Victim Blaming with the Best Intentions

We all know that victim blaming – like “No wonder she got raped, look at what she was wearing” – is wrong. But do we always recognize victim blaming when we see it? Recently I got into a conversation with two people who I greatly respect and admire. Over the course of this conversation they both expressed a desire to protect the women on our college campus by advising them to do things that could protect them from sexual assault like avoiding revealing clothing (because many college men, unfortunately, cannot control themselves) and keeping from drinking too much, etc.

I was shocked and incredibly unsettled to find myself disagreeing with these people who I don’t think I have ever disagreed with before… but honestly, I couldn’t help it. I understand now, as I did then, that their hearts were totally and completely in the best place possible. I understand now, as I did then, that they would never ever blame a woman for her own assault but still… their words unsettled me.  Now, two weeks later, I still find myself wrestling with the idea that we should be advising women of ways to lessen their chances of being assaulted. I honestly want to understand where these two wonderful people are coming from, and be able to agree with them… but I just don’t think I can.  Their intentions, and the intentions of everyone who makes these statements in an honest attempt to reduce rape, make me so hopeful… but I want so badly to be able to channel those beautiful intentions into something that can actually make a positive difference!

I wrote a (not so good) post about how so much of this advice is not even practical once before, when I first started this blog two years ago (!), but now I think I am ready to take it one step further to say that these statements actually go beyond being useless, and are actually harmful to the very people that the people who make them are trying to help.

Let’s take a generic well meaning helping statement as an example:

“Many men are pigs and simply can’t/won’t control themselves, which is why it’s important to help women to defend themselves by not dressing in a way that it overly provocative.” (On top of everything else, it makes me sad that people have such low opinions/expectations from men. I,for one, expect a bit more!)

A woman listening to this may feel empowered. She might leave that room thinking that she is safe because now she knows how to make “wise” choices, how to not attract the attention of rapists. That woman may never stop feeling empowered, she may live her life repeating this advice to friends and family members that she loves, maybe even pulling out news stories about women who were less careful, less prepared in order to learn from their mistakes. She could go her whole life feeling safe and powerful thanks to that advice.

Unless she gets raped, and she very well might because the sad and sorry truth is that rape prevention advice aimed at women does not work.

So all of a sudden we have a woman who is raped. Sexual assault is the only crime I can think of where guilt is a normative victim response. When people get robbed, for instance, they tend to be sad and mad and indignant, sometimes even disbelieving… but rarely do they feel as if the robbery was their fault. All too often when someone has been sexually assaulted their first instinct is to try and figure out what they did wrong to “get themselves” raped. Advice like this gives them something to point at… whether it was getting drunk, being alone, wearing something “too revealing,” not having pepper spray handy, taking the stairs instead of the elevator… there is always something the survivor will be able to think of that she did wrong thanks to the many handy “rape prevention tips” that we all perpetuate.

Regardless of the speakers intentions, those tips are now causing our hypothetical (but all too often very real) survivor pain.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I’d go as far as to say these statements empower rapists to rape.

In order to explain this point, I’d like to use an example. Today I happened to come across the following comment in response to an article on DeadSpin about a woman who was raped by two football players who, essentially: blocked her in the room, turned off the lights so she couldn’t see, held her down and then raped her. One of the rapists confessed, the police got physical evidence… and yet, the prosecutor’s office has chosen not to pursue the case. As if that hadn’t horrified me enough I then got to read this “lovely” comment:

This kind of callous statement makes me sick. At the surface, it looks like evidence to support the impulse to protect women by advising them not to be the “drunk white bitches” at this party… but its not. In fact, I think this is evidence that we need to stop doing just that because those “drunk bitches” are not the problem. The problem here is that we have people in our society who think that going to a party and finding a “drunk bitch” to hook up with is acceptable, even though drunk women cannot consent.

What this guy should be saying: These men should be looking for women who are attracted to them and want to have sex with them.

What this guy is ACTUALLY saying: These guys should have picked a better victim – a drunk bitch – because even if they do rape her, no one will blame them because she was drunk and, therefore, not a pure good girl who deserves respect.

This is fucked up and I will never ever ever be okay with the idea that drinking, or wearing something revealing, or walking outside at night, or any of the other things that men get to do on a regular basis could make me less safe. We need to be teaching men to treat women as human beings who deserve respect and the right to make a sober, informed decision about weather or not to have sex with them even if that woman is drunk, even if that woman is wearing nothing at all… even if that woman has already started making out with that man and suddenly changes her mind.

Part of that teaching is going to come from laying off women – not trying to protect them with advice like this anymore – and laying into the people who think that its okay to take advantage of people who are drunk, or dressed provocatively, or whatever… because those people are the problem, and they are the ones that need to be shamed and lectured and judged not the victims because the survivor is never to blame, period.

So what can we do to protect everyone from Sexual Assault? For starters I think we need to teach everyone about consent. We need to start calling people out when they laugh at rape jokes and make comments that contribute to a society where people turn their heads and ignore rape (even comments made with the best intentions.) Personally I love the green dots program as an empowering way to encourage everyone to do their part, but I also know that I don’t have all, or even many, of the answers so I’d love to hear what you think!

Interesting Related Reading:

Vintage Victim Blaming

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