Tonight in the supermarket I was catching up with a friend I hadn't seen for a long time, a woman who has not been sheltered from much that is nasty in the world, a woman who I respect.
I was horrified when she used the term rape bait.
Challenging people on their assumptions that womn are responsible for not getting raped (passive responsibility, as if such a thing has any logic) rather than men responsible for not raping (active responsibility) is something I am trying to find ways to do. So far, I'm not very good at it. Tonight I tried to say that it isn't a young woman's fault if she is raped. I wasn't brave enough to challenge this assumption strongly, and I find it so deeply ingrained in our culture that what should be so simple, is actually radical and difficult to express and discuss.
The notion that women need to protect themselves from being raped by their choice of where they go, who they go with, how they dress, and when they are out in public is one which has been pulled apart by feminists effectively. I wish I could say that I don't know why the responsibility is laid upon potential victims rather than potential rapists, but in a society where there is still an underlying current of hatred towards women for their very sexuality, I cannot pretend to be so naive.
Recently I read Joanne Harris's latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, in which Muslim women in full burka were sexually harassed by white French boys, who speculated about what the woman had underneath her burka as if she was meat at a market. Part of the narrative concerns a young working class woman who was raped by the son of the house and then thrown out by that family and rejected by her own. Her fear around such an outcome for other young women whom she loves leads her to encourage all of the young Muslim women in the French village she moves to, to cover themselves as much as possible and from an early age. None of this protected her, but it appears to be the only thing she can think of to do for her Muslim 'sisters'.
In Pakeha New Zealand society, we often grieve for the young girl who consumes alcohol at parties which are attended by older boys and girls. We sense her vulnerability and judge her parents harshly for 'allowing' her to attend such events. It is in this context that I listened to the term 'rape bait' this evening. Not my daughter, we think quietly or out loud. Truthfully, I don't want my daughter making such a choice as a young teenager. Whether we are prepared to say it out loud or not, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the girls who are getting drunk at parties in their early teens are most often from homes where the will or the ability to put tight boundaries around the children is absent. It makes it easier for many of us to judge rather than to examine our own attitudes, and I include myself in this.
How often do you hear parents or other 'concerned citizens' anxious to teach or enforce that older teenage boys do not go to parties and drink and coerce a young girl into sex? I almost never hear it. What I hear is a focus on the young girls, a framing of responsibility around the girl and eventually her caregivers.
When we frame the risk of rape around a girl or woman's clothing and inebriation, we ignore what really needs to happen. We must teach and model to our children how to respect all people, no matter the state of their dress or intoxication. The socio-economically poor girl with the alcopop in her hand is a convenient locus for our fears, our shaming words and our judgements, but until we look around her and teach respect, actively and loudly and confidently, the message that rape of some girls and women is more or less okay will not change.