Disclaimer: This article deals with rape and sexual assault and may be triggering for survivors of abuse.
Yesterday an uncivil war of sorts broke out on the internet. On Sunday afternoon the publisher of Mamamia, Mia Freedman, wrote a column called “This isn’t victim blaming. This is common sense.” In the piece she explains that she will warn her daughter, when she grows older, about the connection between alcohol and sexual assault. In her words:
“I’ll tell her that getting drunk when she goes out puts her at a greater risk of danger. All kinds of danger. I’ll tell her that being drunk impairs your judgement, slows your reflexes and dramatically reduces your ability to assess risks and escape from harm.
I’ll tell her that there are opportunistic men out there, evil people who will not hesitate to take advantage of a drunk girl. I’ll tell her that there is a crystal clear connection between alcohol and sexual assault, both for the victim and the perpetrator.”
To say these words sparked outrage is an understatement; Freedman has been vilified for the piece. In my view that’s objectionable and an issue in itself, and not because I agree with her every word. I don’t but I object to publically slaying anyone for sport. My own brief moment in the firing line made me genuinely question why we cannot have different opinions without those differences descending into savage and personal attacks.
It’s exacerbated on social media where grey is too often dismissed in favour of black and white. On Twitter, too often it seems, any opportunity for a meaningful exchange is thwarted by people adopting a position on an issue, staking their flag in the sand and then castigating anyone and everyone for occupying a different space. I don’t think many people, issues or ideas fit neatly into boxes in that way and I don’t think any of us benefit from framing conversations in that way.
And, even if there are issues that fit neatly into boxes, sexual assault and rape are certainly not among them. They are more complicated and require more understanding and thought than that. Instead of attacking Mia Freedman for her piece, I think, a more valuable conversation to have is why her sentiments have created the maelstrom they have.
As a parent I absolutely relate to wanting to minimise harm in the lives of my children wherever possible. I think it’s disingenuous to read Freedman’s article and not conclude that she is motivated by parental love and a desire to protect her children. It is very clear that she is not motivated by a desire to excuse or forgive any perpetrator of sexual assault. The difficulty, however, arises because, implicitly, her words do that.
On one reading of Freedman’s column you might find it difficult to understand why it would create any controversy. The headline says it all. She is making it clear that she wants to help keep her children safe and what’s wrong with that? As one journalist put it on Twitter: “I’ll give my kids pointers on personal safety when they’re older. Not in a victim-blaming way, more akin to defensive driving technique.”
But there is a significant difference between driving and sexual assault. All drivers have an obligation – in the form of their license — to be safe on the roads. The onus is on individual drivers to keep themselves and other road users safe. There is no corresponding onus on men and women to protect themselves from sexual assault. The onus is on men and women not to perpetrate sexual assault.
This distinction might seem theoretical or even trivial but my understanding of the fraught psychological aftermath of any form of sexual abuse or assault is such that this distinction is not theoretical or trivial. It is powerful because it is the difference between being blamed and not being blamed. Even if only in the victim’s head.
The underlying message implicit in instructing a girl that not drinking will help her avoid sexual assault is the notion that drinking alcohol makes a victim, at least partly responsible, for the crime. And that is dangerous. Because as harmless as it might seem the corollary is that if they have drunk anything they ought to assume some responsibility. And that is not harmless. That is additional unwarranted anguish on top of the already painful anguish of sexual assault.
I am quite sure there are not very many parents in this country – Mia Freedman included – who would ever want their daughter or their son to feel they are even remotely responsible for a crime perpetrated against them. Understanding that is pivotal in understanding why the column sparked the outrage it has.
Rape is never the victim’s fault. Not if they’re drunk. Not if they’re sober. That is immutable and needs to be entrenched. If you need convincing I urge you to read this piece by Andie Fox and pass it on to anyone else you know who remains unconvinced.