Strangers Aren’t the Danger

Back in the Sixties, there was a quote going around that always resonated with me:

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

I just came up with a corollary to that theory:

If they can make you afraid of the wrong things, they don’t have to do anything about the real dangers.

That could apply to many things, but for today I’m going to focus on the fear-mongering directed at women.

There’s a bit going around Facebook these days that lists all the things women should do to protect themselves. This one reads:

it’s about to get dark earlier.. make sure you fill up your gas tank prior to nightfall.. keep an extra charger with you at all times.. sign up for AAA….. Check your tires and oil… No ATM runs in the evening. Park in well lit areas. Only unlock your doors if you are immediately getting out. Pay attention to your surroundings.. HEADS UP PHONES DOWN… Stay safe Queens.

This one is focused on people who drive, but something similar goes around social media regularly listing all the things women need to do to keep themselves safe when they’re out in public.

Those lists are always followed by multiple comments about how awful men are and how unfair it is that women have to do these things to stay safe when instead men should change.

I’ve got three problems with this list.

First, this is once again advice on how women should limit their lives to stay safe. As the commenters observe, we’re all getting really tired of this.

Secondly, that advice is really about protecting yourself from robbers and carjackers, so the useful parts (such as keep your car in good running condition) apply to everyone, not just women. In fact, men are more often the victims of this kind of street crime than women, perhaps because some men assume being male means you don’t have to pay attention.

But most importantly, when women are told how to keep themselves safe, the implication is that they need protection from sexual assault, rape, and murder. And that brings me to my most important objection: this advice, though often well-meaning, makes women think the real danger they face is from strangers.

And it’s not. 

When it comes to sexual assault, rape, and murder, most women are at much more risk from men they know. A large chunk of that risk comes from intimate partners and former partners. Some of it comes from family. But a large and overlooked part of it comes from acquaintances — co-workers, fellow students, friends of friends, people you meet at parties or bars.

Way more women are attacked by acquaintances than they are by strangers. Worse, some of those acquaintances use the stranger danger myth to give themselves an opportunity. They offer to walk you to your car, for example.

Now I’m not telling you not to pay attention on the street. You don’t want to be robbed, either. Paying attention is important and everyone needs to do it. That includes men.

But as long as we keep focusing on the stranger danger myth — a myth that is often weaponized in racist and anti-immigrant ways — we aren’t really doing anything to stop rape or the deeper problems sexual assault reflect in our society.

There was an article the other day about a shooting in which a man died and a woman was injured. It called it a “domestic altercation.”

I gotta tell you, a situation that results in death and trips to the hospital is more than an “altercation.” But that’s the mindset we bring to domestic violence.

There’s a lot of good information out there about how to deal with domestic violence, compiled by those who do shelters and provide counseling, those who teach trauma-informed empowerment self defense, and the like.

But our police don’t know how to deal with it. No one has given them thorough training on it. And most people still think it’s a personal matter.

Then there’s what gets dismissed as “date rape” — the attacks on women by acquaintances. The kind of assaults that happen a lot to younger women.

Our only response to that seems to be to tell women not to do things.

Empowerment self defense training gives women a lot of skills to handle those situations, which is a much better solution than telling them “don’t wear tight clothes,” “don’t get drunk,” “don’t go to parties,” and so on.

But we are doing nothing to change the culture that allows those things to happen. Even when someone is held accountable, we get the himpathy Kate Manne talks about. Our society doesn’t think this kind of assault is important.

The workplace situations — the Harvey Weinstein assaults — aren’t really taken seriously either. We nail one guy, but we haven’t changed systems or responses. Women who come forward still often lose more than they gain.

Instead of scaring women about strangers, let’s do something about our police and our systems. Let’s take domestic violence and stalking seriously. Let’s stop screaming cancel culture when an abusive man gets fired for the way he treats the women he works with.

For a change, let’s address the real problems.

4 thoughts on “Strangers Aren’t the Danger

  1. It starts with kids–who are taught in pre-school not to go off with strangers (this is not a bad thing, imho). My daughter’s karate teacher worked hard to get the kids to understand that what he was teaching them did not make them superheroes; that if someone made them feel threatened they should 1) seek a trusted adult, or 2) run away and hide–preferably somewhere too small for an adult to crawl into. But still the assumption was that it was always going to be a stranger. The smarter programs teach children that no one–including family and friends–should subject them to touching that feels wrong, and that they should loudly object. If Uncle Lou puts his hand down your pants, yell and scream about it right then, if possible. Because the danger is much more likely to come from Uncle Lou than from a Guy in a Trenchcoat.

    1. It’s certainly not a bad thing to teach kids not to go with strangers. The problem is that while stranger abduction of kids does happen and is horrible, it’s also very rare, while creepy adults the kids know are a big problem that is usually ignored. I like teaching people (kids and grownups) that they have the right to set boundaries and that they can say no to being touched by anyone, loudly if they have to.

      I think the key here is getting away from the idea that domestic violence, which includes family sexual abuse of children, is a personal issue and recognizing that it requires well-trained outside intervention. Good self defense and boundary setting skills help, but there are too many situations where a woman or a child is afraid to say no for very good reasons.

  2. We train children to put up with things they don’t like… some of this is not wrong (“I’m sorry you don’t want to wear shoes, but it’s -10° outside, and your toes will drop of, so…”). But if Aunt Bertha wants to give junior a big sloppy kiss and Junior isn’t having it… you can train Junior (eventually) to be tactful about it, but Junior’s wishes should be honored matter-of-factly. Or as I used to say when my kids were tiny and shrank away from sudden overwhelming adult attention, “I don’t think she’s in a hugging mood right now.”

    1. I am horrified to recall that I once told my nephew he had to kiss me goodbye because it was a rule that you had to kiss your aunt. I was younger then and had of course been raised the same way.

      I keep thinking about that doctor who abused all those women gymnasts. You are taught that you must let the doctor examine you for good reason, but then there are those who abuse that trust. Once again, not a stranger.

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