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It is getting more and more outdated and outrageous to follow a story of rape with the question “well, what was she wearing?”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
- Usually men, or at least people who have a strong patriarchal view of society, and
- 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.