[Content note: sexual assault]
Anytime someone speaks up about victim blaming and the expectation that women drastically limit their own lives in order to prevent themselves from being raped, someone will appear like clockwork to go, “Yeah, well, shouldn’t people lock their homes so they don’t get robbed?”
I am not an authority on what people should and should not do (besides not rape people), but I would argue that sexual assault has vanishingly little in common with robbery, and preventing sexual assault is not at all like locking your front door.
All analogies are imperfect by definition; if they were perfect, they would not be analogies anymore, but rather comparisons between two nearly or practically identical things. You can always find spots in which analogies fail.
But the sexual assault-robbery analogy fails on so many levels that I believe it to be useless for any sort of explanatory function.
None of this is to say which is “worse.” I’ll leave those pointless exercises to Richard Dawkins. I would personally imagine that most people who have experienced both found sexual assault to be “worse,” but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are sufficiently different that an analogy between them doesn’t really make any sense and is usually only used to silence people who speak out about sexual assault and victim blaming.
So, here’s how sexual assault is not at all like robbery.
1. We all know how to lock up a house. How do you “lock up” a human being? Seriously, what do you expect me to do? Wear a device that “locks up” my vagina? But sexual assault can happen without a vagina involved, and it can happen to people without vaginas. Lock myself inside and never go outside? Walk around in an armored body suit that requires a passcode to remove?
2. Locking your house is an effective way to prevent robbery (though, of course, not 100% effective). To my knowledge, there is no effective way to prevent rape except not raping. Most people are sexually assaulted by someone they know. Many people are sexually assaulted at home or at the home of a friend. The only factor present in the vast majority of rapes (99%) is a male rapist. So the only effective way to prevent rape would be to avoid men regardless of your own gender. Obviously, that’s not realistic. And since only a small percentage of men (~6%) are rapists, you’d be cutting yourself off from a lot of potentially great (or at least not-rapey) people.
3. Locking your house is easy and takes one second. The things women are told to do to “prevent rape” (aside from being ineffective) involve drastically limiting their social lives and other opportunities. The “perfect victim” would always cover up from her ankles to her neck, never go outside without a chaperone, especially after dark, never drink, never go to parties or bars, never be alone with a man (whether she knows him or not), and never have consensual sexual contact, since lots of sexual assaults occur once the victim has consented to something else, and many are perpetrated by boyfriends and husbands rather than strangers or acquaintances or friends. That sounds more like one of those fundamentalist countries you dudes are always criticizing than like a world we want to create.
4. When your house is robbed and you call the police, they will investigate to whatever extent they can*. Even if you left it unlocked. Even if your valuables were just lying there, visible from the windows. Even if you did everything “wrong.” Victims of sexual assault are frequently accused by the police (whose job it is not, by the way, to adjudicate this) of being the ones to blame. The police may even intimidate victims out of pressing charges, in some cases accusing them of outright lying, trying to “ruin” the rapist’s life, or being “confused” or “misunderstanding.” (And it’s not, by the way, as if people never lie about theft and robbery. Unlike false accusations of sexual assault, which are rare, insurance fraud is a major crime. Yet the police still take theft and robbery claims seriously unless they have a good reason not to.)
5. In general, we don’t shame and intimidate victims of robbery for “getting themselves robbed” or “asking for it.” I have been robbed and told by people that I should’ve been more careful, and I have been sexually assaulted and told by people that I should’ve been more careful. It felt different. Why? Because when I was robbed, nobody used the fact that I could’ve been more careful to deny that I really was robbed, that I didn’t want to be robbed, and that it sucked to be robbed. And because nobody ever denied that the robbery was the fault of the robber. (That said, those “why did you”/”why didn’t you” questions are never supportive and never helpful, so it’s best to refrain from that no matter what the situation. If the person wants your advice on securing their belongings, they will ask. Or, ask them if they want advice.)
6. There is something concrete that is taken from you when you are robbed. If you want to be super-safe, hiding that thing very well or choosing not to own it is an option. So is leaving it at home when going somewhere. I don’t take my expensive camera anywhere I can’t be carrying or watching it at all times, for instance. There is nothing that you can choose to hide or not have to prevent rape. Nothing is “taken” from you when you are raped. It is an act of violence against you as a person, not an attempt to take something that you have. I cannot leave my gender at home when I go out. Even if I could, men get raped too.
