How to prevent being raped series (7 of 10) Fighting back - Avoiding completed rape

Trauma, abuse and bereavement / Category / Emile Du Toit / October 5th 2014

This 7th blog in the series of 10 on how to prevent being raped discusses fighting back to avoid completed rape.  We begin by looking at why fighting back against a rapist is so important, and critically consider the arguments as to why telling women to fight back might be problematic. We acknowledge the reality that women are often blamed for being raped, and then unpack a useful metaphor that should help to alter these inaccurate and prejudiced beliefs. Lastly, we consider some of the costs of not fighting back.

Fighting back – avoiding completed rape.

Completed rape versus attempted rape

At times in this article I will use the term ‘completed rape’, in order to differentiate it from attempted rape. Attempted rape describes any situation where someone is able to extricate themselves from a situation that is becoming sexually coercive, including where the potential rapist has actually begun to threaten or force themselves on the potential victim. Completed rape occurs when they are unable to do so.

Why fighting back against a rapist is so important!

Police traditionally warned women not to fight back if attacked by a rapist. They were instead told to play along or try to talk their way out of rapes. 11. These strategies are ineffective. 7. 13.  Victims are still disbelieved, stigmatized, and held responsible for their attacks. 15. These negative reactions are harmful to women’s psychological functioning and may lead to or reinforce their own self-blame for being raped. 18.

Fight back! Yes, stand up to your attacker!

Now I can already see the objections to this statement, and will attempt to filter them largely in to two categories:

1.  But what if I the rapist hurts me more?

There are many opinion-based articles floating around on the web telling women not to resist as they will get hurt. While this may seem intuitively sensible the reality is that this is not in fact borne out by research at all.9. 14. 17. Studies show that the likelihood and degree of physical harm suffered if you take on your rapist is at the very worst the same. Please bear in mind that these are average statistics. There will always be individual cases that defy the rule.

2.   Won’t this reinforce the prehistoric and incorrect allegation that if a woman does not defend herself she is responsible for, or actually wants to be raped?

This argument asserts that there is a risk of reinforcing the many rape myths out there. It echoes the debate around the risks of describing high-risk situational factors for rape. Basically, certain feminist groups have asserted that if we tell women to fight back and they don’t then this could reinforce the bigoted and misinformed beliefs of certain elements of society.

So the same bigoted elements of society that assume that women are ‘looking for trouble’ if they wear mini-skirts or dare to actually go out for a drink, will also believe that if a woman don’t put up a fight against her rapist she ‘clearly wanted it’. 

Sadly, this feminist assertion that fighting back could reinforce these prejudiced and invalid beliefs does in fact have some merit to it.

This is a truly a tragic indictment of the level of sexist beliefs that are still fixedly held on to in today’s society.

Nevertheless, I have several responses to this particular feminist argument:

  • The more accurate knowledge women have and the more effectively they fight back, the less women will have to suffer this terrible crime.
  • As the statistics showing completed versus attempted rape lower, women will not be seen quite as much like the ‘soft targets’ that many currently believe.
  • As much as men are responsible for rape, current research has shown that the chauvinistic beliefs and misogynistic behaviours of those prejudiced individuals are extremely difficult to change in the medium term. 1. 3. 5. 10.  As described in detail in blog 6 in this series male rape prevention programs are just not having the results that we would wish. We cannot worry too much about how the problem SHOULD be fixed, but rather need to focus on what WORKS!
  • So our current society is broken, and isn’t just going to fix itself. Something has to be changed! I am convinced that an ever increasing number of women fighting back would actually begin to improve the situation. Sadly though these intractable, misogynistic beliefs will result in some women being seen by some chauvinists as ‘looking for it’.

 

 

A metaphor to understand women’s responses in the face of rape

What is vital in this struggle to reduce bigoted beliefs about women, is that correct and useful metaphors are used to explain the situation of placing oneself at higher risk or rape or indeed not fighting back against ones rapist. People need a context within which to understand so that they can begin to see these behaviours differently:

Every time I choose to get in my car I am placing my life and health at risk. Every time I get behind the wheel I am radically increasing the chance that I – and any passengers – will be injured or killed. Yet we drive to work, go for joy rides, and often ferry our kids around too! Furthermore, we are hardly ever driving on ‘red alert’, whatever speed we are going at. Our assumption, our denial in fact, is that everything will be fine!

Does this mean that I should give up all the freedom that goes with owning a car? Does choosing to drive on the road make me responsible if I am taken out by some drunk arsehole in an overladen truck? Of course not! And street signs pointing out high-accident zones provide me with valuable information at least allow me to slow down and be particularly vigilant on these sections of road. Does it really make sense to say that there shouldn’t be street signs as if I drive on this higher-risk section and have an accident both society and myself might see me as ‘more responsible’. I might choose to avoid the section of road altogether, but that is my choice. If I avoid too many obstacles on the road then I have no freedom – I basically have to condemn my car to my garage.

