Safety tips are pieces of advice that people are given to keep themselves safe from potential harm. They include things like: always walking with someone else, not being alone at night, not wearing revealing clothing, taking a self-defence class, and not wearing your hair in a ponytail, to name a few. These tips often come from a well-intentioned place; they are given in the hopes of protecting people. However, safety tips often come with unintended, harmful impacts because they inadvertently adhere to myths about how and why sexual assault happens.
Safety tips inadvertently misidentify the cause of sexual assault as being something that the person who experienced the sexual assault did or did not do. This unintentionally puts the responsibility for the sexual assault on the person who experienced it, instead of on the person who did it. In this way, safety tips contribute to an environment in which sexual assault is allowed to happen because the people causing this harm are not held responsible. In reality, the only person responsible for a sexual assault happening is the person who forced sexual contact on someone who didn’t want it to happen; there is nothing that anyone can ever do to “ask for it”. This focus on the survivor’s actions is also known as victim blaming.
Safety tips are usually developed with a certain picture of sexual assault in mind: a stranger popping up, often when someone is walking alone in the dark, possibly in an alleyway. This type of experience happens and is a scary, valid fear to have. But in reality, up to 85% of the time sexual assaults are committed by someone the person knows; they could be a friend, an acquaintance, a family member, or a partner or significant other. As such, sexual assaults are more likely to happen in someone’s home rather than out in public.
At the same time, the most common response people have when experiencing a sexual assault is to freeze up or shut down. This response is one way the body tries to keep itself safe when something scary is happening. If someone freezes instead of fighting back or running away during a sexual assault, it still is not their fault that it happened.
Another typical assumption about sexual assault that informs safety tips is that sexual assault is usually physically violent; someone is forced into sexual contact using physical force or threats of physical harm. Like sexual assault by strangers in alleyways, physically violent sexual assaults do happen and are valid, scary experiences for which people deserve support. Again like with stranger sexual assault, though, physically violent sexual assault happens far less often than people tend to think. The vast majority of the time, it is emotional manipulation and coercion that is used to force someone to have sexual contact they don’t want to have. Examples of emotional manipulation and coercion include threatening to end the relationship, pressuring someone to agree, threatening consequences if they don’t submit, and using guilt.
The reality is, the typical safety tips do not address the realities of how and why sexual assault happens, and they can leave people who experience it feeling like it was their fault. People have every right to do what they need to do to feel safe and empowered, and following safety tips can be part of that. The thing to remember, though, is that sexual assault is never the fault of the person who experienced it, whether they followed safety tips or not.
Keeping this in mind, there are actions people can take to be part of preventing potential sexual assaults from happening:
- Education. Providing people with accurate, non-victim blaming information about sexual assault and consent can help prevent sexual assault from happening, and increase support for those who experience it. For education resources on consent and related topics, visit the learn section of our website.
- Stand up. If you hear inappropriate comments or jokes about sexual assault, and you feel safe doing so, explain why those comments are harmful and not funny.
- Bystander intervention. If you witness behaviours that are concerning, whether in a public or private space, there are some steps you can take to intervene if you feel safe doing so. Learn more about different types of bystander interventions you can take.
To talk to someone about information in this article you can call the SACE Support and Information Line at 780.423.4121, or chat on sace.ca from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.