Date Rape Nail Polish and Crossing The Road

Content note: This post discusses rape and mentions trauma without detail.

Until I read Maya Todd writing on Feminispire yesterday, I had no idea quite how many awful, misguided inventions for women to prevent rape there were. As she points out, “creating products to “prevent” sexual assault does nothing more than perpetuate rape culture by putting the responsibility in the woman’s hands to protect herself”.

Bullshit predictably happens in the comments, including this gem:

So… you have no solution or suggestions except to refuse to take any action. Nice. Wonderful article. I assume you also refuse to look both ways when you cross the street, refuse to wear seatbelts when you drive, or refuse to do anything else that you could do to help mitigate risk or protect yourself in this world.

Predictably, being the transport planner I am, the point about crossing the street caught my eye. Here’s a video of Market Street in San Francisco in the 1900s. Notice how casually people walk into the street at will.

As Roman of 99% Invisible explains in a podcast on the history of attitudes towards road traffic and pedestrians, “the rules of the street were vastly different than how they are today. A street functioned like a city park, or a pedestrian mall, where you could move in any direction without really thinking about it… If a car hit someone, the car was to blame”. He quotes a 1924 New York Times article: “The reckless motorist deals more death the artilleryman”.  Chris Carlsson points out in an article on the same subject that “customary practice gave priority to people on foot. Going back for centuries, public roads were open to everyone and pedestrians enjoyed a type of seniority rights.”.

Both Roman and Carlsson go on to describe a deliberate effort on the part of corporations interested in selling more cars, which required making way for their product to travel down the street unimpeded. As Roman explains, “they coined a new term: Jay Walking”. A propaganda campaign took place to shift the blame for accidents onto pedestrians’ failure to take care before entering the street; the street which was once theirs.

So it becomes that “look both ways when you cross the street” is to that commenter an example of safety precautions that one obviously just has to make, regardless of anyone’s values.

The point (I promise I didn’t just take you here to talk about transport) is that even the seemingly most normal safety precautions in fact represent of a set of values on who has the responsibility to take care to prevent harm and who has the right to go about their business without obstruction.

In the early 20th Century it was the right of the pedestrian to walk or hang about in the street, to get drunk and stagger out of the bar, and it was the responsibility of those with the capacity to harm them to avoid doing so. Those that did were held criminally liable and portrayed in the media as monsters. Like this:

Here in the 21st Century, that is, word for word, exactly how we should regard the rights of women and the responsibilities of those with the capacity to harm them. The 1923 cartoon could not be more apt – the lives of women are sacrificed to the effects of trauma in the name of allowing men to go about their business of drunkenly fucking women without obstruction.

As you can see if you look at a busy urban road today, emphasising the need to take precautionary measures is a dangerous symptom of the broader set of attitudes towards where rights and responsibilities lie. What we need to do is drop our tampon daggers and work together on moving towards a culture in which nobody ever questions the rights of women to do just as they wish, without having to structure their lives around the fear of those that might harm them.

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