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Soraya Chemaly Headshot

Stop Minimizing the Costs of Teaching Girls to 'Stay Safe'

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The other day, for the umpteenth time in my life, I heard a man making fun of a group of girls for going to the bathroom together. Have you done the same, or wondered why girls and women tend to do this? Most girls and women don't even think about it. If we do it, it's from habit, fun, a chance to talk. Like so much else, it's such a small thing. However, what it actually results from is that we, universally, teach girls to move in groups, to "protect themselves" from male violence.

Across developed nations, there is a measured 20-35 point difference between men and women's senses of physical security. The widest differences occur not in impoverished or war-torn countries, but in wealthy nations. This gap measured how safe people felt walking, for example, in their own neighborhoods at night.

Everywhere, girls come to expect male violence. That double-digit gaps exist, particularly in develop nations, only illustrates more profound inequities. We are socialized to think that sexual assault, and having to bear the costs of avoiding it, is "normal." Children and women are socialized to fear it and we adapt our behavior to avoid or, if exercised by loved ones or friends, to tolerate it. It's why we are told develop "buddy systems," carry "rape whistles," "don't wear ponytails," and more fundamentally useless advice.

We have a very, very, very long history of trivializing and legislatively enabling gendered harms. There are real costs:

One, it costs us time and limits our freedom of movement. We face everyday challenges in everything from daily commuting to work and school to traveling to far-flung places. We go out of our way regularly to find safer walking routes, buses, parking spaces and exercise spaces. In some parts of the world, we avoid going to the bathroom for hours on end. We don't take helpful shortcuts. Walking alone at night? Yeah, right.

When we travel, we have different maps. Our freedom and childhood desire to explore is seriously impaired. As Tara Isabelle Burton poignantly wrote last year, "I wanted to be a fearless adventurer like my male heroes, but a voice kept warning me: Don't get yourself raped." Like many girls, I was adventurous and eager to experience the world and I have had the great fortune to have traveled extensively. I didn't let my concerns about rape stop me, but, like Burton, it colored my my choices substantively. If you're traveling to, say, Brazil, and you have sons and not daughters, you probably would't care about the number of Brazilian girls raped on public beaches and buses.

If you are a person who genuinely believes that girls are not adventurous or if you think that young men don't have greater physical freedom to take risks, then I'd suggest you are fooling yourself out of psychic self-preservation.

Two, it costs actual money, which many don't have, to "stay safe." For example, if a woman can afford it, she might take taxis at night, instead of walking when she'd like to. Women join gyms for safety reasons -- one study found that  24% of American women/female-identified people surveyed avoided recreational exercise outside to avoid "being bothered." We have to spend more on transportation and "helpful guides" if we are far from home. We are advised to buy tickets for more expensive train seats or find pricier women-only spaces. Women who have the means to do so may feel they need to live in neighborhoods that are more expensive and "safer." Of course, there is the endless supply of "don't get raped" paraphernalia that women are all welcomed to purchase.

Three, "staying safe," being harassed or assaulted, can and does seriously limit our employment opportunities, investments and earnings. Just ask journalist and activists. Or soldiers. Or maybe migrant workers. Or anthropologists. When threatened online, by revenge pornographers, stalkers, trolls, women, fearing for their safety, change their behavior, suffer loss of reputation, loss of career investments and more. When college students leave school because their rapists are allowed to stay on campus, they suffer both emotionally and in terms of loss of property (their investment in education). A recent survey of scientific field workers showed that 20% had experienced sexual assault while conducting field work. Researchers found:

women trainees were disproportionately targeted for abuse and felt they had few avenues to report or resolve these problems... [this] suggest[s] that at least some field sites are not safe, nor inclusive... We worry this is at least one mechanism driving women from science." One female vet called rape "part of the job description."

In addition, women who deal with regular threats of violence, like stalking and harassment, are more likely to have to take time off of work. For minimum wage and tip wage earners, the vast majority of whom are women, this is of no small consequence. Girls and women, particularly low-income women, are forced to compromise their physical safety and dignity everyday because they are women.

Four, "staying safe," disproportionately suppresses our freedom of expression and speech. Many women, rationally, silence themselves to avoid violence. Online, when targeted for violent harassment, many quietly disengage. The same avoidance of violence means that we are not free to say "no." It's why, for example, women in bars might "lie about having a boyfriend," deeming it "easier" than possibly being hit in the face with a glass; because while men are loathe to recognize a woman's ownership of her own body, another man's ownership they'll respect. As WhenWomenRefuse sadly illustrates, the risks are real. As with concerns about safety online, women harassed on the street or elsewhere usually don't confront their harassers and those being abused in their homes adapt to abusers' violence. In general, the free speech we are so fierce about assumes a level of autonomy (and freedom from coercion and the threat of violence) that is not distributed equally in our society. 

