Stop the victim-blaming

Image via the F-Word Blog

The Internet is a-buzz over the findings that a majority of men and women in a survey of 1000 people in London believe some rape victims should take responsibility for “what happened” (ie, an illegal, traumatic, horrible action).

First of all, I am not surprised. Unlike most other crimes, people tend to blame those who are victims of rape, sexual harassment, and street harassment instead of, you know, the people who do those things.

In my forthcoming book on street harassment, I explore how street harassment – and rape – take place in the context of gender inequality and a rape culture and how victim-blaming seems to be one outcome of that horrible mix. I look at how the victim blaming of women who are street harassed is inappropriate and wrong, as some simple research and logic can attest.

For example, men in countries where women are completely veiled and otherwise wear “conservative” clothing harass women, too. The problem is not women’s clothing or how much or how little skin they are showing; it is the ignorance, disrespect, and arrogance of harassing men.

Also, not all men rape or harass, nor do most women, so it is not innate human behavior. It is learned behavior and it is behavior that thrives because people focus the blame on the victims, not the perpetrators.

Second, the other question is why are there so many women blaming other women for “being” rape (and I’ve heard women blame other women for experiencing street harassment)? Cara Kulwicki gives a great response to that question in a Guardian article:

“Women are given further incentive to blame victims of sexual assault through the myth that if they follow ‘the rules’ – don’t go out alone at night, don’t get too drunk, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt too much – they themselves are safe from becoming victims.

Most women are told how to avoid sexual assault from the time they start going through puberty (if not sooner), in ways that men are not. We’re careful about how we dress, we monitor our drinks, we make sure to have our keys out and ready before we reach the car, we use the buddy system. The idea that we do all of these things because we were taught to, and yet are only provided minimal protection by them (the vast majority of rapes being committed not by strangers but by people victims know and already trust on some level) is both humiliating and infuriating. The fact that women who do all of these things are still raped can also be downright terrifying.

So many women reason, albeit probably unconsciously, that if rape victims have done something ‘wrong’ which makes them responsible, they themselves are protected. If rape victims are viewed as stupid and irresponsible, every woman who thinks of herself as smart and level-headed is reassured that she won’t become one of them.

Reasons why women might be more likely to blame rape victims aside, all of this talk on the subject has a sinister result. When headlines blare that ‘more than half of women’ blame rape victims, we overlook that almost as many men responded the same way. When we say that women are less ‘forgiving’ of rape victims, we ignore that being raped is not something for which one needs to be forgiven. And while being blamed for your own rape is an incredibly traumatising experience, we forget in this discussion that there would be no victim to blame if there wasn’t a rapist committing assault first.

Here, we draw ourselves back to where the high rates of victim-blaming begin: the idea that when it comes to rape, women’s behaviour is more interesting and important than that of male rapists. In the process, we forego the more worthwhile conversation about why there are so many rape victims whose behaviour we can discuss.”

Exactly. The focus should be on answering why people rape, sexually harass and street harass others. The scary reality that many people do not want to face is that no matter how hard women try to “avoid” being raped or harassed, we are never guaranteed safety or peace. Safety and peace only will be achieved once we live in a world where no one is a rapist or a harasser, or at least once we live in a world where those crimes are taken seriously and the blame is placed appropriately.

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