When Women Ask: What Was She Wearing?

This post is about victim-blaming, rape and sexual assault. Take note of that if you want to read on.

It is getting more and more outdated and outrageous to follow a story of rape with the question “well, what was she wearing?” or, “well, what time was it when she was walking home alone?” The reasons behind why this is stupid and pointless victim-blaming has been revisited ad nauseum by writers far more talented than myself. The fact that rape is far more an act of violence than one of sexual desire is known. That men are not these sex-crazed werewolves that will lose their shit and violently assault a fellow human being simply because they see a little extra leg is obvious to anyone who stops and thinks about it for more than a couple of seconds.

However, one thing I noticed when living in Veneto was the predisposition for women to victim blame the second they heard of a rape happening in the area*. The many articles I read online on the subject all tended to make two general assumptions: that the people who engage in this kind of victim-blaming are

  1. Usually men, or at least people who have a strong patriarchal view of society, and
  2. Conveniently apply victim-blaming only to sexual assault, rather than trying to also find excuses as to why it was your fault that your car was stolen, your house was broken into or you got a bottle upside the head on Saturday night.

While I do appreciate that many of the people who victim-blame online and in the media do tend to fit into these categories, the women I would talk to who clung doggedly to this argument and wouldn’t accept a single point against it did not. That got me to thinking about their reasoning, and why they so desperately clung to the idea that the woman is always at fault.


*To be clear, I am not insinuating that the women of Veneto are more or less guilty of victim-blaming than anywhere else. I just happened, for the first time in my life, to work and interact with quite conservative people when I was there, and that is why I happened to encounter (and was shocked by) the prevalence of this argument there.


After finding a lot of patience, and asking many probing questions, I think I understood where they were coming from. I realized that there is an entirely different perspective, from an entirely different group of people, that can lead to the same exact victim-blaming so many others participate in.

It is fear. The fear of being raped.

Rape is one of the scariest things that women know could happen to them. For many, it’s the scariest. While of course men are also the victims of rape, the fact that it is not talked about as much leads many men to not think about it as a real possibility the way that most women do (I’m not saying that not talking about male rape is a good thing, not by a long shot, but it is a whole different can of worms that is more appropriately unpacked in a different post).

What I noticed about these women was their complete refusal to accept that rape could, and might, happen to them. The idea is so heinous that they convince themselves that no, if I do everything right, something like that will never happen to me. Logically, it thus follows that women who have been raped must have done something wrong. As soon as a story of rape hits the news, the questions start. Oh, she was alone at 3AM in the city? Well, what did she expect! I would never go around alone at 3AM! (Translation: it’s OK, I’m safe). Oh, she was drunk and got into a car with someone she only knew for a few weeks? Idiot! I would never get into a car with a man, least of all when I’m drunk! (Translation: it’s OK, I’m safe). This reasoning means that they also victim-blame in situations besides sexual assault: you didn’t double lock your door this morning? Well, no wonder you were robbed! You didn’t have your hand over your purse at all times when you were on a crowded bus? You were asking to be pick-pocketed!

The reason I bring this up is because, given the completely different perspective the victim-blaming is coming from, the “classic” arguments against it do not apply. Telling them that women should have a right to wear whatever they want and be independent without having to fear rape leads to eye-rolling. “Yeah, well, of course we should have that right, but welcome to the real world! Everyone should also have the right to not fear that a bomb might drop on their house at any moment. The fact is, we don’t have that luxury, and acting as though we do won’t change that. You still have to be smart. You wouldn’t walk into a war zone without protection just because you think everyone should have the right to not fear being shot dead in the street, would you?”.

The argument from fear is a very difficult one to tackle, because getting them to realize that it’s not the woman’s fault is inextricably linked with their having to accept that someone could do everything right, take every precaution, and still be a victim. I get it, that is a scary reality to face. The fact that their constant victim-blaming contributes to the very culture that makes it so hard for them to achieve the rights that they say we should have seems to escape them. The argument that living in fear is no way to live is usually met with a shoulder shrug; “I like my life just fine the way it is. I have few regrets, and it’s better than being raped”.

I learned to have empathy for the women I met who clung to this argument, the way I never felt empathy for the male police officers who used it as an excuse to not properly file reports of sexual assault. I realized that not all victim-blamers are created equally, and that understanding where someone is coming from is just as important as understanding the argument itself, when crafting a response that you hope will open their minds.

It also made me realize that, while many positive strides have been made, the convoluted complexity of rape culture is exhausting to unpack and unravel, that every time I look at it, there seems to be another layer. That doesn’t mean that we should give up though, because it is still a worthy fight.


  1. Menyambal says

    Very insightful.

    The logic reminded me of aviators (usually male) who assume that any crash was caused by that pilot doing something stupid. All pilots know that they, themselves, will never do anything stupid, therefore they are safe.

