Visions of Victimhood in PSAs

Content warning: This post is a discussion of anti-violence ad campaigns as well as sexual assault and rape culture with pictures of victim-blaming Public Service Announcements. The issues are mentioned without graphic details. 

At Penn I do a lot of advocacy work against interpersonal violence. By this I mean dating violence, stalking, abuse, and assault (including rape). Last year I was the Advocacy Chair of Penn’s V-Day Movement – the group of women who produce Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues each year to donate money to the only rape crisis center in Philadelphia. (For more information on Women Organized Against Rape, see their website here). I have been trained about how to respond when a friend or acquaintance discloses a violent experience and all of my Facebook friends know that I am constantly sharing articles and information about rape culture.

The term “rape culture” describes the dominant cultural attitudes that exist about sexual assault. It’s the fact that when someone has been sexually assaulted we often ask if they were wearing revealing clothing or if they’ve been drinking rather than questioning the perpetrator of violence. It’s that we’re often more likely to worry that someone is being falsely accused of rape than to ensure that the person accusing feels safe and can access help.

Feminist movements have pushed back against rape culture for years in various ways. Many ad campaigns in the Western world that are meant to combat rape and assault can actually contribute to rape culture. They encourage women to be careful, to look out, to never drink. Many feminist movements have sought to override these campaigns and replace them with education aimed at those who could be perpetrators (anyone/everyone).

What I’ve noticed in Bangalore is that there are a variety of anti-rape billboards and posters. And all of them are aimed at potential perpetrators of violence against women. The slogans are “When you kill a girl child, you kill many others. Save girl child,” “She is a Child, Just a young Girl, Don’t rob Her innocence” and “She is a Woman full of Hope and Power. Don’t take that away from her; Save her Honour!”

My reaction was first one of surprise. It hit an awkward chord to address someone in their moment of considering such a violent crime. We often write off people who are serial killers or rapists as someone with mental illness for whom a rational appeal wouldn’t work. This is obviously widely problematic as it stigmatizes mental illness and makes it seem as though appealing to the potential perpetrator is futile.

Still I wonder, are these posters effective?

What I do know is that these approaches, while a breath of fresh air from the victim-blaming slogans I’ve seen more at home, still meet me with some not-so-nice feelings. If one has experienced sexual assault, they have the liberty to name that experience for themselves or not. What I mean is that these posters imply that anyone who has survived an assault has lost their honor or power. Or that killing a young girl is bad because her worth lies in the potential of her womb. These posters perpetuate harmful myths about rape and sexual purity. They paint anyone who has had this experience as a victim – as if that should define their life (notice I have chosen to use the word “survivor” when possible).

So there’s that. After writing this post I found an article about locals in Bangalore and feminist activists poking holes in the signs. Some of the concerns I have are given mention, but even more it seems as though people are upset that the posters give Bangalore a bad name and will discourage tourism. I think it’s true that these signs feed into the “rape in India” hysteria that has not been extremely productive. Still, it’s been quite an exercise of mental yoga to consider the ramifications of addressing potential perpetrators so openly and bluntly – and I’m hesitant to denounce it completely.

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About Kendra Carson

Recent Penn graduate in linguistics, interned at Shahi Exports through CASI in 2015. Currently headed to Kolkata for 9 months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant.