“What if we did as much to prevent rape as we do to prevent H1N1?”

This question was posed recently by a blogger from Bitch, one of my favourite feminist magazines, and, for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The blogger in question, Meg Stone, asked her readers to imagine a world where the government, the media and the health-care system mobilized as loudly against sexual assault as they’re doing against swine flu. Think about it: Coast-to-coast public education campaigns! Daily news reports! Pissed-off citizens determined to do everything they can to protect themselves and their loved ones!


It may seem odd — scandalous, even — to draw a comparison between the H1N1 pandemic and sexual assault. But while these are very different and complex problems, they share some common ground.

On the most basic level, both put public safety at risk. Reducing the prevalence of either requires a change in public behaviour and cultural norms. And as Amnesty International argues in its Stop Violence Against Women campaign, “Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic.”

So, can you picture it? An alternate reality where rape prevention is at the top of the agenda?
Probably not. Even though statistics tell us that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime, this is not typically seen as a health and safety crisis.

The shame and stigma associated with sexual assault means that we still don’t talk about it and most victims don’t report it.

Instead of Stone’s vision of preventative measures on the front page, the news we hear is disturbing and disempowering.

Consider the “sexsomnia” case that resurfaced in the media last week as the Ontario Review Board weighed in. It was about a Toronto man found not criminally responsible for a 2003 sexual assault at a house party, because of a disorder that apparently causes him to unwittingly initiate sex while asleep. This ruling came despite the fact that he chose to have 12 beers, two rum and Cokes and two vodka-based drinks in the hours before he assaulted a stranger, and had enough presence of mind to slip on a condom.

Unlike H1N1, sexual assault has been part of our world for so long that we don’t think we can fight it. Well, we certainly won’t by remaining apathetic. While I’m not naïve enough to expect the large-scale mobilization Stone dreams about, she provides a welcome reminder that change is worth fighting for.

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