Yesterday, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department posted an article called "Shedding the Victim Persona: Staying Safe on Campus."
Before we get to it, let's note that the word "persona" is quite interesting, in this context, from this source. A persona, strictly speaking, is an act: a consciously crafted public image. When the state's apparatus for physical protection tells you explicitly that victimhood is a "persona," they suggest a mentality much closer to the criminals they go after than the people they are charged to protect.
But, as the department says, "police can't be everywhere. Each of us must take a hard line when it comes to ensuring our own safety. The following are some simple tips to help develop a proper mindset."
As we all know, states the police department: a hard line on safety is a simple matter of everyone else doing something special with their mind.
Here are their tips: don't travel alone ("by traveling with a trusted friend, you make yourself a less desirable target"); travel on well-lit paths; pre-plan; drink responsibly ("over-consumption of alcohol will quickly make you an easy target"). Standard stuff; lots of talk about what kind of a target you are making yourself—lots of envisioning the inside of your assaulter's head as the primary extension of human empathy in this situation—and then this guy right here.
Be a hard target – a victim looks like a victim! If you move from one destination to another, and the only thing you recall about the trip is the last text message you received, then there's a problem. The military calls it 'keeping your head on a swivel' and it's probably the most important thing you can do to ensure your safety. If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves. If you make yourself a hard target, one who is aware of their surroundings, you take away two elements of a crime: desirability and opportunity.
"If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves." "A victim looks like a victim." Oh, dear police department, we know, we know. We know we look like victims. We know we present as easy goddamn prey. How lovely to be reminded by the police department. What a nice opportunity to think about the fact that none of the women I know who have been raped have ever reported it. Not one!
I, like basically every female human I know, was followed home and harassed and assaulted in college. I was also followed home and harassed and assaulted while serving in the Peace Corps: concerns about personal safety led to me leaving after just under a year. Three years ago I wrote about it in an op-ed for the New York Times, about how our in-country trainers were appreciably conscientious—how they spent a lot of time in preparatory sessions telling female volunteers how to avoid rape.
"The training, though extensive," I wrote, "seemed facile. Ultimately, no behavioral code could ward off rape; try as we might to walk in lighted places, our primary offense in the case of an assault would simply, as always, be that of being female."
It's so difficult to me to understand how this fact stays so invisible. "A victim looks like a victim!" shrug the police. No: a woman looks like a victim. I'll stand by those words till I die.
After hearing from some people about this wording yesterday, the title of the article was changed to "Tools You Can Use: Staying Safe On Campus." Shedding-the-victim-persona is still in the page's URL, however, and that word keeps kicking. The parts I bolded in the block quote have been removed, but the piece remains almost exactly the same, down to these last lines:
The attitude of "it can't happen to me" is the wrong attitude. The right attitude is "I won't let it happen to me!"
I wrote to the UW police department spokesperson asking for comment on the changes. I asked if they had received and understood feedback expressing that the wording of the article seems slightly delusional, in that no one has ever prevented their own assault by saying, all chipper, "I won't let it happen to me!"
Department spokesperson Marc Lovicott wrote back. "The article for the most part was left unchanged, and we stand by it," he said. "The story is a general crime prevention piece—for all crimes against men and women." He expressed that it is "never EVER a victim's fault if they're the target of a crime," and repeated the sentiment several times.
Good of him to say so. Of course it would be better to actually say so, and even better if people—and I mean women—had the sense that our state apparatus actually believed this to be true. It's really the little things! Like the fact that the outcry was strong enough for the department to change the title and some of their wording, but they "stand by" the article, as is, in the end.
Our tipster, Madison resident Lachrista Greco, wrote in her email, "As a woman who was raped on UW-Madison's campus years ago, I am very glad I never reported, because I now know for sure I would have been blamed."
She's not, of course, alone in this feeling. Just within the 13-campus University of Wisconsin system, the estimated number of rapes outnumbers the number of sexual assault reports by a margin of 17-1. The phrase "shedding the victim persona" is, at best, so meaningless as to be immaterial; in context of this reality, it is fundamentally cruel.
You can contact the UW-M PD at 608-264-2677, or email their media representative at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock