There is a spirited conversation going on in the comment threads of a recent post, wherein someone has decided to contribute the oh-so-underrepresented point that victims of assault should have taken better care to avoid the assault. It’s far from a novel point, it’s far from an accurate point, it’s far from a useful point; sadly, it’s not a far from popular point. It is therefore quite serendipitous that my lunch-time reading (which should have been lunchtime blogging) included this excellent piece by Erika Nicole Kendall (Trigger warning for descriptions of abuse and sexual assault):
People far more eloquent than myself have commented on the foolishness of telling victims (and potential victims) that they have some culpability in their ability to be victimized. I’d be a fool to re-mow that neatly manicured lawn.
However, I think we need to fully understand what the world looks like in a space where it is acceptable to tell people that they can protect themselves from being raped. It’s easy to talk about the immediate consequences of a society that thinks that women invite attack by “dressing like sluts” or by “drinking too much” (and yes, I am saying “women” on purpose, despite the story above) and how wrong-headed that thinking is, but what does the world look like when you are told to live in constant fear of being victimized?
You know what it looks like? It looks like young girls, suffering from the advances of grown men who should know and be encouraged to do better, who carry their books across their chest because their breasts attract too much attention. It looks like Mothers of young girls, buying their pre-teen and teenaged daughters giant sweaters to wear to try to hide their breasts, because they “know the boys will stare.” And, right now, as someone says, “Of course they will stare!” I have to wonder – do we even bother to tell our boys (and, hell, grown men, too) how wrong that is? That no, it is not simply “hormones” and “natural urges” to gawk at and objectify a young girl because she’s got a large rack?
There is a strong psychological drive, related to the just world fallacy, that causes us to assume that if something bad happens to someone, they must have done something to deserve it. After all, if the world is a fair place, it therefore follows that a bad thing must have been caused by some character or behavioural fault on the part of the “so-called victim”. As long as I don’t do that thing (going out in revealing clothing, walking down a dark alley, having a man in your home, existing on the internet), it won’t happen to me, right? All we need to do is teach girls not to act like X and then all will be well in our fair world.
Yeah, intellectually speaking we all know that’s bullshit, but at the subconscious level we’ve all got that idiotic low-cognition voice screaming nonsense in our ears. And that’s what rape culture is – the collective acquiescence to millions of screaming voices rather than challenging the “common sense” of behaving “properly” so as to avoid rape.
There are always people who see this as man-shaming or man-blaming. Erika has something for them too:
A victim blaming world looks like a place where men can be victimized, and because we’re so used to women being the victim… we don’t know what the hell to do with male victims. Do we… tell him it was his fault? Do we… give him the screw face and tell him he should’ve gone home? Do we… question his manhood for being overpowered by a woman? (Remember, we tell men don’t hit women.) Or do we high five him and tell him “Dude, old chicks are the BEST first time! I had one my first time, too!” And, do they never understand that this, too, counts as rape?
I’ve said a number of times before that anyone who thinks that men can’t control their sexual urges is someone who hates men far more than any feminist is purported to do. This narrative that assumes that men are just going to rape and that it’s up to women to protect themselves – it’s shockingly (and I apologize for using the term) misandric. It says that men are debased animals who are so lust-blinded that they should not be held responsible for their actions, and it’s up to women to police the sex drives of men. It suggests that men are all constantly ravenous for sex and will do anything to get it unless they are held at bay by conservative clothing and a demure attitude. It then turns around and punishes and belittles women for being “too” conservative and “too” demure.
The feminist critique of rape culture says the opposite. It says that the proper focus of rape prevention is telling men who rape that they are the problem, and telling men who do not rape that we can be part of the solution by making it clear that we do not approve of behaviours that demean women. The feminist critique goes further and says that we must attack the root of the problem – toxic masculinity and other destructive gender assumptions. Far from the “boys will be boys” narrative of popular (rape) culture, feminism says that men can join women in working actively to stop rape, regardless of who the victim is.
There is also a large component of Erika’s post that speaks to peculiarities of how rape culture manifests itself to black women and black men. I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, and keep it in a drawer for the next Edward Gemmer who crosses your path.
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