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Safety first

Cautionary messages as part of sexual-assault prevention efforts do not equal victim-blaming

The topic of rape and sexual assault is not easy to bring up or discuss, but here at the University, broaching tricky topics is somewhat routine. Rape discussion has dominated the media recently because of the conviction of the perpetrators of the Steubenville, Ohio case as well as a similar case emerging in Torrington, Conn. Most of us have friends on Facebook reading and posting about these specific cases or just the topic of sexual assault. Pundits have taken on the issue: celebrating the verdict in Ohio, calling for better treatment of the victim by educational and legal systems and, in some instances, criticizing the “be careful” message that arises around rape and sexual assault cases. It is the criticism of the “be careful” message that concerns me.

Concerning rape or sexual assault cases, the “be careful” message walks a fine line between advice and admonition. Saying or implying that a victim of sexual assault is to blame in any way for the attack because he or she was drunk is ridiculous and incredibly harmful. Still, roughly half of sexual-assault cases involve alcohol consumption on the part of the perpetrator, the victim or both. Victims who were severely drunk during an assault are less able to provide the kind of testimony that can help lead to a conviction. Pointing out that being drunk increases the opportunities for an offender to perpetrate a crime is not victim-blaming. Encouraging everyone, especially those most vulnerable to assault, to be safe in situations involving alcohol is not re-victimizing those who were assaulted. Alcohol and its use are not mitigating factors for the offender, nor reasons to blame the victim, but they are pertinent topics in a discussion of sexual assault and its prevention.

Another area where the “be careful” message applies is in being out alone late at night. This past weekend, I walked a friend back to her apartment – about a 10-minute walk from Beta Bridge back into an area of apartments and houses that was unfamiliar to me. On my way there, and on my way back, I was startled to see at least half a dozen students, most of them young women, but also a male student or two, walking alone. It was approaching midnight, and these students were walking on lonely, dark streets without a friend nearby. Most had their heads down, and some even had earbuds in and were listening to music. None of this struck me as safe behavior.

Opponents of the “be careful” message will say that women should be able to walk home alone at night without fear of being raped or assaulted, that it is the assaulters — statistically mostly men — who are entirely at fault. I could not agree more. But I still cannot condone people putting themselves in risky situations, based simply on the logic that they should be able to. The fact remains that the world is often an unsafe place, regardless of the idealism brandished by bloggers, Facebook posts or the people I have debated on the issue. The way our society ought to be is not the way it is, and idealism acts as neither a weapon nor a shield in a dangerous situation.

The message should not, however, stop at “be careful; there are rapists.” Preventing sexual assault is at the heart of the issue. But stamping out rape entirely is not an end we will attain any time in the near future. My friends and I attended a 1-in-4 discussion a few weekends ago, which covered the statistics of sexual assault and suggested some ways to aid people who have been victimized. While I found the experience enlightening, I could not help but think how unlikely it was that a future rapist would opt to attend such a meeting. Those that most needed to hear the message were not those sitting around us.

This is not to say that education is useless — rather, I suggest only that education alone will not quickly result in the kind of world in which caution is no longer necessary. Educational attempts need to continue, but so too do cautionary messages for potential victims. Maybe the “be careful” lesson is old, even patronizing to some, but it is not an evil or spiteful message and does not deserve to be treated as such. Critics of cautionary messages are responding out of an understandable yet misplaced fear that such advice serves to deflect blame onto the victim or take attention away from the real issue. This is far from the truth. Education, discouragement of potential future offenders and caution for potential victims go hand in hand. People with whom I have debated this topic and people reading this column now who think that I am defending the perpetrator and accusing the victim want the same goal I do: an end to sexual violence. We are all on the same team, and we need to act that way.

Sam Novack’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at