Last week, during the ongoing criminal trial of Harvey Weinstein for charges of rape and sexual assault, his lead attorney, Donna Rotunno, appeared on the New York Times podcast, “The Daily.” When she was asked if she had ever been the victim of sexual assault, she responded, “I have not because I would never put myself in that position. I’ve always made choices from college-age on where I never drank too much. I never went home with someone that I didn’t know. I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstances ever.”
When her interviewer followed up to ask if that meant she thought that a woman who had been assaulted had “put herself in that position,” Rotunno clarified, “Absolutely not; but just as we make smart decisions when we walk out on the street at night, I think you have to make the same decision when you’re putting yourself in circumstances with other people . . . All I’m saying is women should take precautions.”
Rotunno is certainly the last person who should be offering advice to victims of sexual assault. Whatever Herculean efforts she is making on behalf of her client to defend his allegedly violent and odious behavior, she is clearly prone to hyperbole. In the same interview, she said, “There is absolutely no risk for a woman to come forward now and make a claim. Zero.” That’s a ridiculously offensive thing to say given the risks to sexual assault victims’ reputations when they testify.
Her remarks are especially insensitive given that the jury in the Weinstein case had spent the week listening to graphic details of assaults from Weinstein’s alleged victims on the stand–victims whose credibility Weinstein’s defense team will make every effort to undermine. Rotunno’s legal strategy is best summed up by a passing remark Weinstein made when he left court after one woman’s testimony: “Wait to see what the lawyers say about her.”
But the issue of personal responsibility that Rotunno raised is an important one. And it’s indicative of just how unpracticed we are in talking about personal responsibility that any effort to do so is quickly buried under an avalanche of criticism and accusations of “victim-blaming.” The #MeToo movement has sparked many important conversations about consent, power, and assault. But there’s one conversation we’re still uncomfortable having: the one about women and personal responsibility.
The facts are straightforward: The overwhelming majority of women (particularly college-age women) who are raped know their attacker. And many of those assaults occur when one or both parties have been drinking. Others begin, as the situation with the woman who accused actor Aziz Ansari of assault, as a regular date that ends with both parties agreeing to go back to someone’s home, where the boundaries of consent quickly become blurred.
The confusion and, in some cases, coercion and assault that later occurs must be understood in that context, a context far different from being attacked and assaulted by a stranger. Both are equally heinous acts, but while we are comfortable talking about how to protect women from the latter, the former prompts cultural confusion.
Writing a few years ago about the criticism lodged against New York City police Captain Peter Rose after he remarked on the troubling nature of what he called “true stranger rapes” (as opposed to situations where a woman was raped after agreeing to go back to a date’s home) syndicated columnist Froma Harrop argued, “This discussion clearly makes a distinction between victims who took precautions and those who didn’t.”
“Such distinctions make some feminists uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t,” Harrop continued. “Good people err in judgment, especially when they’re young. But no one does women a favor by treating them like children bearing no responsibility for their own safety.”
Critics — particularly feminist critics—argue that telling women to be responsible for their own safety is sexist, a patriarchal society’s effort to unfairly police women’s behavior rather than cracking down on male violence. But this is disingenuous, at best, and dangerous in practice.
Scholarly and government studies that have examined the most effective sexual assault prevention programs have yielded mixed results. As the Centers for Disease Control has noted, “The solutions are just as complex as the problem.”
Yet some of the programs that have been shown to be the most effective are precisely those that teach women practical physical and verbal skills to avoid assault. One such program, described in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, offered verbal and physical self-defense training to first-year students at three Canadian universities. It taught them the likelihood of being raped by a stranger (low) versus someone they know (much higher), and the situations that undermine the ability to give full consent (such as being under the influence of alcohol and drugs). The results were significant. One year later, the women who had taken the course were 46 percent less likely to have been raped compared to women who had not taken the course.
Unlike other campus prevention efforts, which often offer vague blandishments such as “trust your instincts” and “give yourself permission to leave,” in this program, as the New York Times described, “students were taught how to break wrist holds and chokeholds and yell. The class presented attacks in different social contexts, offering women the confidence to choose the most effective strategies.” It also taught them straightforward ways “to articulate consensual and nonconsensual sexual activities.”
But even effective programs such as these anger feminists who think women shouldn’t be asked to be responsible for their choices. “As a friend of mine once said, ‘If you’re pushing a woman to change her behavior to ‘prevent’ rape, rather than telling a perpetrator to change his, you’re really saying, ‘Make sure he rapes the other girl.”‘ There will always be another girl at the bar,” Dana Bolger wrote in Feministing.
Unfortunately, the world is an unfair and imperfect place, and women are uniquely vulnerable to assault given that they are, on average, physically smaller than men (and given that men commit nearly all rapes). Personally, I think no woman should turn 18 without having taken a serious self-defense course that teaches her basic skills to physically protect herself and given guidance about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Read Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear and Martin J. Dougherty’s Unarmed Combat Guide.
Giving women the information and strategies to best protect themselves, and the language to clearly express what they are and are not comfortable doing with a man, doesn’t absolve men for any actions they take that violate women. Nor does it free us of the responsibility for raising young men to understand what respect for women and consent should look like (lots of programs are doing that.)
But as self-defense trainer Anne-Marie Wanamaker has argued, feminist criticism deliberately ignores the fact that “people at risk of violence can take effective steps to increase their own safety.” She takes issue with “the implication that prevention-education efforts which focus on active steps women can take to increase their own safety are misinformed and ineffective.”
She’s right. Learning self-defense and encouraging personal responsibility don’t promote victim-blaming; they teach women valuable skills that give them a true sense of empowerment in their daily lives. Until the world is a perfect place free of violence, they will need them