Saturday, March 9, 2013

Feminism 101: Blaming the Victim

Feminism 101 is a series in which I define some of the terms that feminists like to throw around. My goal is to help those who are totally new to feminism understand what it's all about.

[trigger warning: rape]

Today's entry: Blaming the victim.

Here's the simple definition: When some crime happens, and people say that it was the victim's fault, that's victim-blaming.

"But wait!" you say. "That's terrible! No, I don't believe people would really do that."

Okay, let's talk about how this plays out in real life. It seems the most common context in which feminists point out victim-blaming is when a woman gets raped. People may ask what she was wearing, or if she was drinking [trigger warning for the image at that link], or if she screamed and fought back in the correct ways, or if she went to a bad area of town late at night, or trusted a guy she should have been suspicious of, or maybe actually she seduced him, etc- with the implication being that they're trying to find evidence that she made a bad choice and therefore the rape is a logical consequence- it's her fault.

"But wait!" you say. "In some sense it is partly her fault- if she hadn't done those things or gone to those places, the rape wouldn't have happened."

Umm. Wow. Because I care about your well-being, I need to tell you: Don't EVER say that to a feminist. (Actually, don't say it to ANYONE, because you never know who's a survivor of some kind of violence like that, and the last thing they need is people suggesting it was their fault.) But I understand that you're new to this, so let me try to explain...

The assumption behind those questions ("What were you wearing? Were you drinking?" etc) is that if a woman follows all the rules, then she won't be raped. But the reality is there is no set of rules which guarantees that- and even if there was, it would be way too restrictive. A woman would have to ALWAYS wear clothing that NO ONE judges to be "too revealing." She would need to NEVER go anywhere alone, and NEVER be alone with a guy. NEVER drink. NEVER be attractive to a guy she's not interested in sleeping with. How can a person live that way? It's totally unreasonable. And even if she did, people might still find some little mistake she made, and determine that the rape was her fault.

(Oh, also. The stereotypical "masked man jumps out of the bushes" is not true of most rapes. Most occur at the rapist's or victim's home, and the rapist is someone already known to the victim. Also, men can be raped- not just women.)

"Okay well I certainly don't want to blame a rape victim," you say, "but what about the reality that there are safety precautions one should take to decrease the chances of being raped?"

Yeah, that's a good question. What's the difference between saying, "If you were raped, it's your fault for not following all the rules," and "Here are some helpful tips to stay safe"?

I think that's an important question, and I don't have a complete answer right now. But one thing to consider is our reaction when a person tells us she was raped. Do we do everything we can to help her, comfort her, get the rapist brought to justice? Or do we analyze her account to try to find something she did wrong, and when we find it, decide "oh that explains it. No crime here, nothing to see, move along"?

When somebody is raped, that is the rapist's fault. It's nobody else's fault. Ever. Victim-blaming takes the focus off the crime that's been committed and gets in the way of healing and justice. Victim-blaming says that the main "crime" was that the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that is disgusting.


The reason that victim-blaming is so common is that people want to believe the world is just. We don't want to believe bad things can happen to innocent people who don't deserve it. If we can find a reason to blame the victim, then we can tell ourselves that if we don't do that particular thing that the victim did, then we'll be safe. But the world doesn't work that way.

If I hear about some horrible crime, and I determine some way that the victim is DIFFERENT from me, and that DIFFERENCE is the reason they were attacked, then I can believe that it could never happen to me. Victim-blaming is about sacrificing my compassion for other people in order to help me feel safe. Sacrificing my compassion for those who most need it, in order to reassure myself of my own beliefs about the world.

Image source.

And now that I know about victim-blaming, I can't read the news the same way I used to. When I read articles about violence and natural disasters happening to other people, I used to think to myself, "Well, these people died but it's okay because they live in a country where that kind of stuff always happens. It can't happen to me." But that's blaming the victim. I don't do that anymore- now I read those articles and, yes, I recognize that some parts of the world are more vulnerable to violence, war, poverty, natural disasters- so it's true that it's unlikely to happen to me- but still, no one DESERVES that.

I used to read the news, read about people dying in other parts of the world, and reassure myself "but it's okay" because that sort of thing would only happen to people who were different than me. But now that I know how wrong it is to blame the victim, there's no way to rationalize that "it's okay." It's NOT OKAY. It's just really not okay that people kill innocent people. But that's reality, and I must not think that I'm above it because of the ways I'm different from the innocent people who suffer injustice.

When I read the news, and I think "well what did you expect, living in that particular country" that's victim-blaming. Instead, my reaction should be compassion for the victims, and an awareness that something is terribly wrong with the world, when horrible things like that happen. (And that, friends, is why I don't read the news much anymore. Because I'm no longer able to read about horrible things happening and make excuses about why I don't need to care.)

OKAY so now that we're all sufficiently depressed about the state of the world, I'll leave you with the following links, for more examples of victim-blaming:

Trayvon Martin's hoodie was responsible for his death

Why is there an impulse to blame victims in the face of tragedy?

Pretty much everything Job's friends said (in the biblical account of Job)

Teachers tell bullied kids: Don't be so gay

Apparently whether or not a victim of violence has used drugs is relevant in whether or not to arrest the killer

'Sexting' bullying cited in teen's suicide

Guarding your heart and victim blaming

Being A Victim Doesn't Make You Weak

But don't be sad! The world is full of good things too! Here are some baby ducks. Image source.

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