seriously revise the role of the patriarchy in modern-day society to combat gendered violence.
So, whilst it should not be, female safety has become a woman’s issue. Until we reach a utopian society where gender inequality does not exist and gender-based violence does not take place, it seems this is unlikely to change. Instead, we must focus on society’s responsibility to tackle these structural issues.
In a climate of rape culture, our modern-day society fails at many levels to take responsibility for male violence. We must put an end to harmful societal attitudes, such as victim blaming, as well as prevent normalising sexual violence towards women in both the media and public eye. Responding to cases of sexual violence with merely telling women to ‘stay safe’ must stop, and we must instead revise the deep-rooted structural inequalities which lead to these acts of violence. Society treats men from an early age as victims of their uncontrollable sexual desires, whether it be dress codes which attempt to stop girls from ‘distracting’ boys or dismissing misogynistic behaviour as ‘boys will be boys.’ Women, on the other hand, are told to avoid falling victim to these dangerous desires. These entrenched mindsets are incredibly damaging to our society, prohibiting any efforts to curb gender-based violence. Advocates for women’s safety have argued that education to combat harmful attitudes towards male violence is essential and must start at a young age. Recent reports by organisations, including CWJ, Imkaan, EVAW and Rape Crisis, express the need for government-supported awareness campaigns about consent and rape myths to dispel entrenched societal misogyny.
The Criminal Justice System further facilitates these crimes, continuously failing to provide justice for many victims and not being a good enough deterrent for perpetrators. Statistics from the Home Office shows that suspected perpetrators are not prosecuted, or event convicted in 98.6% of rape cases. This results in many women hesitating to report their crimes. Women’s rights need to be protected by our criminal justice system, which needs to be made more accessible.
Furthermore, we must work towards creating protective environments for women within our public space. Poorly planned infrastructure and the layout of many towns/cities heighten opportunities for violence against women and lead to many women feeling excluded from public space. For example, councils’ decisions to turn off streetlights as part of austerity measures ignores the direct impact this has on women’s ability to go out after dark. These are to name but a few, and whilst they will not eradicate gender-based violence, they will force society to take women’s safety seriously.
It is about time women do not have to worry about whether they have remembered their rape alarm when out alone. In order to finally alleviate the responsibility that has been firmly placed on women to combat female safety, society has to step up.
Written by Hannah Robinson