Following the Rules Won’t Save Us
Dylan Farrow, Sarah Everard and the myth of doing everything “right”
On Sunday night, HBO aired the final installment of Allen v. Farrow, a harrowing documentary that chronicles how Woody Allen was able to evade arrest—and professional consequences—despite credible allegations that he sexually assaulted his then-7 year-old daughter, Dylan. This same weekend, London police attacked women holding a vigil for Sarah Everard—a 33 year-old who went missing earlier this month and was later found murdered. A police officer has been charged with her killing.
Despite all their differences, both stories have one desperately infuriating thing in common: Women can do everything “right” to protect themselves and it won’t mean a fucking thing.
When Everard was attacked, she was wearing bright clothes and running shoes. She even called and checked in with her boyfriend to let him know where she was and that she was leaving. She did all the things that women are told to do to keep themselves safe and still, she was murdered.
When Dylan disclosed Allen’s sexual abuse, Mia Farrow did all the “right” things, too. She took her daughter to the doctor, spoke with police, and recorded Dylan contemporaneously talking about the assault. She believed her child and used every resource available to protect her—in return she was painted as a liar and a woman scorned.
The idea that we have the power to stop men from hurting us is a myth, a clever fairy tale meant to shift responsibility onto women and distract us from the truth: So long as men do nothing to stop misogyny and rape culture, we are not safe.
We’re not safe on the streets, we’re not safe with police. We’re not safe on college campuses, or in bars, at our jobs, or in classrooms. We’re not even safe in our own homes.
Convincing women that we can protect ourselves by following some arbitrary set of rules doesn’t stop us from getting assaulted or killed. What it does do, however, is ensure that women continue being rule-followers.
The lie that rules will save us means that women willingly forgo public spaces that men can access without fear. It means that we spend time and energy thinking about what we wear and where we’re walking, who we’re hanging out with and how we present ourselves. All that brain space that could be used to create and think is instead spent figuring out how to temper our behavior in public and in conversations with men. Wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression!
It also means that when women and girls are attacked, men can point to some minutiae of those rules and say, see? You did it all wrong! What did you expect? Women, too, participate in this type of victim-blaming as a twisted kind of survival mechanism: Pointing out what other women did wrong makes them feel safe. That could never never happen to me, I follow the rules!
But rules won’t stop rape—only men can do that. That’s why women were furious when London police went door-to-door warning them to stay off the streets at night—after all, they weren’t the ones raping and killing people.
Where are the safety rules and standards for men? The truth is, there aren’t any.
White men, in particular, can behave with absolute abandon when it comes to issues of sexual assault—saying and doing the most outrageous things and still being considered more credible than the women they hurt.
It didn’t matter that Allen had made movie after movie glorifying sexual relationships with teenagers, for example, essentially grooming his audience. It didn’t matter that he had admitted to a sexual relationship with Farrow’s underage daughter, or that he was so openly and unabashedly inappropriate with Dylan that he had to seek out therapy to change his behavior. Allen was able to do everything “wrong” and still be believed.
Even Mia Farrow’s fame wasn’t able to shield her from being labeled a fabulist, or help her daughter get justice—a stark reminder that the outcomes are far worse for those less privileged.
If we want to curb sexual assault and violence against women, we need to stop following the rules—or at the very least, stop believing that they’ll protect us. Because while it’s seductive to believe that we have some measure of control over whether or not we’re attacked, the truth is that it’s only men who can stop rape.
The real question is: Do they want to?
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