7. Many thefts and robberies are committed by people desperate for money. That doesn’t make the act ethically okay, but it does make analogies to sexual assault very flawed. Sexual assault is not a crime of desperation. You can read revolting comments made by admitted rapists if you can stomach it. They premeditate the crime. They groom their victims. They choose victims intentionally, picking the ones that they know won’t be believed if they make an accusation afterwards. They mislead their victims on purpose about things like the amount of alcohol in a drink or how many people are going up to their room or why they’re asking you to go back to their room with them. They gaslight their victims to convince them that it wasn’t really rape. They operate in social contexts where they know they won’t be challenged for their behavior, and they thrive on the approval of their peers. They do things like pause or act concerned if you say “no,” and then they keep going anyway. And, contrary to popular opinion, most of these men are not lonely, socially excluded men who can’t find anyone to have sex with and get desperate. They’re popular, socially powerful, and could easily have consensual sex (and often do) if they wanted it. (Though, even if they couldn’t, that still doesn’t excuse rape. Obviously. Obviously.)
8. While being robbed can feel very disempowering, the crime itself is not about power in the way that sexual assault is. People are rarely robbed by someone who holds lots of social power over them, whereas sexual assault is often perpetrated by someone with more power over someone with less: by a man against a woman or a “subordinate” man, by a straight-presenting person against a queer-presenting one, by an able-bodied person against a disabled person, by an older person against a younger person (or by a younger person against an elderly person, since elderly people also lack power) , by someone with social authority (a doctor, a priest, a police officer, a teacher) against someone without it. Having less power seems to be a risk factor for rape, and true rape prevention would probably require battling these power differentials. People are targeted for robbery because of things that they possess; people are targeted for rape because of who they are.
9. People do not continually insist on labeling certain types of robbery “not really robbery.” It’s not robbery if you didn’t lock your house. It’s not robbery if you were showing off a fancy gadget. It’s not robbery if you didn’t physically fight back when the item was being stolen. It’s not robbery if you were an uppity bitch who deserved it. It’s not robbery if you have willingly given or lent things to the person before. It’s not robbery if they really really want the item and it’s not a big deal for you to just give it to them. It’s not robbery if you were planning on giving the item to them but then you changed your mind and decided to keep it, because that’s just not fair. How much sense does any of this make? None. The fact that we view rape and robbery so differently (even though we shouldn’t) is one more reason it just doesn’t work as an analogy.
10. One of the most haunting things about sexual assault is the stuff they say to you. I didn’t see or interact with any of the people who have robbed me (most people probably don’t), but if I had, I can’t imagine them saying things like, “Nobody’s going to believe you.” “You know you want to give it to me.” “I can take anything I want from you and you can’t do anything about it.” “You asked for it.” “I’m only doing this because I love you so much.” “It’s your fault I can’t help myself.” And if someone did say that as they were robbing me, I’d probably just be very confused. That’s because robbery isn’t about intentionally trying to violate the victim at their very fucking core.
I suspect that one of the major reasons folks are always trying to compare rape to property theft is because that’s what it was, for millennia. The rape of a virgin was considered a theft from her father; the rape of a married woman was considered a theft from her husband. Further, sex is often seen as something women “give” to men, so when a woman is raped by a man, some people view it as “stealing” sex. (And by the way: raping a sex worker is also not theft.) These are antiquated and bigoted ways of looking at sexual assault and women.
The only things that rape and robbery seem to have in common is that they are both crimes and they are both generally unpleasant. That’s a pretty flimsy foundation on which to build a useful analogy, in my opinion.
*I realize that, as a white person, I cannot assume that the police would necessarily take everyone’s robbery as seriously as they would mine. However, if the police systematically refuse to investigate robberies reported by people of color, the conclusion there is not, “See, rape and robbery are totally similar!” but rather, “Yup, the police operate in a systematically sexist and racist fashion.” Another point, by the way, that the same folks who deny rape culture also tend to deny.