Letter to the Editor: Protecting against sexual assault is not only a women's issue

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“What actions do you take, on a daily basis, to protect yourself against sexual assault?”  

This question was posed to me recently, and I’m embarrassed to admit that my reaction was to chuckle and essentially consider it a joke.  As a straight man, I don’t take any action to protect myself against sexual assault, and in fact, for the vast majority of my life, sexual assault has been a “women’s issue,” not mine.  And then it hit me: this is precisely an example of my male privilege in our patriarchal rape culture, and I was ashamed that I didn’t recognize this right away.

It turns out that my reaction to this question was very consistent with the vast majority of heterosexual men, and very different from the reaction of women and members of at-risk populations (e.g., members of the LGBTQ+ community) who will immediately begin listing actions, such as where they walk, when they walk, with whom they walk, what they carry in their pockets or purses, how they dress, where they sit in class, where they park their cars, who they have on speed dial; the list goes on and on.  Protecting themselves against sexual assault is something women and other persons at risk think about often.

At first glance this may not seem problematic; after all, heterosexual men are rarely victims of sexual assault, so why should we worry about protecting ourselves?  But I believe this “why should I care” attitude helps promote rape culture, which in turn promotes rape and sexual assault.

What should we, as persons not at risk of sexual assault, do?  We should listen when persons at risk choose to share their experiences of feeling unsafe and educate ourselves about systemic causes that make them feel unsafe.  And we should (re)condition ourselves to think about the possibility of being victims of sexual assault as often as women and other persons at risk do.

For example, when we enter a room, we need to imagine being a person at risk and ask “would I feel safe in this room?”  When we’re walking across campus, we need to imagine being a person at risk and ask “would I feel safe in this area of campus?”  When we hear an off-color joke, we need to imagine being a person at risk and ask “would I feel safe with this joke?” When we hear “locker room talk,” we need to imagine being a person at risk and ask “would I feel safe in this conversation?”  When we’re at a party or other social gathering, we need to imagine being a person at risk and ask “would I feel safe in this space?”

Of course, it’s next to impossible for us to know how it feels to be a person at risk of sexual assault or to fully understand their experiences, but it’s critical that we think about environments from their perspective in order to truly serve them as allies.

And when an at-risk community identifies an unsafe space or situation, we must believe them, work with them to identify systemic causes that make that place or situation unsafe and then work together to make it safe.

Women and other persons at risk of sexual assault should not have to bear the burden of making our community safe from sexual assault.  Instead, this burden falls on each one of us, and only when everyone thinks about safety from sexual assault will our community be safe.