In an earlier post I mentioned that I wanted to write an entry about victim blaming. Last night I had dinner with someone and we talked about this a little bit. It allowed me to further clarify my thoughts on the subject, so I think I should strike while the iron is hot. Although I should hasten to add that I’ve got more questions than answers.
First, a little background and definition of terms. Let’s start with the term “victim blaming”. Most commonly this is used to describe the situation wherein a female victim of rape is said to be partially or fully responsible for the rape. For example:
- Look at how she was dressed! She was asking for it.
- She flirted and teased but then said she didn’t want to have sex — you can’t expect a man to stop at that point.
- She knew he would expect sex if she went back to his apartment alone with him, so it’s not fair for her to say no once she gets there
- No woman goes alone to a bar in that part of town unless she’s looking to get laid
And so on. The common thread being that the rapist is not entirely to blame, because the victim said or did things which helped cause the rape. That is victim blaming. Making the victim the one who is responsible for the crime, not the perpetrator.
Up front let me be absolutely clear — none of the above things excuse or justify rape. In all of the above cases the rapist is the guilty party and is the one to blame. They made the choice to rape the other person. If a person is so sexually driven that they cannot resist raping a woman in a short skirt, then this person has a problem and needs psychological help or jail time. If I see an attractive woman in revealing clothing, then I won’t deny it will likely bring sexual thoughts and feelings to my mind. But I am the sole person responsible for how I choose to act on those thoughts and feelings. Okay, so to be clear, there’s no question in my mind about who the real guilty party is in these cases, and it’s not the victim.
With that out of the way, let me give a bit of background on what got me thinking about this stuff most recently. This is by no means a new phenomenon — it has probably existed for as long as rape has existed. But some of you may have heard of the “Slut Walks” being organized lately. I don’t want to go into a full history of them (Google is your friend if you’re curious and don’t know much about it), but they were largely created in response to some remarks made by a Toronto police officer earlier this year. He was talking to a group of college students and made a comment something like “A safety tip for women to avoid being raped is to not dress like a slut.”
Now this is offensive even apart from the victim blaming issue. The term slut is a pejorative term often applied to women who exhibit sexual behavior that, in a man, is considered normal. It implies a value judgment on the person’s behavior. It’s not the sort of word you want a police officer throwing around, since it certainly gives the impression that they take a negative view of openly sexual women.
But let’s set that aside for the moment, since what I want to discuss here is victim blaming. Part of the reason his remarks provoked such a strong backlash was that they were perceived as a police officer supporting the idea of victim blaming. They interpreted his words as meaning “If you dress like a slut, you are more likely to be raped. So, if you know this, and still you choose to dress that way, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you’re raped.”
I don’t want to discuss this officer’s remarks in particular. I don’t know enough about him as an individual to know what his true motivations and beliefs are. I’m not not going to act as an apologist for him — certainly his use of the word slut suggests he may not have the most enlightened view of women. But what I want to talk about is the general idea of victim blaming and how it relates to comments LIKE his. Specifically, I do think part of the role of police departments is to educate the public on how they can keep themselves safe from crime. Let’s shift the focus away from rape and onto something less controversial, like burglary. I’ve seen many lists of safety tips to avoid having your house robbed. For example:
- Don’t leave expensive items in your window or easily visible through a window
- Don’t leave your door unlocked
- Don’t hide a spare key under the doormat
- If you’re going to be out of town, have a friend or neighbor stop by periodically to collect your mail, turn on/off various lights, etc, to give the impression that someone is still home
And so on. If a police officer gives a presentation to home owners and lists the above tips, is that victim blaming? Are they suggesting that if a home owner puts their HDTV in easy view through their living room window and they leave their front door unlocked, then they are partially to blame for it being stolen? I feel like in the above case, the tips could easily be re-worded:
- Statistics show that a large percentage of expensive items which are stolen were easily visible from outside the house
- Statistics show that a large percentage of homes which are robbed are either left unlocked or have the spare key hidden in an obvious location
- Statistics show that a large percentage of homes which are robbed were robbed when the residents were out of town and they had not arranged for anyone to watch the house in their absence.
Now, these tips are pretty obvious ones, so I guess I really wouldn’t care if they weren’t publicized. But if there were some less obvious patterns that the police had noticed, I’d love for them to share them with me. So why would it be different in the case of rape? Should the police not tell the public that a large number of rapes happen when the victim is walking alone on a poorly-lit street at night, for example? Does that necessarily imply that a rape victim is at fault if they have heard this tip and yet still end up walking down such a street?
Obviously when the tips start using words like “slut”, then it’s reasonable to wonder if the person giving the tip wouldn’t be given to victim blaming. But if the tips aren’t rife with such sexist or offensive language, then is that still a tacit endorsement of victim blaming?
While writing this, another thought struck me. What if the police department in an inner city issued a “safety tip” like “statistics show that a large percentage of crimes are committed by minorities”? Even if that is a true statistic for that city, it would seem like a pretty offensive thing to report. Since it kind of implies that the race of the person committing the crime is the REASON they committed the crime. Maybe the victim blaming issue is something like that? The person committed the rape BECAUSE she was wearing a short skirt. Which could then lead one to think the victim was partially to blame. But in that case, why are the burglary tips not also victim blaming? The person robbed by house because I left the spare key under the doormat. Thus, I am partially to blame.
I think part of what complicates the issue is that sexism is alive and well today. In the case of the burglary, there isn’t a widespread and entrenched prejudice against homeowners. In the case of gender, it’s different. As far as we’ve come in terms of being gender-blind, we’ve still got a long way to go. There are plenty of people who make no secret of the fact that they would never vote for a woman for President. At work I hear people make jokes (without malicious intent) that have sexist overtones where they would never think to make the same sort of jokes about race (which is NOT to say I think racism is gone). There are debates about whether women should be allowed in combat roles in the military, about whether they should be allowed to serve on submarines, about what the right way to handle maternity leave is, etc. Women are still paid less, on average, for doing the same job as a man. And so on. So I can see where there is a much greater sensitivity to even the possibility of victim blaming. Although it’s very difficult to imagine such a world, I suspect that if/when we become a more gender-blind society, then safety tips to avoid rape can be as uncontroversial as safety tips to avoid burglary.
Anyway, like I said up front, I have more questions than answers. I’d just been giving this a lot of thought lately, so I wanted to write it down. I do hope that my fellow feminists do not read this as me endorsing victim blaming or me saying that the cop in Toronto was misunderstood. And as always, I welcome any feedback, reactions, comments, questions, whatever. My conversation at dinner last night helped me gain a deeper understanding of this issue (as well as prompting still more questions and avenues of thought), and I value that.