Rethinking Personal Safety Messages: A Call To Action For Boston To Do Better

You may have seen something last week about a string of sexual assaults happening in the Union Square and Porter Square neighborhoods of Somerville. Somerville Police released a sketch and description of the suspect earlier this week.

sketch

The suspect was described as a white man, 20 to 30 years of age, about 5-foot-9-inches tall, with a thin-athletic build, and clean shaven. The suspect was wearing a red ski jacket with black under the arm pits and dark pants.

They also urge anyone with information about the assaults to contact Sgt. Richard Lavey at the Somerville Police Department Family Services Unit at 617-625-1600, Ext. 7237. Anonymous tips may also be texted to the phone number “TIP411″ ( 847411 ); then put “617spd” at the beginning of your text message.

These things are really important pieces of information. It is absolutely important for public safety for the police to spread this information far and wide. But then the bulletin continues:

The Somerville Police urge everyone, especially women, to take precautions while walking at night. Do not wear ear buds while walking, avoid poorly lit areas, be aware of your surroundings, and do not walk alone if possible, the police said.

And this is where we start to find the announcement problematic. When we use language that urges women to take precautions to avoid being assaulted, we use what’s known as “victim-blaming language.” And what victim-blaming language does is put the responsibility on the potential victim of a rape or sexual assault to avoid that assault, instead of putting the onus where it belongs– squarely on the perpetrator. The only thing that will prevent a rape is not being in the vicinity of a rapist with intent to rape. That’s it. And when we send the message to victims that there were things they could have done to avoid the assault, we create a culture of shame and self-blame.

The other problem with personal safety messaging is that it’s, frankly, ineffective. As mentioned above, once a perpetrator picks a target, there’s not much that can be done to stop at least the attempted assault. And telling women that they shouldn’t walk alone at night or avoid certain routes is unrealistic. The truth is that women often HAVE to be out and about at night. They have work, they have school, they have a life. They may have to take poorly lit side streets to get from the bus route to their apartment. Some of these things are unavoidable. And even if a woman never left her house, that still doesn’t guarantee that she won’t be assaulted, because we know two other things about rape: a) that people have broken into homes and raped women who were inside, and b) most rape is committed by someone the victim knows.*

This personal safety messaging is not unique to the Somerville Police Department. Our sister site in Ottawa recently addressed their own police department’s use of personal safety messaging in regards to a serial rapist in their city. Hollaback! Ottawa, along with other women’s organizations, wrote an open letter to the women of Ottawa assuring them that they have the right to be safe on the streets, regardless of what they’re doing or where they’re walking. Their campaign to change the way we talk about rape is working. They’ve had a meeting with their police department and the media is beginning to rethink the way they report on the story.

And so, let’s talk about what that could look like here in Boston. When we say that personal safety messaging is not only ineffective, but creates a false sense of security, many people wonder what else the message could look like. How can we assure the public that the police are on the case while also helping them to stay as safe as possible when on the streets? The solution as we see it is two-fold.

Firstly, we have a sketch and description of the suspect. This is huge! This information should be distributed as widely as possible. We know what this person looks like and our goal should be to make him feel like the eyes of the entire city are looking for him, because they are.

Secondly, the way we relay our messages is really important. Words have power. Here’s an idea of how the police bulletin could read instead:

The suspect was described as a white man, 20 to 30 years of age, about 5-foot-9-inches tall, with a thin-athletic build, and clean shaven. The suspect was wearing a red ski jacket with black under the arm pits and dark pants. The assaults have been reported in the Union Square and Porter Square neighborhoods of Somerville. Based on his past assaults, some things that the perpetrator may look for are women walking alone, appearing distracted, or wearing headphones.

If you feel unsafe while walking in this neighborhood, call a friend for support or dial the Somerville PD’s non-emergency line at 617-625-1600. If you experience a sexual assault, we encourage you to call the Somerville PD immediately. The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is also available 24/7 as a source of support at 800-841-8371. Police are doing what they can to ensure that the city is safe for all individuals. Please know that no matter what you are doing, no matter where you are, no matter how you are dressed, you have a right to be safe.

We want to catch this guy as much as the police do– our goals are the same. But we think that the women of Boston deserve better than messaging that blames them for their assault. We think that the message should put the onus and the blame and the attention squarely where it belongs– on the perpetrator of the assaults. We believe that everyone has a right to safety on the streets, and we think that dismantling rape culture is crucial to achieving that. And it can start with something as simple as the words we choose.

And so this is a call to action for not just the Somerville Police Department, but everyone that writes about and talks about rape and sexual assault in Boston. We believe that the women and citizens of this city deserve better, and we think you can provide that! Let’s work together to make our city as safe as possible for everyone that lives here.

If you do have any information about the assaults or have seen the man pictured in the police sketch, contact Sgt. Richard Lavey at the Somerville Police Department Family Services Unit at 617-625-1600, Ext. 7237. Anonymous tips may also be texted to the phone number “TIP411″ ( 847411 ); then put “617spd” at the beginning of your text message. Let’s get this guy.

*We also want to acknowledge that rape does not only happen to women. It happens to men and trans* folks, too. We’re focusing on female victims in this piece because those are the targets of the potential serial perpetrator.

–Britni, Brenda, Jamie and Brandie

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We actively denounce the notion that street harassment is culturally accepted and that victims somehow "deserve" it. Through raising awareness and sharing experiences, we hope to put an end to catcalling, groping, stalking, public masturbation, assaults, racial slurs, and other forms of street harassment. Because we believe we have the power to create a world where we can feel hot, confident, and badass, while still feeling safe!

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  1. […] Boston has issued a call to action to the city of Boston to reconsider personal safety messages and examine how they lead to […]

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