On September 23, 2014 the Washington Post ran an article called “How to Best Survive a Bear Attack” just two days after Rutgers student Darsh Patel was tragically killed by a black bear when he and four friends were hiking in a New Jersey preserve.
Over the next two days, people commented on the Post website about how they’d have peed their pants, on how the group of young hikers should have stayed together as a group, on whether or not having food on them really mattered, and on whether or not black bears are really as dangerous to humans as the story made them out to be. Not one comment posted was upset at how the story, or the subsequent comments on the story, failed to mourn the tragic and violent death of Patel.
Not one comment posted accused the reporter or fellow commenters of victim-blaming. In fact, one even took the article’s how-to-avoid-this-fate message even further with this comment: “I love when city people write articles on what to do in a wild animal attack. How about staying in the aisles at Whole Foods instead if you don’t know what really goes on in the woods. What is sad is they (authorities) killed the bear who only did what is [sic] does in the real world of the forest.”
Imagine how people would react if within two days of a sexual assault we saw a news story with the headline, “How Best to Thwart a Sexual Assault.” Prediction: its author would be accused of victim-blaming, of not trying to get men to stop assaulting but instead of teaching women how to protect themselves from the assailants. It’s true that, theoretically at least, the human male is far more capable of learning to abide by social rules than a bear is. Regardless, when a sexual assault is imminent, we would do well to ensure that women and girls have every opportunity to learn and employ strategies to ward off assailants—even while we work to find long-term solutions to the problem of sexual assault. The Washington Post and others might defend the advice about how to defend yourself against a black bear on the grounds that we must prevent further tragedies and some knowledge can help us do that. They might also say that there is a surprising amount of research on bear attacks—from the differences between grizzly and black bears, bears around cubs versus bears who are alone, and even on whether or not being armed with a gun or bear spray is safer.
Exactly. And we have quite a bit of research on self-defense against the human male as well, and in particular the breed of party and acquaintance rapist found most often on college campuses. Why aren’t we sharing that research with young women in hopes of their warding off, thwarting, and surviving these men’s attacks? We have evidence-based, practical advice for women, but we don’t provide it for them because we fear it will be perceived as victim-blaming. People seem to have no problem telling men and women how to fight off a black bear; nor do we. So let’s also not object to telling women how to fight off your average date, acquaintance, or party rapist. These assailants should be considered unarmed and dangerous, and, as with black bears, there are definite do’s and don’t’s that can be communicated. We aren’t going to tell women not to let a man smell food or to keep the dog on a leash (things commonly told to hikers who might encounter a bear). But let’s take the final piece of advice given in the Washington Post and substitute “sexual assailant” for “bear”:
So what do you do if you come face-to-face with a black bear sexual assailant in the wild at a party??
Put up a good fight
Wave your arms, hold up your hands, try to appear as tall as possible. If you’re in a group, stand together. Clap, yell and throw things. “You’re trying to scare it away before it gets too close,” Stiver told ABC News. “Get a big stick, some rocks. Bang pots and pans.” If the bear sexual assailant doesn’t back off and — worst-case scenario — moves in for the attack, “do everything you can to get that animal off you,” Stiver said. Get physical. Punch and kick. “Give it a kick, start swatting the best you can. Stand up tall,” Forbes said. “These sorts of things have been shown to work quite well.”
We have no desire to mock the tragic death of the student in New Jersey, or anyone attacked by bears or people. But if it’s socially acceptable to offer strategies for thwarting a bear attack, we can damn well offer strategies for thwarting a sexual assault. We found some great bear warning signs that include how to stay safe and fight back if necessary. So we thought we’d create a few similar signs to advise campus co-eds about sexual assault.
Postscript: A word from one of our readers:
Dear Bloggers, I resent the fact that you created a warning sign with the phrase “Sexually Active Man Area” when, as only some active bears attack, only some sexually active men rape.
If the cornerstone of your post sexual assault mitigation is based upon minimizing victim self-blame by convincing the victim that there was nothing she could have done to deter the assault from occurring and/or to interrupt it while in progress, then your Fundamental Premise must be that all women are equally vulnerable to sexual assault from any male regardless of their actions. Therefore, it follows that any type of prevention advice would be interpreted as victim blaming.
If you allow for an instance where one woman’s pre-assault and/or during assault actions was successful, then you open the possibility that more women’s pre-assault and/or during assault actions could have been been successful. This idea runs counter to and threatens the Fundamental Premise. Therefore, in order to protect the Fundamental Premise, you must attack all instances of prevention advice as victim blaming.
This situation sets up a conflict of interest between addressing the needs of the victims of sexual assault verses the needs of those who have not been assaulted.
This conflict of interest can only be resolved by creating a Fundamental Premise that benefits both the victims and non-victims of sexual assault.