Frisky Rant: It’s Not Offensive To Suggest That People Help Protect Themselves From Crime

The University of Wisconsin Madison Police Department posted an article this week about safety tips on campus and, of course, people are manufacturing reasons to get mad about it.

I really do mean manufacturing. These are really simple and effective safety tips that are not aimed specifically at women or the issue of campus rape. The only offensive thing about the article was the original title, “Shedding the Victim Persona: Staying Safe On Campus.” Once it was brought to the UWPD’s attention that “victim persona” unduly puts blame on victims for the crimes committed against them, they changed the title (albeit not the URL) to “Tools You Can Use: Staying Safe On Campus.” Voilà. They did their part to correct bad language. When contacted about the article, they stood by it as useful information for everyone.

It won’t stop Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino from staying mad, though. Tolentino insists, as do more women I’ve met than I care to count: “‘A victim looks like a victim!’ shrug the police. No: a woman looks like a victim. I’ll stand by those words till I die.”

I get it. I get the feeling. I am a rape survivor. But the feeling is not the fact. The fact is that in terms of crime overall, men are more likely to be victimized by a few percentage points. The logical conclusion is that, if we’re talking about all violent and non-violent crime, when a criminal is looking for a target, they are not necessarily considering gender. What they are considering is a person’s surroundings, vulnerability, body language, and awareness of their surroundings. It is not an accusation but a fact that if you are traveling alone in a poorly-lit place that you don’t know well, you look like you’re lost, your eyes are on your phone, and you’re obviously drunk, it’s going to be easy to mug you whether you’re a man or a woman. That’s why the UWPD’s advice was pretty standard: don’t travel alone, walk in well-lit areas, pre-plan your route, be aware of your surroundings, and drink responsibly (not even don’t drink, but just drink responsibly).

And if you don’t do those things, the UWPD isn’t blaming victims. They’re giving students safety tips to help protect themselves when the campus police don’t happen to be around. To illustrate my point, I’m going to use Richard Dawkins’ drunk driving analogy but turn it around. Victims of crime aren’t the drunk drivers who could’ve prevented the accident by not driving drunk, as in Dawkins’ example. Victims of crime are the people who drunk drivers hit. Drunk drivers are the criminals. As a driver, you might be able to avoid an accident with a drunk driver by observing the behaviors of other drivers on the road and driving defensively. You can do that due diligence. Even with that due diligence, you might get hit anyway. Either way, it’s not your fault that the accident happened.

Likewise, the UWPD is gently imploring students to do due diligence for their safety. They aren’t saying that if you get mugged, assaulted, or raped, it’s your fault for not following their safety tips. They’re security personnel, and they’re trained to know how criminals think so that, in the course of their jobs, they can identify criminals and their potential victims better and hopefully either prevent or bring justice to crimes. They are sharing that knowledge for the benefit of the students they serve.

This is an attitude that drives me crazy: “We shouldn’t have to prevent crime! People just shouldn’t commit crimes!” I have no idea what kind of utopian delusion you have to be living in in order to think that that is a serious solution to the problem of crime and victimization. I won’t address the whole world’s problems, but we’re living in a country in which people are systematically deprived of educational and professional opportunities and must turn to crime in order to provide for themselves. We’re living in a country in which we perpetuate crime through a legal system that bars offenders from rehabilitation outside of the prison system (try getting a job and cleaning up when you have a felony on your record), and through a prison system that makes gigantic profits off of repeat offenders and thus has a vested monetary interest in crime being perpetuated. We live in a country in which we have in many ways criminalized mental illness and stigmatized it instead of providing easy access to treatment for people with mental illnesses that would allow them to function normally in society. That’s especially so for people with severe mental healthcare concerns, not least of all conditions like psychopathy that predispose the person to aggressiveness and narcissism but are, in fact, treatable — if you remove the social barriers that make it feel, for a person whose primary motivation is their own benefit, that medical and psychological treatment is in their best interest.

And yes, we also live in a country that teaches boys that they are entitled to women’s bodies. And that needs to change. But even when it does, crime — rape in particular — will still exist. It is just not as simple as teaching people not to commit crime. You can wish and hope it away, but all you’re going to be doing is wishing and hoping, not changing anything.

[Bureau of Justice Statistics]
[National Alliance on Mental Illness]
[Washington Post]

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