Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence
Imagine you are attending a friend’s party at a house 15 minutes away from your home. You know you will have a couple of drinks, so you won’t be able to drive home. How do you plan your journey back? Do you call a taxi to go the short distance; ask someone to give you a lift; or ask a friend to walk you home? Do you walk home quickly, your keys in one hand and phone in the other, hyper-vigilant for anyone who could be around? Do you make sure you’re not wearing a revealing outfit and avoid dark streets? Does the possibility of being raped cross your mind?
These behaviour modifications, or the way we subtly change our behaviour to reduce our perceived risk of being raped, have been labelled the “rape schedule.” The term was popularized by Jessica Valenti in her book Full Frontal Feminism, but the concept has been around much longer. In 1971, Susan Griffin wrote that “rape and the fear of rape are a daily part of every woman’s consciousness. The fear of rape keeps women off the streets at night. Keeps women at home. Keeps women passive and modest for fear they be thought provocative”.
Griffin’s words take us right to the heart of the matter. Rape is a crime motivated by hatred and a pathological need to control and abuse. It is therefore no wonder that women fear rape above any other crime; the combination of a high possibility of its occurrence with the severity of emotional, physical and psychological trauma it causes presents a very real threat to women on a daily basis (Kershaw et al, 2000). However, while 99% of rapists are male and much of the literature has focused on heterosexual female victims, anyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, profession, age, or any other variable, can become a victim.
Rape is vastly under-reported, and this is especially true for groups who face oppression and discrimination. Sexual violence is an unmistakable area of intersectionality, and certain groups may be at even higher risk. Duncan (1990) found that in a sample of university students, 42.4% of lesbian, gay and bisexual participants (30.6% female and 11.8% male) had been raped compared to 21.4% of straight participants (17.8% female and 3.6% male). The Gender, Violence and Resource Access Survey found that 50% of transgender and genderqueer respondents had been raped or were victims of sexual assault.
While 80% of women who report rape are white, women from ethnic minorities are at much higher risk of sexual violence and experience more barriers when reporting rape and bringing perpetrators to justice. A study found that 83% of women who had a developmental disability had been sexually assaulted; another report estimated that the lifetime risk for women dealing with psychiatric issues and homelessness is as high as 97%.
Rape, and fear of rape, is therefore an irrefutable concern which can affect countless decisions we make every day, even at an unconscious level. But there are some striking findings which illuminate the way we think about rape and perceived risk of sexual violence. Rape schedules tend to evolve out of the fear of ‘stranger rape’ – the possibility of an opportunist attack, for example while walking home alone or getting into your car. This is because stranger rape is the type of sexual violence which is most often reported, for which perpetrators are most often prosecuted and which the media devotes the most coverage to.
While these types of attacks undoubtedly do occur, according to the U.S. Department of Justice 2002 report, the vast majority (64%) of women who have been raped, assaulted and/or stalked were victimized by a boyfriend, partner, date or husband. Duncan (1990) reports that between 84 and 90% of rapes are committed by people known to the victims. Yet if you Google ‘rape prevention,’ you will find hundreds of sites such as this one from the National Institute of Health, advising women on the best ways to avoid being raped while walking home, getting drunk at a party, or hitchhiking.
At best, such advice should be common sense to protect yourself from any kind of crime; at worst, they lean disturbingly toward victim-blaming. These types of rape prevention programs are simultaneously distracting the issue from the epidemic of sexual violence in relationships while increasing anxiety about stranger rape. They are widening the range of the rape schedule and restricting the individuals’ autonomy and sense of security within their own lives.
The steady increase of women’s self-defense programs in recent years may provide an indication of how deeply embedded the rape schedule has become in the female psyche. The idea that women feel the need to train in martial arts in order to feel safe within their communities highlights the extent of insecurity and anxiety caused by the threat of sexual violence. At first glance, these programs appear to be a positive opportunity for women to increase their confidence in their ability to fight off potential rapists. A study by Lim (2012) found that women who practiced martial arts were more confident that they could physically resist attackers than those who didn’t practice. They were also more likely to believe that they could yell, struggle, physically fight back and disable an assailant compared to the women who did not practice martial arts.
However there is an interesting paradox at work in the psychology of the rape schedule. One of the central aspects in psychological models of fear is the degree of control an individual has over a situation. Take the fear of burglary for example; if you have a flimsy front door and live in a neighborhood that has a high crime rate, you are likely to be very afraid of being burgled. As you increase your degrees of control, such as by installing a sturdy lock or a burglar alarm, the fear decreases. It should follow, then, that if an individual feels that they would be able to yell, struggle, fight off or even disable an attacker, then these degrees of control should reduce the intensity of their fear of rape. Compared to women who feel that they would not be able to resist in these ways, they should feel more confident and secure while going about their daily lives and their behaviour should be less dictated by fear.
Unlike other fears though, the fear of rape does not reduce as individuals’ degree of control increases. Donovan et al (2007) found that women’s perception of their ability to control a rape situation or fight off an attacker does not predict their fear of rape. This suggests that women do not believe that they have any control when faced by the threat of rape and therefore feel they cannot prevent rape from happening, no matter how well-trained they are in self-defense or how confident they are that they could struggle or get away.
This means that we change our behaviour, both in small unconscious ways and through active choices, yet we remain just as afraid and insecure. We are bound by a rape schedule which restricts our freedom, yet does nothing to alleviate our fear. We live in the shadow of the stranger in the dark, yet we are most likely to be victimized by partners and acquaintances. We learn how to defend ourselves but we never feel in control. It’s a harrowing conclusion, but until we dismantle rape culture brick by brick and rebuild society to value equality and autonomy above power and abuse, that fear continues to oppress us all.
Written by Emmy Fisher
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