About a year ago, when I was still a law student at the University of Iowa, I received an infuriating e-mail in my inbox from the university’s Department of Public Safety. The department sends out regular “Crime Prevention News” e-mails, all of which you can see on their website here. I get the feeling someone else must have complained, since the most recent update on safety in downtown Iowa City specifically says that both males and females should follow their tips, but it’s still gendered, referring to male-on-male violence (which in my opinion makes it sound like men are the only one who need to be concerned about non-sexual violence downtown).
The e-mail that I received while I was in attendance is the April 2008 newsletter, focusing on “Personal and Residence Safety.” Though the newsletter isn’t as bad as it could be at targeting women, the header makes it clear who the target audience is. “Over the past two years there have been several assaults on women in the Iowa City area. Please remember the following safety tips from the University of Iowa Police.”
Iowa City is fairly mixed when it comes to sexual assault. There have been a number of recent cases, one of which involved a football player and smelled a bit fishy. The university can at times seem very protective of its athletes and somewhat sexist in its treatment of assault victims or potential victims. On the other hand, there is an amazing program called RVAP (Rape Victims Advocacy Program) that does great things, and public safety does link up to them in some of its literature.
Some of the tips in the Personal and Residence Safety newsletter are common sense. Others aren’t bad ideas, though they do inspire a bit of paranoia and require some complicated DIY work (I’m now wondering if it’d be wise to start drilling holes into the windows of my Baltimore apartment and inserting nails to make them harder to open). But then we have the fun ones:
- There is safety in numbers; make it a habit to walk with others.
- Recognize that the use of a cell phone or personal stereo may distract you from paying attention to your surroundings and persons acting suspiciously.
- Avoid consuming alcohol or other substances that may impair your judgment or your
ability to react to a confrontation.
- At your mailbox, list only your last name and initial. Women in particular should list their name the same way in the building directory and telephone book.
- Whenever possible, avoid riding in the elevator alone with strangers. Don’t hesitate to get off an elevator when you feel uncomfortable or threatened.
- When using an apartment building’s laundry room, don’t go there alone. Also, don’t leave your clothes in the laundry room unattended.
I was sort of torn at first when I read the newsletter, because yes, technically these are things that might reduce the risk of a physical assault by a stranger. Setting aside the fact that sexual assaults are not normally stranger assaults, these tips might help you avoid a hypothetical assault by a stranger. But the problem is the focus. There’s the header that aims the thing at women. There’s the fact that women are encouraged to be paranoid, not to drink, not to be alone, to have a fucking escort to the laundry room. Beyond the ones I’ve quoted, all the weird DIY stuff like trimming the hedge, replacing your apartment door, etc., are things that women would be unlikely to actually do, but it might make you a little unnecessarily paranoid. I also don’t like that the university’s Night Ride service, advertised at the bottom of that newsletter, is open only to women and not to anyone who’s had a drop of alcohol, regardless of age. (I do think that they may have changed that; there’s no mention of alcohol in the current Night Ride description and they say that though they won’t give men a ride, they will wait with you for a police escort if you feel that you’re in danger).
Other newsletters have a similar focus. One from September/October 2006, for example, called “Street Smarts,” doesn’t say it’s for women, but the first page has a sexual assault statistic (one in four women) on it, and the last page is a big announcement for Rape Aggression Defense programs. The tips aren’t quite so bad, but I did roll my eyes at “Do you let your mind wander – thinking about your job, or all the things you have to do – when walking or driving?” Yes, and I should feel safe doing so!
Another gem is 2005’s “Travel Safety Tips for Women.” The first page has all sorts of fun tips on how to mentally prepare yourself for travel, including thinking of all the types of assaults you could be a victim of! How delightful! And I have no idea what to think about this one:
All actions taken during a criminal confrontation have ethical, legal, moral and physical ramifications. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the action justified? Is it fair? Are there any other options? Would the action be considered reasonable by a normal person or lawful in a court of law?
“Moral” ramifications is particularly interesting. I really have no idea what they’re talking about. And then of course, the usual “women must be paranoid” tips, including no less than 14 tips on how to freak out about the safety of your hotel, complete with horror stories of how criminals have broken into women’s hotel rooms. Charming. Again, sure, this stuff happens. But why are we focusing on the victim’s behavior?
So that brings me to my point, which is the awesome sexual assault prevention tips post I found this week on the blog Post Bourgie (recommended by Ann at Feministing, thanks for the head’s up!):
1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.
2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!
3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!
4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.
5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
6. Remember, people go to laundry to do their laundry, do not attempt to molest someone who is alone in a laundry room.
7. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.
8. Always be honest with people! Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them you plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the other person may take that as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.
9. Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake!
10. Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone “on accident” you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do.
And, ALWAYS REMEMBER: if you didn’t ask permission and then respect the answer the first time, you are committing a crime- no matter how “into it” others appear to be.
Hells to the fucking yeah, I say! I love these tips, love them so much. They come originally from Fem!n*Ally, a really fabulous Tumblr that you should check out if you understand Tumblr more than I do. So the moral of today’s story, Iowa City, is don’t assault people. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.