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This is the anti-violence campaign Australia desperately needs.

Talking to men about the nuances of consent and spelling out what does and doesn’t constitute rape is not condescending at all, says Nina Funnell. It’s essential.

Trigger warning: This post deals with rape. It may be triggering for some readers.

Imagine if the next time a woman was raped you turned on the news and heard this:

“Police are urging men to be considerate and respectful when gaining consent to have sex, after another man was found guilty of raping a woman.”

And imagine if instead of imploring women not to travel alone or drink alcohol, the police issued statements reminding men that it is a crime to have sex with anyone who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

What would the world look like if police directed rape prevention advice to men, instead of women? And would rates of sexual assault ever drop if safety campaigns attempted to engage potential perpetrators, rather than just potential victims?

Well, in Canada that question has already been asked and answered. And it turns out that public messaging which is aimed at men, and which urges them not to rape women, can lead to a small but significant reduction in sexual assault rates.

The Canadian Campaign

Unlike Australian campaigns (which typically call on women to micromanage their own behaviour in the hopes of forward-managing the behaviour of a small minority of men), our Canadian cousins have taken the novel approach of appealing directly to men via a campaign titled ‘Don’t be that guy.’

The campaign features a range of advertisements with slogans like “Just because you helped her home, doesn’t mean you get to help yourself. Don’t be that guy’’ and ‘Just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she’s saying yes. Don’t be that guy.’’

dont be that guy campaign
Image via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

It’s a genius campaign because it appeals directly to men’s egos and their desire to be regarded by others as a decent sort of bloke. The campaign also recognises that most rapists are not socially isolated loners who prowl the fringes of society: they are ordinary everyday men who care about the approval of their immediate peer networks, and who don’t want to lose face in front of other men by being thought of as ‘that guy’.

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Read more: 10 perfect ‘rape-prevention’ tips every man needs to read.

Women have certainly welcomed the campaign too, relieved that the focus has finally shifted off women’s clothing, conduct and choices, and onto the choices and actions of men who choose to assault women.

And best of all: the Canadian campaign works.

Best of all, the campaign is having an effect. Six months after the campaign was released in Vancouver, there was a 10 per cent reduction in the number of rapes being committed – the first drop in several years. According to local police, crime rates in the area prior to the campaign were generally decreasing with the exception of sexual offences which were on the increase. In the six months following the launch of the campaign, not only did the rate of sexual offences stop accelerating, but there was a marked decrease in numbers. The police have attributed the turnaround directly to this campaign.

Poster via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

And while 10 per cent may not sound all that impressive to some, it’s important to remember that this is a seismic shift for a very simple public awareness campaign to achieve. We should also keep in mind that under the traditional campaigns aimed at women, there has never been a notable drop in rates of sexual assault.

And why?

Because telling women not to walk alone or wear short skirts does not stop rape: it simply downstreams the problem to the next woman by saying to the rapist “Don’t target me! Rape the next girl who comes along instead.’’

Read more: “Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods.”

Unfortunately, this kind of messaging also makes victims reluctant to report sexual violence to police due to fears that they will be further blamed for the assault, especially if they were drunk, wearing a short skirt, or doing any of the other million things we are daily told not to do. (This only shields perpetrators from the law and enables them to continue offending.)

Poster via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

Worse still, we’d be naive to think that perpetrators don’t also hear these cautions aimed at women on the news, and feel somewhat legitimised when they do.

Will we ever see this campaign in Australia?

COMPARE AND CONTRAST: An Australian campaign putting the onus on women to stop their own sexual exploitation and the Canadian ad targeting would-be perpetrators.

So will we ever see a campaign like this in Australia?

Poster via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

Given the encouraging results of the Canadian campaign, it’s hopefully only a matter of time before Australian authorities join the party. And wouldn’t it be bloody awesome if during peak rape seasons (such as office-Christmas party season or University O week) we saw our cops releasing targeted campaigns aimed at potential perpetrators, rather than potential victims?

But before we are ever likely to see such a radical shift in approach, we will need to resolve two significant questions: firstly, why have Australian authorities been so reluctant (and even afraid) to direct their rape prevention messages to men? And why do so many members of the community still assume that it would be pointless to even try to reach potential perpetrators through public messaging?

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Why aren’t we focussing on perpetrators in our messaging?

A large part of the answer comes down to how people continue to perceive rapists. When rapists are depicted as deranged monsters, people assume that it is impossible to ever reason with them, because we imagine that it is in their very nature to hunt and harm. And because rapists are often depicted as faceless outcasts, it can be easy to assume that rapists do not read newspapers, are not already engaged in public debate, and thus cannot be reached by education strategies, much less reasoned with through it. But most rapists aren’t deranged monsters who exist outside the media-reality feedback loop.

The other reason why people are so reluctant to direct rape prevention messages to men is because we consider it patronising. We assume that good men already know what rape is, and why it’s wrong, and therefore it’s condescending to remind them of it. We also assume that ‘everyone knows right from wrong’ and so if a man intends to rape someone, then he must simply be evil and could never be persuaded otherwise.

Poster via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

And to be fair, this may be the case for a very small minority of psychotic violent offenders.
But the vast majority of men who pressure, force or coerce women into unwanted sex are not of the psychotic, only-a-bullet-will-stop-them variety.

They are teen boys who coerce their girlfriends into unwanted sex on formal night. They are elite college residents who assume that ‘all nice girls say no at first’. They are football players, lawyers, and stockbrokers who are indifferent to the needs of the women they associate with, and who prioritise their entitlement to sexual gratification over and above a woman’s autonomy. And they are elderly married men who will swear up and down that rape is most vile crime imaginable, not realising that the ‘conjugal rights’ they insist upon makes them every bit the rapist by today’s legal standards.

Read more: “He raped me. Then he rang.”

Indeed many of these sorts of men would probably be horrified to learn to their behaviour meets the legal definition of rape. And we shouldn’t be afraid to look at the statistic that 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience sexual assault, and then admit that there must be plenty of otherwise delightful and loving men out there who have, at some stage in their lives, used coercive or controlling methods to ‘persuade’ a woman to have sex against her wishes.

Poster via ‘The Violence Stops Here’.

Talking about what constitutes consent is essential

So talking to men about the nuances of consent and spelling out what does and doesn’t constitute rape is not condescending at all. It’s essential.

And it’s essential that we include women in those conversations too, since research shows that many members of the community – including women – do not have a clear idea about exactly what does and doesn’t constitute consent.

These conversations need to happen in this country. And they need to happen now. And while an advertising campaign could only ever be one small cog in a much larger machine, it would represent an important start.