By Nicole Keller, Project Coordinator of LI Safer Bars
As a young woman in college, I learned it was not acceptable to walk alone and I that I should always be thinking of a safety protocol such as holding my keys in the middle of my fingers, just in case. My father would send me emails about how a woman was abducted because a perpetrator had grabbed her ponytail. For me, that meant I could not pull my hair back, especially when I was going to be out at night alone. We often hear about new innovations coming out including special nail polish and straws that will detect drugs in your drink. Take it a step further and you can even purchase items like “hairy leg stockings”and “killer tampons” that will actually wound a potential perpetrator. These items really imply that people with hairy legs don’t get assaulted and all assaults include vaginal penetration. These products place the onus on the victim, which historically has been one of the issues in our society when addressing gender-based violence.
People still believe that sexual assault is a women’s issue and we have to protect ourselves regularly to avoid being raped. Have you ever asked a group of men what they do regularly to prevent this from happening to them? They will look at you weird and laugh nervously; but when you ask a group of women this very same question, the answers are non-stop. We carry pepper spray, we do not walk alone, we do not wear skirts, we always have to make sure our drink is being monitored and we have to make sure someone always knows our whereabouts. Men are shocked about all the answers we actually have for this and as women, we are constantly learning new ways to protect ourselves from one another. Our society has focused so hard on telling people, who are primarily women, what we should do to avoid harm. Currently, there are hundreds of harm reduction items you can buy on the internet if you simply type it into Google. Sexual assault is the only crime where we put blame on the victim and the products that are created to help “protect us” are in fact doing the very same thing as well as feeding into our culture that very much normalizes violence against women. If we want to end sexual assault, we should be focusing on the root causes by going upstream and analyzing why it’s happening in the first place.
Here are the facts: Violence affects all genders. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point intheir lives” and “1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime”. The LGBTQ+ community and other oppressed populations are at the highest risk. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2011, “64% of transgender people have experienced sexual assault”. According to the National Violence Survey against Women completed in 2000, “1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime”. These statistics are extremely high and disturbing. It is safe to say that these items are just not working. Sexual Assault is an act of violence and sex is the weapon. Assault does not happen because the victim was asking for it or she had too much to drink that night. It is very much about power and control and, despite the contrary, sexual gratification is not a factor.
Harm reduction for sexual violence is very different from primary prevention. It is a method to reduce the impact of sexual assault attempts. Primary prevention works to reduce prevalence by preventing it from happening in the first place. It is true that harm reduction does show success in other social issues such as substance abuse and practicing safe sex. When we think about substance abuse and intravenous drug use, we think about the risks associated with it. The harm reduction strategies are services that exist such as the syringe exchange Program, which allows individuals to dispose of used needles to obtain new needles with the understanding that the individual may not be ready to stop using drugs. Primary prevention of substance abuse requires comprehensive strategies including education and marketing campaigns. The goal of primary prevention is to deter people from using drugs to prevent addiction.
While harm reduction devices or activities can make a person feel safe, they cannot stop another person from committing an act of violence. Hence, they should not be promoted as an effective tool for primary prevention.
Another important matter to consider is that people have this pre-conceived notion that Rohypnol is commonly used in drug-facilitated sexual assault. Since the idea that this drug is commonly used, society has stressed the importance to take measures to protect your drink and to never put it down to avoid being assaulted. According to a study, The Involvement of Drugs and Alcohol in Drug-facilitated Sexual Assault; results found that “18 of the 1014 incidents, less than 2% involved covert drugging by a sedative drug able to cause capacitation”. The reality is that alcohol is in fact the date rape drug. More than 50% of sexual assault cases involve alcohol. An important point to note is that this is not to imply that alcohol causes rape; however alcohol does lower inhibition of the victim so that perpetrators can have access.
In conclusion, if we want to stop sexual assault in our communities we need to focus on the reason it happens in the first place. We need to prioritize creating programming that includes comprehensive strategies that are scientifically proven to decrease gender-based violence. LI Safer Bars is an initiative that does just that. It was created by The Retreat and collaborates with LI Against Domestic Violence and The Safe Center, LI. The program started in The Village of Patchogue in 2017 and is funded by The New York State Department of Health.
For more information on this program, please contact Nicole Keller, Project Coordinator of LI Safer Bars with The Retreat, 631-761-8518. If you are in need of help, please contact our hotline at 631-329-2200 or visit our website at www.allagainstabuse.org.