    • Bruce says

      Exactly. It reminds me of the movie “The Right Stuff”, about the start of the jet age and space age in the USA, and the test pilots, some of whom became the Mercury 7 astronauts. Those men were mostly military officers, in a “macho” culture apparently. But at random they would fly a new plane, which sometimes had design flaws that would cause the pilot to die. But they never said that. Just like today, too many people are too scared to note that the only real solution is to evolve our culture out from being a rape culture.
      Instead, the pilots said a bad event was caused because the victim could be blamed for not having “the right stuff”, even though this concept was never defined. I presume it amounts to getting the benefit of random chance.
      To ask what a victim is wearing is to imply that everyone at the beach should expect to be raped. To ask what time a victim was out implies that there is a time of day when everyone should expect to be raped. Clearly, these are crazy questions that prove the falseness of the approach.
      But the test pilots never questioned failings of their dead friends. They just ignored the likely possibility that safety was outside of their control. The fact that they couldn’t define the right stuff proves that it was not a real reason. Instead, saying it was stuff was human nature to avoid cognitive dissonance due to their fear that events are out of our control.
      In reality, for both test pilots and potential rape victims, safety cannot be guaranteed. The best approach is to build better jets, better testing systems, and better cultural assumptions about what is reasonable behavior for everyone in society.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    I’ve heard that denial/fear description before… usually in the sense that defense lawyers in rape trials often prefer to have women on the jury because women who think along those lines tend to be much easier to sway by victim-blaming the complainant.

  3. tkreacher says

    Absolutely a component of the Just World Fallacy or Just World Hypothesis, in some of the instances of victim blaming.

  4. blondeintokyo says

    I’ve heard this from men, too, because they don’t want to believe that their wife or daughter could ever be raped. One guy I know questioned a mutual friend in this way after she’d been groped by a creep at a party, telling her she should have shouted, should have hit him, shouldn’t have let him corner her, etc. He went on to say he’d taught his daughters martial arts and made them listen to police lectures about avoiding sexual assault. I pointed out that most rapes aren’t stanger rapes, and asked him if he thought his daughters would use their martial arts training on a friend, a relative, or a boyfriend, or a husband. I also asked if he thought it was safe or advisable for a woman who’s only 156cm/58kg to slap a man who has already shown himself to be violent towards women. I pointed out that a woman really can’t depend on her strength and ability to physically defend herself, and he got really upset. He just started repeating his argument, that if you’re smart and careful and aware, you can somehow predict who will rape and keep yourself safe.

    So men, too, fear what could happen to their loved ones, and make themselves feel more in control by giving what they see as helpful advice after-the-fact. They see themselves as protectors, not victim blamers, even though I it often comes off that way.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    a woman really can’t depend on her strength and ability to physically defend herself

    That’s what was (is?) so pernicious about “wimmin’s self defence” courses as they used to be taught (and as far as I know may still be). A good friend at university (in 1989, for context) was having a coffee with me in my room and telling me about her “wimmin’s self defence” course. She was keen and happy with it for the extra confidence she felt it gave her. I asked her to demonstrate a technique she’d been taught would deal with someone grabbing her. She’d been amazed at its effectiveness in the class. She assumed the position, I stood behind her and grabbed, and she applied the technique… and I lifted her off completely off the floor and dumped her on my bed, a good deal more carefully than I might have done had I meant her harm. I held her there with one hand and invited her to get up, and she couldn’t. I pointed out that I’m a nerdy wuss and have never won a fight in my life, and that any fictional attacker would likely be a good deal more motivated and less gentle than I’d been, and possibly more skilled. It made her realise that the “value” of the class she was paying for was
    (a) entirely psychological and
    (b) actually dangerous.
    It also gave us both quite a clear demonstration that not fighting back is a perfectly reasonable response to being violently attacked, and that no blame can attach to a victim for freezing up. She was stunned when I just picked her bodily off the floor and threw her, because nothing in her life or even her “self defence” class had prepared her for it. We both learned more from the experience than we expected, I think.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      If her self-defense class was teaching her that the techniques were for her to win a physical fight, rather than to help her exploit an element of surprise and weak points in the attacker’s body to break free and flee, then they were certainly dangerous. I’ve attended self defense training, and they always stressed the point that NO ONE, man or woman, can rely on their physical ability to win a fight. No matter what kind of martial arts master you are, or what gender, there are many factors in a violent assault situation that can overpower you, be it the presence of multiple attackers, weapons, someone more skilled than yourself, your own fear of bodily injury or even your fear of damaging others.
      Personally, I have “won” some street fights, but street fighting is a nasty business, and most definitely not suited to everyone. For most people, not fighting back is not only perfectly reasonable, but actually the best way to ensure that you do not push your attacker to hurt you even more than they originally intended. For others, who simply can’t bring themselves to freeze up in that kind of situation, a certain amount of instruction can help them at least tip the odds in their favor, if only slightly. Both are acceptable, no one should presume to “force” someone to go against their nature and tell them the “acceptable” way they should behave when being attacked, and personally I find the whole analysis of victim’s reactions disgusting. “Oh, you didn’t even try to kick him in the balls, maybe you actually wanted to have sex and later decided it was rape?” “Oh, you fought back? Well, you should have known you would have never won that fight, if you hadn’t provoked him, maybe he wouldn’t have beaten you that badly. Next time, better to lay back and take it”. Fuck all that.

  6. tecolata says

    It’s the same reason why some women are so virulent about abortion. The idea that they are GOOD WOMEN and if you are a GOOD WOMAN you won’t be raped, you won’t be harassed, you won’t have an unwanted pregnancy, you won’t be poor, or deserted, or sick. So any woman who is raped must not be a GOOD WOMAN. Even in the most extreme circumstances.

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