Last week, 3QuarksDaily quoted Shane Austen with this list of “sexual assault prevention tips guaranteed to work”. It reads in part,
5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
6. Remember, people go to laundry to do their laundry, do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.
7. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.
8. Always be honest with people! Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.
9. Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake!
You can read the whole thing here, but you get the idea.
Honestly, my first response to something like this is “Hey, rape isn’t funny.” (I think that’s probably the response many of you will have as well.) Personally, I don’t find the list humorous. So why am I blogging about it? Because satire can have a value beyond humor: it reveals deep contradictions in how we look at the world.
Ask yourself what’s so surprising about this “sexual assault prevention” list. Why does it seem strange, unusual, even funny, to put the burden of prevention on the perpetrator? Shouldn’t it be a little bit strange that we expect the exact opposite – that the victim should be the one taking actions to protect herself?
Coincidentally, I was discussing a prevention list aimed at the parents of bullied children just a few days before I saw the piece at 3QD. These kinds of lists are common enough in our society. I think they’re supposed to empower the public, by giving people who feel helpless something constructive to do. Sometimes the tips may be helpful. But when you’re given a list of ten tips to avoid being bullied, mugged, or raped, what if you don’t do those ten things? From society’s perspective, would you somehow be complicit in a crime against you, because you didn’t do all you could/should to prevent it?
Since this is Scienceblogs, let’s consider another type of list: the ubiquitous “ten ways to prevent [your health problem of choice]” list. The health problem might be obesity, lung cancer, skin cancer, wrinkles, tooth decay, heartburn, insomnia, or heart attacks; there is no criminal, no attacker, involved – just lifestyle, genetics, and other factors.
Do we really think these lists are scientifically valid, implementable strategies for prevention? And if so, should we blame someone with one of these health problems for failing to do everything possible (on the list) to prevent it?
Consider this typical list of “Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for an Overweight Person” (from a website devoted entirely to lists, listafterlist.com):
Eat less fast food
Cook more meals at home
Order more salads and wraps
Stop drinking pop
Do 25 pushups and 100 crunches every morning
Run 3 times per week
Watch less TV
Buy a bicycle
Join a gym
Join a rec league
Cut out potato chips, cookies and ice cream
Walk to work
The interesting thing about this list, which I’m sure is well-meaning, is that it presumes the overweight person is doing everything wrong. They must be – they’re overweight, right? So they can’t possibly own a bike, or belong to a gym, or be walking to work. They must be indulging in soda or potato chips or fast food. There must be some glaring reason, probably more than one, that they are overweight.
Well, yes. There is an obvious reason overweight people are overweight: their caloric intake is more than their caloric expenditure. But outside the realm of the medical textbook, in a real-life context, you can’t identify an individual’s problem behaviors without knowing that individual’s unique situation. The list doesn’t address or fix the underlying reasons why someone has a weight problem. Perhaps they have a bad knee and can’t exercise. Perhaps they’ve gotten terrible nutritional advice and are on some kind of fad diet involving large quantities of bacon. Perhaps they have a metabolic disorder. Perhaps between the commute and the kids, they can’t make time to join that rec league. Perhaps they lost their gym privileges when they lost their job. Perhaps they can’t afford to cook at home – either because of the time involved or because fresh ingredients are expensive. Who knows?
How-to lists make a complex social problem, obesity, seem so simple to fix. But unfortunately it’s not so simple. You can’t solve obesity with a one-size-fits-all, Letterman-style Top Ten list: either the recommendations don’t take individual differences into account, or they’re so broad and nonspecific as to be useless to the average person (“Don’t let your daily exercise drop below the level necessary to maintain your healthy weight! Don’t consume more calories than you expend in a given day!”)
If I have an overweight reader out there who does none of the things on the “New Year’s Resolutions” list – or a healthy reader who does all of them – leave a comment and let me know, because those scenarios seem very unlikely to me. The “less” and “more” qualifiers in the list are especially problematic – you can always cook “more” meals at home, and the only way you could unequivocally satisfy “eating less fast food” or “watching less TV” would be to never eat fast food or watch TV. Very few people go to those extremes. Very few healthy people do everything on this list, so clearly these things are not all necessary to health. The list itself doesn’t say these things are all necessary. And yet, if an overweight person fails to do one of the things on the list – even if he/she does some of the others – it’s fairly common to blame him/her for not having done everything possible to avoid being overweight. (“Jess, if you really wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t drink that soda.”)
Ask yourself: if someone were obese, despite doing every single thing on this list, would you feel differently about him or her than you did about an obese person who did none of the things on the list? Why?
What if the list were about preventing skin cancer?
Prevention lists are well-meaning. They’re meant to give people ideas, to help them feel empowered, to help them help themselves. For many people, lists may inspire them to exercise more, or to cut out that soda pop. But as a side effect, the ubiquity and simplicity of such lists may create unrealistic expectations about individuals’ ability to fix their health problems. Lists can reinforce stereotypes (“obese people never exercise – they don’t even own bicycles”), exclude other solutions (what about using the stairs instead of the elevator?) or foster a false sense of security (“I do pretty much everything on this list, so I don’t have to worry about my heavy drinking.”)
Crime prevention lists, unfortunately, may also mislead people – if people assume that crime victims somehow failed to take simple preventative measures, and that those measures would have protected them sufficiently. The saddest recent instance of a “crime prevention” list that I can think of is this one, from Yale’s February 2009 B Magazine:
1. Pay attention to where you are.
2. Avoid portraying yourself as a potential victim.
3. Do not be distracted by ipods and phone calls.
4. Reduce your exposure (use the Yale escort and shuttle services).
5. Walk with a purpose.
6. Keep a minimum amount on your person.
That’s from a story by murder victim Annie Le. She was quoting the Yale University Police Chief, who added “crime prevention is nothing more than recognizing a risk and taking steps to prevent it.” Annie Le knew how to recognize risks around her. She did take steps to protect herself. We can’t know for sure, but perhaps this list did help her avoid random crimes like mugging – although it’s hard to know how one is expected to succeed in something as vague as “avoid portraying yourself as a potential victim,” especially when one is a 90-pound female.
Unfortunately, despite her efforts, Annie Le appears to have fallen victim to a lethal risk she didn’t recognize – one in her own workplace. Does that mean the list above is useless? Of course not – but no one can possibly avoid every risk in life, unless they live in a bubble. Does it mean Annie Le is responsible for failing to protect herself – that she did something “wrong”? Of course not. Her killer is the responsible party.
So back to the list that started this post, the one from 3QD. Does a rape victim do something “wrong” by going out with someone she doesn’t know well, or dressing provocatively, or walking home alone at night? No. The only person who does something “wrong” is the rapist. This list makes it abundantly clear how ludicrous it is to pretend rapists doesn’t have control of their actions – obviously they do. They commit sexual assault not because others fail to stop them, but because they choose to. So why do some people still act like it’s the victim’s responsibility to avoid being raped?
It’s food for thought.