So what's the deal with victim blaming?
When I was in year 11, my all-girls high school brought in someone to teach us how not to get sexually assaulted.
He worked in law enforcement, or psychology, or something equally reputable. He spoke to us like we were equals, like we knew what was going on.
He didn’t bother with the ‘just say no’ stuff which even then we knew, instinctually, didn’t work. He was the first person who told us that the majority of sexual assaults happen when the victim/survivor know the perpetrator already. He told us that and that the majority of us were going to experience sexual assault or harassment at some point in our lives.
The main lesson he taught us was this: that guys were always going to bigger and stronger than us, that was just a fact of life. So there was no point outright rejecting them even if we were in a potentially dangerous situation, because they would have physicality on their side.
Instead, we should go along with it.
We should act like we're into it, like we're happy to be there - and why shouldn't we be? What women wouldn't want to be with such a catch after all? And then when he's distracted or not expecting it, that's when we should make our move.
We could use many strategies to get out of the situation. Say we were in the guy's apartment, we could say that we had to go to the bathroom to 'freshen up'. That's something that women are wont to do before sex, right? The guy would never suspect a thing.
Or if the bathroom was directly in the line of sight of room you were in, you could manoeuvre the guy into another room. Suggest going to the bedroom, since that would be more comfortable. Or if you were already in the bedroom, suggest going into the kitchen because you wanted to get 'wild' or something. The guy would go along with anything you said at that point if he assumed he was going to get sex out of it, right? We could easily outwit them if they were just thinking with their dicks, right?
My friends and I left that workshop feeling empowered and better equipped to deal with whatever life threw at us.
It was only when I thought back to it recently, half a Bachelor’s degree and significant exposure to feminism later, that I realised how ridiculous the whole thing was.
Victim blaming is the devaluing of the experiences of the victim. It usually involves criticizing the victim for taking actions that may have warranted the crime that was committed against them. The term was coined 1971 by William Ryan to discuss racism in America. It has since been adopted for use regarding a variety of issues.
Victim blaming. in the context of sexual assault and harassment, is the scrutiny that survivors come under. We’ve all heard it those questions… What was she wearing? Was she drunk? She’s had multiple partners before, right? Did she scream? Did she fight back? If she didn't fight back it couldn't have been that bad, right?
Often the cause of victim blaming is that people want to believe the world is safe. We don’t want to believe that bad things can happen to innocent people. So we point to differences in the way the victim behaved and how we think we would have, rationalising that we wouldn’t have done this particular thing the thing the victim did, and so that the same thing can’t happen to us,
But it doesn’t work that way.
In the context of gendered violence, the assumption is that women can only be sexually assaulted if she makes bad decisions. But this is completely false. There's no guaranteed set of rules that means a woman will never be sexually assaulted. We can talk all we want about how Individuals may be able to ‘reduce their risk’ of being sexually assaulted, but at the end of the day, the only person who can prevent assault is the perpetrator.
All the ideas that people have about what women could have done differently are easily debunked:
- There is no correlation between what a woman wears and the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted; sexual assault was around long before the mini-skirt was invented
- Someone being drunk is not an invitation to sexually assault them, it means that they’re incapable of providing consent
- Someone’s sexual history has absolutely no bearing on whether they were sexually assaulted, this is merely and effect of the lingering unease society has with women who are sexually active
- People react in all sorts of ways when sexually assaulted – some people’s bodies shut down as a survival instinct, while others may choose not to fight back because they fear for their safety – this does not mean it’s their fault.
But worse than simply just showing a lack of compassion, victim-blaming can have long lasting and systemic consequences. The intense scrutiny women face in response to incidents of sexual assault is a major barrier to them speaking out or reporting. It makes women believe that they are somehow responsible for what happened. This is one of the reasons why sexual assault has such low reporting rates, with less than one-third of people who experienced sexual assault having their most recent incident reported to the police (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
Victim blaming perpetrates a culture where men feel empowered to commit acts of sexual violence, because they similarly internalise the idea that it is the victim’s fault and that they somehow deserved it. When they see that there are little consequences to committing acts of sexual violence, they are emboldened to do so.
But victim blaming doesn’t just exist in the aftermath of sexual assault. It starts from a very young age, with young girls being taught ‘strategies’ to prevent sexual assault. In doing this, they’re being taught that sexual assault is an inescapable part of life that they just had to deal with, and that it’s their job to make sure they’re quicker, smarter and don’t get taken advantage of.
And if they do become victim to sexual assault, they can easily end up blaming themselves for not following to the letter what they were taught during childhood. Case in point - when one of my high school friends was later sexually assaulted, one of the things that she said was that it was her own fault, that she didn’t use what we’d been taught effectively enough.
Most importantly, by putting the onus on women to keep themselves safe, we're taking the focus off the perpetrators in these situations. We're not examining the behaviours of the men who commit sexual assault, or the social factors that contribute to a culture where they feel comfortable doing so. Rather than teaching women not to walk alone at night, why aren’t we breaking down stereotypes about men as the sexually dominant and predatory gender, and teaching boys about healthy relationships and consent?
In Year 11, did my school’s neighbouring boys' school get the flipped version of our workshop? Did someone come to their school to explain to them why they were not entitled to women’s bodies, break down the social norms that dictated they be sexually aggressive, step them through exactly why the violation of someone’s body was a terrible violation of their most innate and basic autonomy?
I don't know. But I doubt it.