Women Are Not Safe Until the Criminal Justice System Holds Abusers Accountable

The cautionary advice women and girls receive doesn’t change the fact that the men who wish to harm us still exist. Changing rape culture begins with accountability.

Women Are Not Safe Until the Criminal Justice System Holds Abusers Accountable
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“A man has a problem, so women must suffer. What can women do to prevent these heinous acts? Nothing.” (Devon Buchanan/Flickr)

Like most women and girls in this country, my parents thought they were preparing me for the world by telling me what not to do. Don’t walk around at night alone. Don’t go to a bar or party alone. Don’t get drunk. Don’t reveal too much skin. Don’t stay out late. Don’t study in secluded spaces in the library. Don’t be alone with strange men. Don’t mention you’re single. Don’t leave your car doors unlocked when you drive.  Don’t let the door shut if you’re in a male professor’s office.

“How about I just not exist?” I snarked at my mother as she drove me to my college freshman dorm.

“I’m serious, Maria!” she snapped. So was I.

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that men who want to hurt me don’t need vulnerability on my part to do it. They’re not going to be watching whether I have a skirt on or if I’m working alone or what the clock says when I’m away from home or if a door is unlocked.

I learned that lesson when a man groped me on a crowded street during daylight hours with a friend next to me. 


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April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is aiming at raising public awareness and prevention. This month marks the 20th anniversary of national observance. Elected officials, policy leaders and advocacy organizations do their part to acknowledge Sexual Assault Awareness Month—but what have we changed or learned over the past two decades?

In the 21st century, being female is still assumed to be a valid provocation for harassment and violence. In America, this presumption is still widely accepted as an explanation for crimes against women, especially women of color. One doesn’t have to say it explicitly when we question a victim’s characteristics prior to the crime. 

What was she wearing? What time was it? Where was she? Why was she there? Why wasn’t she at home? Why didn’t she fight back? Why can’t she remember everything? Why was she drinking?”

Elliott Rodger was lonely and couldn’t get a date. He longed to put women in concentration camps. Robert Bardo wanted to talk to actress Rebecca Schaefer, but he shot her in the chest instead. Women repeatedly rejected George Sodini so he walked into a women’s aerobics class and opened fire. Scott Beierle’s frustration at the women who rejected him motivated him to shoot six women, killing two of them, at a Florida yoga studio. Robert Aaron Long “had a bad day” after allegedly shooting eight people in Atlanta, Georgia—six of them Asian women.

A man has a problem, so women must suffer. 

What can women do to prevent these heinous acts? Nothing.

Let’s apply the cautionary advice women and girls receive to reality. Women can walk around in public in a hazmat suit. We can put steel prison bars over our doors and windows or pay extra to live in high-rise apartments with security guards. We can only leave the house during daylight hours. We can never swallow a drop of alcohol. We can avoid public transportation. We can stop interacting with men altogether. We can live like nuns. We can carry mace, car keys and guns. We can master self-defense. We can raise awareness, sign petitions and march the streets.

But none of those actions address the root causes of crimes targeted at women: The men who wish to harm us still exist. They walk the streets, eat at restaurants, work alongside us and take public transportation. These men will coexist with the rest of us until the large-scale systems, particularly the criminal justice system, stop protecting and shrugging away these crimes.  

What does real change look like? We’ll know it when we see law enforcement issue a statement like this:

“The perpetrator was pretty much fed up with women and/or people of color not meeting his demands. He used bigotry to project his deep-rooted anger and insecurity issues. His victims played no role in his choices. When men behave this way, they will face the well-deserved consequences of their actions.”  

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About

Maria Reppas lives with her husband and son in Virginia. She has been published in the Washington Post, New York Daily News, Scary Mommy, Ms. Magazine, The Lily, and the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at www.mariareppas.com.