While being interviewed on Spanish radio last month, Francisco Javier Leon de la Riva – the mayor of Valladolid, northwest Spain’s largest city – announced that he was wary of getting into elevators with women because you never know when they might “tear off their bras or skirts” and then run out of the elevator claiming sexual assault.
In response, Twitter exploded with creativity (see, for example, memes featuring images of women in elevators and the words “Waiting for the mayor of Valladolid”), and Leon de la Riva protested that his statement had been taken “out of context”. One is hard-pressed, of course, to think of a context in which such an utterance would not be terribly inappropriate.
As it turned out, the “context” was just as absurdly offensive, and had to do with a list of guidelines for females that had just been issued by the Spanish interior ministry. The subject? How to avoid being raped.
The document reads a bit more like a list of instructions for creating a nation of paranoid recluses. Suggestions include acquiring a whistle, “leav[ing] the lights in two or more rooms on [at night] to make it look like two or more people are at home”, and conducting a thorough inspection of the interior of the car before getting in: “An intruder might be crouching in the back.”
Avoid elevator encounters?
The bit that caught the mayoral eye, apparently, was this one: “Avoid getting into elevators with strangers, especially in apartment buildings. In any case, always stay as close as possible to the alarm button.”
In Leon de la Riva’s world, it seems, this sexist monopoly over the alarm button is wrong and unfair. Whereas the interior ministry limits itself to merely implying that women are to blame for being rapable and are thus responsible for managing the threat, the mayor’s scenario bumps it up a notch: Women are also conniving and predatory in seeking to victimise men in fabricated assault cases.
But the home evictions and wanton austerity measures implemented post-crisis do a good job of underscoring just how much of a danger the state itself poses to its people … as it exuberantly pursues a neoliberal heaven-on-earth in which humans are denied the right to healthcare, education, pensions, and anything else that might ease the burden of existence.
The Twitter backlash against Leon de la Riva was launched by activist Ada Colau, cofounder of the Guanyem (“Let’s win”) Barcelona social justice movement, who proposed that a “rain of bras and high heels” greet the mayor on his next public appearance.
Colau’s colleague David Bravo, a Catalan architect, spoke with me about the government’s approach to sexual assault and offered a simplified set of prevention guidelines: “Instead of teaching women not to be raped, why don’t they teach men not to rape?”
Bravo’s solution is pure commonsense. Let’s say you have a dog that bites. What do you do: Train the dog not to bite, or make a list of ways to minimise your chances of coming into contact with the dog’s jaws?
I’m not implying, obviously, that human and canine learning patterns are identical; I’m simply pointing out that, without an accurate designation of what the actual problem is in any given situation, the response will inevitably be misguided.
Paying for the crimes
Incidentally, the months-old Guanyem movement evolved out of an anti-eviction platform established in the aftermath of the government-induced financial crisis.
Just as rape victims are so often blamed in lieu of their violators, the victims of the crisis were made to pay for the crimes of the elite; in 2012, the Associated Press reported that there were no fewer than 500 home evictions being carried out per day, prompting rampant suicides. (In an additional dose of magnanimity, evictees were permitted to continue paying their mortgages.)
Needless to say, if you don’t have a house it’s pretty difficult to leave two or more lights on after dark, while Spain’s appalling unemployment rate – over 55 percent among young people – means a lot of folks can’t afford to own cars for backseat rapists to hide in.
Furthermore, the interior ministry’s advice that you should “try to change your route” if you find yourself “regularly passing through dark and deserted areas” isn’t extraordinarily helpful for women who happen to work at night.
But the home evictions and wanton austerity measures implemented post-crisis do a good job of underscoring just how much of a danger the state itself poses to its people – both women and men – as it exuberantly pursues a neoliberal heaven-on-earth in which humans are denied the right to healthcare, education, pensions, and anything else that might ease the burden of existence.
Government efforts to criminalise popular protests against the abysmal situation might meanwhile have benefitted from other forms of deterrence as well, such as the addition of a rape-prevention guideline to the effect of: “Demonstrations are a notorious congregation point for rapists. Stay at home!”
In the absence of such a crowd control measure, however, we’ll have to leave it to cops who beat up women to keep the citizenry in line. This necessarily cuts back on the amount of time the forces of law and order have to devote to other projects, and the Europa Press news agency quotes Leon de la Riva’s response to a reported rape in a Valladolid park: The government could not, he said, “put a policeman in every park in the city”.
And anyway, we all know who’s to blame: “Sometimes young women should be careful where they go at six in the morning.”
How, then, to go about teaching men not to rape, as Bravo suggests?
Some may argue that males are hard-wired to engage in sexual aggression – that it’s a natural phenomenon. But University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday found rape to be practically nonexistent in band and tribal societies she studied where “rape is punished and both sexes hold exalted positions in public decision-making and both are integrated and equal in the affairs of everyday life”.
In “rape-prone societies”, by contrast, there was a “low respect for women as citizens”.
The behaviour of Spain’s political class alone indicates that it doesn’t currently qualify as a respectful or egalitarian society. And the situation won’t be helped by an increasingly neoliberal system predicated on the violent severance of interpersonal bonds such that no human solidarity can challenge the reign of capital.
The mass insecurity on which neoliberalism thrives is repackaged as individual insecurity to be dealt with on an individual basis, with no acknowledgement of structural causes. And, of course, the more money that can be extracted from insecure individuals, the better; in other parts of the neoliberal empire, products like anti-rape nail polish and rape-resistant underwear have surfaced, while Cosmopolitan magazine has reported on the mobile phone apps accompanying the up-and-coming industry:
“It’s not cheap at $119 for a year’s subscription, but a tap on [the MyForce] app hooks you up to a 24/7 live security team at a call centre who will be sent your GPS coordinates and will relay that you’re in danger and need help to police.”
In the event Spain’s interior ministry wants to modernise its guidelines for a post-whistle generation, it might consider promoting similar technology. In the meantime, the country’s inhabitants are invited to submit without resistance as the state continues to violate their dignity at every turn.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.