For those of us on the front lines in the fight to end sexual violence, prevention efforts that target offenders often offer a breath of fresh air. The This Is Not an Invitation to Rape Me initiative, for example, exposes the absurd rationale behind common rape “excuses.” Then there’s the Don’t Be That Guy campaign: a project that suggests – shockingly enough – that “just because she’s drinking doesn’t mean she wants sex.” There’s also this video that cycled through the blogosphere awhile back, promoting the painfully simple notion that caring for someone in a vulnerable position is a sensible alternative to violating them. Examples like these serve to humanize potential victims of rape and place responsibility for sexual assault where it belongs – squarely on the shoulders of would-be perpetrators. Instead of telling women and girls what to do to avoid being assaulted, these campaigns encourage men to get smart, get serious, and tap into both compassion and common sense to ensure their participation in consensual sex. Good stuff, right? But what to make of enterprises like this one that also send the “don’t rape” message yet offer significantly different motivations for doing so?
Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and the next place you enter could be prison.
My initial reaction to this message was one of exasperation. If the primary incentive to not rape is to avoid prison, how will our society ever learn to respect women? More accurately: Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and you are robbing them of their humanity. But then I paused. I breathed. I reasoned: We’re sadly a long way off from worldwide equality and respect, so perhaps campaigns like this one offer an important band-aid solution to our country’s sexual assault epidemic while others continue the long-term work of uprooting the underlying causes of sexual violence. To borrow an old social work analogy, it’s like pulling drowning people from a river one by one while others move upstream to keep them from jumping in.
Philosophically, I tend to side with harm reduction models. If a campaign like this stops just one potential rapist from raping just one person, I fully believe in its value. But what if ads like this don’t actually prevent rape at all, but instead make perpetrators more adept at evading the consequences of their crimes? Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and the next place you enter could be prison. Fair enough. You could go to prison for having sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, but will you? Statistics suggest that this is a slim possibility, what with 97% of rapists in the U.S. never spending a day in jail . And we already know that perpetrators often intentionally target vulnerable populations – individuals who lack the social credibility required for successful prosecution. Could it be that messages like this actually encourage offenders to seek out victims with little likelihood of being believed if they report a rape? And what about the photographic content of this ad? Just because a woman’s wearing only underwear in no way gives someone license to rape her, but the use of a headless female image with an emphasis on her genital area seems to promote the idea of objectification (which leads to violence) while ostensibly communicating an anti-violent message. I also find the ad’s reference to “entering” to be, well, just plain offensive.
Last but not least, this campaign makes the age-old error of conflating sex and rape – a common societal malapropism that effectively minimizes the seriousness of sexually violent crimes. Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and you aren’t having sex with them at all – you’re raping them. The distinction is crucial to the movement to end sexual violence.
 (U.S. Department of Justice. National Crime Victimization Survey. 2010; FBI, Uniform Crime Reports: 2010; National Center for Policy Analysis, Crime and Punishment in America, 1999; Department of Justice, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties: average of 2002-2006).