GAINESVILLE — As I drove slowly around the endless strip malls that line the main drag of my city, I heard it — a public-service announcement that seemed meant for me.
“Ultimately you are responsible for your safety in parking lots. Walk deliberately with keys in hand. Carry mace. Don’t look at your cell phone. Don’t let yourself become a victim. Happy holidays and New Year from the Sheriff’s Office.”
On its face, it seems like a helpful message, a proactive reminder to stay safe. But I heard something else. I heard, “This year, the police department would like a lot fewer assault and rape charges clogging up our system, ladies.”
Unfair? Maybe. The office’s message doesn’t specify women. But it’s implied — not just by my police department, but by society.
Women are inundated with tips and tricks about how to be less vulnerable. And we listen. We walk through dark parking lots with keys clenched pointy-side out. We steer clear of shadowy alcoves. We carry mace.
Because even if some of us strongly disagree with the way the above message was communicated, we also don’t want to be victims. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women are more than four times more likely to be raped than men and almost three times as likely to be stalked.
If that’s the case, what’s so wrong about helping women not become victims of these crimes?
The problem is not in the help, it’s in the message.
When we hear public-service announcements about drunk driving, we aren’t told, “Stay off the streets from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day.” We hear, “Don’t drink and drive. Be responsible.”
The weight of the crime is placed on the potential perpetrator. Everyone knows that it would be safer not to drive on New Year’s Eve — just as every woman knows not to text while walking through a dark, secluded area.
But by telling women that we’re ultimately responsible for our own safety, the police department is suggesting (unintentionally, I’m sure) that that we’re responsible for whether we get assaulted, which is just not true. While there are things women can do to reduce their risk, whether they get assaulted is simply not up to them. It’s up to the assailant.
Messages like the one from my county police department frame assault, rape and battery as the fault of the victim. They suggest that certain crimes not only can be prevented, but should be prevented — by those against which the crimes were committed.
It’s a drop in the bucket, trying to change the language around these crimes. But it matters.
This year, I would suggest a message more along the lines of this: “Remember this holiday season that unfortunately not everyone will be full of good will. If someone assaults, attacks or steals from you, we are here. We work the holidays to help our residents, but, of course, we would rather not have to respond to such calls. So this season, if you’re thinking about attacking or hurting someone, give yourself a gift and don’t. For the rest, stay safe this year. Be aware of your surroundings, and keep your eyes and ears open at all times. And if something does happen, call us. Reporting crimes is an important way of trying to stop them.”
It’s a message that shines light on all three: the perpetrator, the victim and the law enforcement there to help.
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls.
The Washington Post