The park as a bogeyman, and other violence fallacies

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
March 20, 2015 /

Click here to view original /

Michael Sanguinetti. A name probably completely unfamiliar. Unless of course, you take an interest in the personal safety rhetoric foisted upon women by well-meaning men. And then he’s known for one hell of a case of foot-in-mouth disease.

Back in 2011, Sanguinetti, a constable with the Toronto Police, addressed a forum on campus rape. Playing the role of the hard-boiled seen-it-all-heard-it-all cop-of-the-meanest-mean-streets, Sanguinetti told the forum: “I’m not supposed to say this; however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

Cue the Slut Walk counter-attack.

Truth be told, I’m of the belief that Sanguinetti’s comments weren’t particularly shocking to most of us; he simply gave voice to one of a litany of well-established rape myths: this one centred on the magical properties of clothing.

The story goes like this: If a woman dares to frock-up in a manner deemed provocative then she puts herself in a position of peril. Myth being the operative word here and yet one clutched onto so very tightly. Victim-blaming explains a chunk of it, sure, but so does the delusional appeal of control. In this culture of perpetual vigilance we’re encouraged to think that if we just put just enough infrastructure in place, that next time the bad things won’t happen.

Sanguinetti’s words, while egregious, weren’t the real problem. The truly jarring bit was that they came out of the mouth of a police constable; a figure representing the state.

And here’s where I get angry.

Speaking on radio yesterday about the Melbourne murder of Masa Vukotic, Detective Inspector Mick Hughes showed symptoms of suffering from Sanguinetti’s same sad syndrome: “I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks.”

Subtler than Sanguinetti, sure, and yet women were given the exact same message: that the onus is on them to adjust their behaviour.

I have no qualms with individual women taking personal measures to feel safe. If women feel safer jogging in pairs, safer using the perimeters of a park instead of zig-zagging through, safer carrying a rape whistle/can of hairspray/secret stash of wing chun moves and safer drinking less alcohol, great. Whatever gets you (sanely) through the night.

I have, however, a deluge of qualms with the state recommending such moves.

Sanguinetti’s remarks made such a thud and Hughes’ are making their own wee whimper, because they were doled out by the police. Police, who are charged with the task of – wait for it – policing. Not advising women on what constitutes an appropriate route home, not creating a culture where we question why victims “neglected” to take heed of advice, but making sure criminals get to court.

Amongst their unenviable workload, police have a role in setting a public mood. When they tell women that being alone in a park is problematic they are setting the tone that crimes against women are normal. Worse, that they are inevitable. The state is, in essence, implying that women are permanently under threat and that they need to take suitable precautions. Armies need to be assembled, battle armour needs to be donned, well-lit routes need to be drawn up; bad people are there, ladies – protect yourself!

Bad people – plural, of course. God forbid we dare talk about this as gender-based violence.

When police tell women to avoid the Law and Order-bogeyman of the park, the state is telling them that public space is the place to be fearful of. In turn, the debate – the paranoia – gets channelled solely into the false idea of rampant public crime and crazed marauding rapey men. Sidelined and completely minimised is the far less clickbait-worthy story of a women’s true peril transpiring when she crosses the threshold of her own home.

Research on gender and crime frequently spotlights the so-called “paradox of fear”: women disproportionately fearing the crimes that are actually least likely to happen to them. Stranger rape being the classic example. In telling women to procure a chaperone, police are feeding this unreasonable fear of random violence. You know the kind: the stuff that gets all the media attention.

With the pretty and innocent worthy victims and all the captivating CCTV footage, timelines and shocked-witness props. By painting parks/cities/the world as a Wild West that only a fool would traverse unguarded, we’re being fed a distracting lie that impinges on our rights to use public space equally.

Women are more likely to be raped, beaten and murdered by their partner than by any bogeyman lurking in the shrubbery. And yet I haven’t seen the police fronting a press conference advising women against heterosexuality. Against marriage. Against getting all naked and vulnerable and sharing a bed with a man. Ridiculous? Far-fetched? Of course. And yet somehow we’re supposed to smilingly swallow suggestions that we alter our commute and acquire escorts to brave these mythical badlands? Like hell!

© Lauren Rosewarne