New Haven could be a rough place when I was a kid. For a city of its size, New Haven was a more dangerous town than New York, proportionally. When I was growing up there, it wasn't unusual to hear about friends or classmates getting mugged. I got jacked a couple of times in high school. On one particularly memorable occasion, I got jumped by the same dude twice in one day, right in front of the main doors to school itself. I don't really know why the dude jumped me - he already had my bus pass.
Most of the times that I dealt with getting mugged, my friends and family and social networks were supportive and helpful. Sometimes, though, I was met with derision or a shrug and that wonderful silencing line: "You should have known better." I should have known better than to be walking around that neighborhood late at night. I should have known better than to wear my nice watch. I should have known better than to be talking on my cell-phone. I should have known better than to ride my bike by myself. If I understood my town, I would have known that I was putting myself at danger by doing these things.
All three of us who blog for BARCC have written in this space about risk-reduction and the problems of using it in a sexual violence prevention sphere. I don't intend to rehash some of those old points, but a conversation the BARCC outreach team had on Monday put into really clear words for me about the difference between victim-blaming in something like a mugging, and in rape or sexual assault.
Even when I was in a situation where a classmate or acquaintance blamed me for getting mugged, I don't recall any situation where they didn't believe me that it happened. If I had gone to the cops in New Haven after losing (yet another) one of my bikes, they might have been surly or rude or even a bit dismissive if they thought I was being a stupid kid acting like an idiot, but they probably wouldn't have doubted that my bike actually did get stolen in the first place. The police don't usually look for a mugging suspect and then ask him or her if she actually did rob someone.
This is exactly what we do to survivors of rape and sexual assault. For those few who are willing to bring reports to the authorities, they may simply be turned away and ignored (major trigger warning). Friends and family may ignore the survivor, or be ashamed of them. Authorities may actually ask the perpetrator if he or she raped in the first place.
Getting mugged sucks; no doubt about it. As a culture, though, we agree that getting mugged, while it may be more likely to happen to folks who are clueless about urban life, is not the fault of the victim. No one can mug him or herself. We need to apply the same logic to sexual violence. There are unending excuses in our culture for perpetrators - she was a tease, she was asking for it, it was consensual, they were both drunk, it was miscommunication - even though we know most of those excuses have nothing to do with the way sexual violence actually happens.
If, when I got mugged, I had to convince all of my friends that what happened was really a mugging, that what was taken from me did in fact belong to me in the first place and it was really kind of a big deal, and if after that if I wanted any kind of justice I needed to fight through a law enforcement system that was disinclined to listen to me and actively encouraged to dismiss me because proving a mugging is pretty hard in the first place - I mean did anyone even see it? - and even if they found a suspect they needed to get his or her side of the story and that held more weight than mine because who listens to a stupid mugging victim anyway, everyone knows that people who walk in those neighborhoods or have watches on or phones get mugged and if I had "known better," it wouldn't have happened in the first place... then I might just barely start to understand what a survivor of sexual violence faces in our culture right now.
This is rape culture.