In 2011, a Toronto policeman participating in a campus safety forum was accused of uttering words to the effect that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Participants at this forum seized on his words as a form of ‘victim blaming’ and launched a movement notable for its vociferous defence of women’s rights to dress any way they choose, and ended up rather missing the point of the safety forum.
I did not attend the aforementioned safety forum; however I have participated in training sessions related to reducing the risk of becoming a victim. My understanding of this sort of safety forum is to understand that there are threats – in this case to university students, specifically women, as the statistics bear out. The likeliest victims of sexual assault are women aged 15-24, by a large margin – they are 18 times more likely to be assaulted. It is further estimated that only about 10% of sexual assaults are reported to police, making clear statistics difficult to confirm, but this clearly identifies university-aged women as being in a group that is at higher risk than other members of society. Lots of detail for anyone so inclined can be found here: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85f0033m/85f0033m2008019-eng.pdf
As a result, events like the safety forum and other educational efforts are important to inform women of the risks that the world holds. Identifying and educating on risk is not victim blaming. Informing women when an activity places them at higher risk of being attacked allows those women to make informed choices to reduce the likelihood of becoming victims. Note that this in no way absolves the attacker of responsibility.
Now, perhaps the police officer should have phrased his words more carefully. “Slut” is an emotionally-charged word. Perhaps he was going for shock effect, in which case he succeeded beyond his expectations. It certainly seems to me that he wanted to get women to consider how their actions may place themselves in greater risk, and to consider how they may be perceived by potential attackers.
The corollary to this is that the way a woman dresses is only one factor in a terribly complicated risk matrix, and likely a relatively minor one. When I was preparing to work in Afghanistan, we were taught that in socially conservative countries, we would be judged on how we dressed, and that insufficient respect for local customs could have fatal consequences. Here in Canada, clothing choices are far more liberal, and much less likely to be a factor in whether one is attacked than other choices, like binge drinking, walking alone at night in unsafe areas, the risk of one’s drink being ‘spiked’ with a sedative or other ‘date-rape’ drug, accepting a ride from a stranger, or any of a myriad of other risk activities. The statistics indicate that sexual assault is more likely to be committed by someone known to the victim, so the ‘don’t trust strangers’ part of the advice won’t have bearing as the betrayal of trust is more likely to be by someone you don’t know.
Now, it is possible to follow all the advice from the safety forum and still be a victim of crime, just as it is possible to refrain from smoking and still contract lung cancer. The purpose is to promote consideration of one’s actions and potential consequences.
Please, attend safety fora. Engage in discussion. Recognize that someone can offer advice on how to avoid being a victim without suggesting that a victim somehow ‘causes’ the crime.