Car safety devices like seat belts, bumpers and air bags allow me the opportunity of protecting myself, but none of them have any bearing on whose fault it is if I am driven off the road, or indeed on whether I ‘wanted’ to be written off. I also have the opportunity to do specialised courses in defensive or advanced driving. They are offered – but many of you will point out that they have not had the time or money to attend them.

And what if I drive home at night, or am a student and cannot afford a new car with air bags? What if I don’t have 20 years of experience on the roads yet, and haven’t acquired that instinctive peripheral vision that comes with experience? Obviously this doesn’t mean that I am any more responsible if I am driven off the road. It doesn’t give the trucker any more right to crash in to me!

Lastly, in the actual split second of the accident itself we all tend to react differently. It is a seriously traumatic event and we experience intense emotional and physiological reactions. We tend to engage with a primitive response of fight, flight or freeze. Some people stay amazingly calm and can bring all their skills to bear – to the point that their Houdini-like antics save their car and their lives. Some people freeze or make poor decisions that actually exacerbate the situation. Others muddle along somewhere in between. For some of those who have been in a terrible accident before, there is a degree of reliving of the trauma that further compromises their ability to react. However, none of these responses mean that we wanted to, or indeed deserved to be written off the road!

 

Understanding what situations place you at higher risk of being raped does not make you any more responsible if you are raped in a high risk situation. Knowing how to protect yourself from a rapist does not mean that you carry any responsibility whatsoever for your actions before and during being raped.

 

Costs of completed rape versus attempted rape

  • Women who have experienced a completed rape – as opposed to an attempted one - suffer from poorer mental health, including more depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. 6. 16. 19.
  • Obviously women’s risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or becoming pregnant are also higher if they suffer completed rapes.
  • There is also evidence that women feel better about themselves, and less depressed if have put up active resistance in a rape attempt, even if they are unable to avoid rape completion. 2.  I suspect that this is partly due to many women’s own male-conditioned sexist attitudes towards rape. Another factor here is the strong body of evidence in trauma research showing that subjective experiences of helplessness are connected to poorer outcomes. If you have ever experienced  ANY kind of traumatic situation you will know that being able to just DO ANYTHING makes one feel less hopeless, less impotent, and have less survivor guilt after the fact.

This series How to prevent being raped will continue next week with part 8 of 10 when we get in to the Efficient Resistance Strategies to Prevent Rape.

 

References

  1. Anderson, L. A., & Whiston, S. C. (2005). Sexual assault education programs: A meta-analytic examination of their effectiveness. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 374-388.
  2. Bart, P. B., & O’Brien, P. (1985). Stopping rape. New York: Pergamon.
  3. Brecklin, L. R., & Forde, D. R. (2001). A meta-analysis of rape education programs. Violence and Victims, 16, 303-321.
  4. Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women (NCJ No. 182369). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
  5. Flores, S. A., & Hartlaub, M. G. (1998). Reducing rape myth acceptance in male college students: A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Journal of College Student Development, 39, 438-448.
  6. Kilpatrick, D. G., Edmunds, C., & Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A report to the nation. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.
  7. Koss, M. P. (1985). The hidden rape victim: Personality, attitudinal, and situational characteristics. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 9, 192-212.
  8. Ozer, E. M., & Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms governing empowerment effects: A self-efficacy analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 472-486.
  9. Quinsey, V. L., & Upfold, D. (1985). Rape completion and victim injury as a function of female resistance strategy. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 17, 40-50.
  10. Sochting, I., Fairbrother, N., & Koch,W. J. (2004). Sexual assault of women: Prevention efforts and risk factors. Violence Against Women, 10, 73-93.
  11. Storaska, F. (1975). How to say no to a rapist and survive. New York: Random House.
  12. Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Full report of the prevalence, incidence, and consequences of intimate partner violence against women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  13. Ullman, S. E. (1997). Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 24, 177-204.
  14. Ullman, S. E. (1998). Does offender violence escalate when rape victims fight back? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 179-192.
  15. Ullman, S. E. (1999). Social support and recovery from sexual assault: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal, 4, 343-358.
  16. Ullman, S. E. (2002). Rape avoidance: Self-protection strategies for women. In P. A. Schewe (Ed.), Preventing violence in relationships: Interventions across the life span (pp. 137-162). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  17. Ullman, S. E., & Knight, R. A. (1992). Fighting back: Women’s resistance to rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7, 31-43.
  18. Ullman, S. E., Townsend, S. M., Filipas, H. H., & Starzynski, L. L. (2007). Structural models of the relations of assault severity, social support, avoidance coping, self-blame, and PTSD among sexual assault survivors. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 23-37.
  19. Ullman, S. E., & Siegel, J. M. (1993). Victim-offender relationship and sexual assault. Violence and Victims, 8, 121-134.

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