Five, it limits our ability to participate in the public sphere. Online, abuse is mainly targeted at women, because they are women. The same is true offline, where street harassment is essentially the expression of heterosexual male dominance that works because of the threat of violence that simmers beneath every interaction. What would it mean if on city streets the world over, clumps of girls could sit, as you frequently see boys and men, laughing late into warm nights before setting off separately to their homes?

Six, it costs us psychic energy and is exhausting. Given epidemic rates of gender-based violence in the world, a large percentage of the female population suffers from PSTD, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and hypervigilance. Being told to "be aware of your surroundings at all times" can do that to a person.  

Seven, "staying safe," endangers our safety, our health, our education and our wellbeing, particularly in times of crises. This week, a Syrian mother published a heartbreaking and wrenching first-person account of why, as a refugee, she allowed a man to "marry" her young teenage daughter. A number one reason cited by Syrian refugees for fleeing their country and marrying their girl children to old men is fear of sexual violence and the dishonor it brings. Instead of going to school, many Syrian girls, like the one described, are being forced into early marriage -- where they face sexual and domestic violence and a high likelihood of pregnancy and maternity-related illness and death. This rationale is a frequent one in the marriage of girl children. Crises -- environmental, military -- heighten preexisting vulnerabilities and empower predators. Post-Katrina New Orleans, post-Earthquake Haiti, immigrants and refugees crossing the U.S. border... in every instance, these destabilizing and dangerous situations are exponentially more so because of the reality of rape... and fear of its stigma.

Fear of sexual predation and shame impairs women's ability to seek shelter and medical help after natural disasters and in war. Girls and women are 14 times more likely to die than boys and men in the wake of chaos. How much of that has to do with avoiding rape and its stigma? Of course, in or out of crisis, rape stigma is a powerful means of controlling women as rape can, in huge swaths of the world, result in abandonment, imprisonment, lashings, marriage to a rapist, being trafficked, or death.

Eight, teaching just girls to be "safe" ignores the rape of boys, ensuing lifelong harms and public costs. Childhood sexual abuse is among the most underreported crimes in the country. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18, but less than 10% of cases are reported. Seventy percent of male victims of rape are assaulted before they turn 18, and yet we do very little to destigmatize these rapes or to help boys "stay safe." As with girls, we are largely unwilling to confront the ugliness of the fact that the greatest threats come from coaches, religious leaders, parents, step-parents, or other family and friends. If we did, we'd have to stop talking about "drunk girls" and think about power and consent. That's so unpleasant. According to University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Dr. William C. Holmes, the effects of sexual and physical abuse on boys are manifold and include increased crime, suicide, drug use and more sexual abuse. Fully 1/3 of juveniles, 46% of sexual offenders and 76% of serial rapists report childhood sexual abuse.

Lastly, given the connections between rights and how cultures define who is "rapeable" and who "can rape," the social costs of teaching girls to "stay safe" in the traditional ways are immeasurable. They only attests to two truths: one, safety isn't actually the issue, control is; and, two, we still don't care enough about women, the darker they are the less we care and the more harms they experience. Instead of challenging the many forms of violence that people live with -- based on race, class, sexuality -- the rules we continue to teach exacerbate them and protect the powerful and entitled.

None of the most common "classic rapist" "stay safe" admonishments we teach girls addresses the most typical sexual assault or battery: that perpetrated by an acquaintance, friend, relative or intimate partner -- usually in the privacy of their own homes.

We wear the effects of all this "staying safe" like a carapace.

I know men are murdered, raped, abused by intimates and die in war and that women are capable of great violence. Feel free to connect those dots with these here. As Jackson Katz has spent decades arguing in regard to masculinity and violence, these aren't "women's issues that "some good men" help out with... these are men's issues, first and foremost." The violence men suffer is intrinsically unrelated to how we teach girls, and only girls, to stay safe. However, men, within their peer groups, almost universally higher gender status, and power. And safety is a function of power. And power entitles people to violence.

Keeping girls safe from "classic rapists," the way most cultures do, endangers children, degrades women's rights, perpetuates status quo social hierarchies and empowers culturally-entitled predators. That's why we new new rules and truly equal rights.

Portions of this article were adapted from a earlier piece published in Salon.