A recent study in England has kicked off a wave of examination of victim-blaming. The study has found that, of the thousand Londoners surveyed, more than half said “there were some circumstances when a rape victim should accept responsibility for an attack.” The study also found that women were more likely to victim-blame than men.
This surprised a lot of people. It didn’t surprise me.
Because you know what? When you’re talking about rape and sexual assault, people say the damnedest things. Women, in particular, say the damnedest things - and for many women, it’s a subconscious defense mechanism. Think about it.
“What was she wearing?”
“Why was she at the club/walking home/in that part of town?”
“Why did she dance with him if she wasn’t going to follow through?”
The people who ask these questions are asking them because they need to feel safe. Because if the rape survivor was wearing a short skirt, the questioner will be safe if she wears jeans. If the survivor was out alone, the questioner will be safe if she uses the buddy system.
This is, of course, not so, and this line of questioning can be very harmful to survivors. There is no one thing that makes you safe, that gives you a shield against sexual assault. But sexual assault is such a terrifying thing that it can be incredibly difficult to accept the fact that you *can’t* prevent it. The only way to keep from being raped is to never be in the presence of a rapist, and unfortunately, they don’t wear signs. (Wouldn’t it be great if they did? Or had forehead tattoos or big neon lights flashing over their heads?)
So there are people who, when hearing about a rape or sexual assault, instinctively dig and dig until they find something, anything, the survivor did “wrong”. Dr. Roxanne Agnew-Davies says, “[Female jurors] can look at the woman in the witness stand and decide she has done something ‘wrong’ such as flirting or having a drink with the defendant. She can therefore reassure herself that rape won’t happen to her as long as she does nothing similar.”
The first question I listed above was “What was she wearing?”, and for good reason; it’s the single most-asked question. For the people who need to find fault in the victim, clothing is a major target. Was it a short skirt? No? tight jeans? This line of “reasoning” can keep going and going until the questioner finds something, anything, to pin it on. To make it the survivor’s fault.
Unsurprisingly, I have a few problems with this.
1. No one wants to be raped.
Really. Nobody. Ever. No matter where they are or what they’re wearing. I could go out dancing in a short skirt, and that doesn’t mean I’m “asking for it” any more than going out dancing in jeans and a t-shirt. All it means is that I really like those fishnets. I could walk home from my bus stop alone at 1am, and I’m not “asking for it” any more than if I walk home from my bus stop at 2pm. All it means is that I’ve got to get home, you know? Refusing to restrict your movements based on fear isn’t “asking for it”. It’s living your life.
2. Give the guys some credit.
The whole “short skirts lead to rape” argument is pretty insulting to men, too, when you think about it. It reduces them to brainless zombies who just cannot keep from raping attractive women. Really? Is that what we think of men? Because the guys I know are pretty smart. And while a short skirt may raise their pulse rate quite a bit, it’s not going to tip them over from reasonable men to “THAG MUST MOUNT WOMAN NOW.”
Because rape is a conscious decision. It’s not some autonomic function, some switch that just flipped in someone’s head that they have no control over. And that’s what’s at the core of all of this victim-blaming, beyond trying to find that magical way to be safe - victim-blaming is about giving the rapist a free pass. “He couldn’t help himself.”
Really. We hear this. “He couldn’t help himself.”
Do we let people use that excuse for murder? “Sorry, he got mad and just couldn’t help himself.” Burglary? “That house looked so nice, he just couldn’t help himself.”
Sounds preposterous, right?
Then why do we not question it when it gets applied to rape? Why are we so eager to hand out that rationale?
Here’s your mission for today, should you choose to accept it. Look at a recent article about a rape or sexual assault. See if there’s victim-blaming language in it. And reframe it so the blame goes to the rapist. None of this “she was wearing a short skirt at the club”. Let’s focus on “he kept giving her drinks until she was too intoxicated to fight him off”, on “she said no and he raped her.” (Note: I’ve uncharacteristically used a lot of he/she gendered language here, because of the context of the articles quoted, and “she was asking for it” is leveled more towards female survivors with male perpetrators. Obviously, people of all genders can be survivors or perpetrators.) And take that with you. When you see victim-blaming going on, online or in person, step up and say “Really? Do you actually think that person wanted to be raped - that anyone wants to be raped? Do you really think the rapist didn’t make a conscious choice? Do you really think a pair of tight jeans is enough to disable all higher brain function?”
Put the blame where it belongs.
And now you know not to victim-blame - but what *should* you do when someone you know tells you they were raped or sexually assaulted? BARCC has an excellent page of advice. And if your organization deals with survivors of sexual violence, we recommend our First Responders for Everyone training.