The Problem with Victim-Blaming

by Caitlin Gordon-King

This piece is featured in Wom*news #7: Bodies, out tomorrow!

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence and victim blaming; an example of victim blaming is also quoted within this paper. 

In the following paper I ask the question: ‘Is blaming the victim of sexual assault ever valid and/or justified?’. I conclude that it is neither. Although I in no way intend on awarding credibility to arguments which imply otherwise, it is important to engage with them in order to illuminate their flaws and curtail their popularity. Such engagement could distress or otherwise trigger some readers. I therefore ask you to please read the following with discretion. Given I am writing for a women’s magazine, I will be specifically speaking on female identifying victims.

Earlier this week, a friend of mine posted a link to a news article on his facebook page. The article described a court case in the US, during which a judge told a victim of sexual assault that she should avoid going to dangerous bars in the future. By doing so, the judge insinuated that the woman’s failure to accurately evaluate the consequences of going to a male dominated, ‘dangerous’ bar was partly to blame for her attack. If the judge’s remarks didn’t concern me enough, then people’s defence of them when commenting on the article certainly did the job. These comments demonstrated something which has become increasingly clear to me over recent months; as much as we wish it weren’t true, victim blaming is not restricted to old, uneducated, misogynists living in Texas, but is disturbingly common amongst people we all know.

The apportioning of blame for a woman’s sexual assault onto the woman herself is a trend which permeates the mindsets of both men and women, from a variety of social classes, political inclinations and educational backgrounds.  It is alluded to by politicians, experienced in our judicial system, disclosed in drunken conversations and often contemplated by victims themselves. The problem is so pervasive that often we don’t realise when we are encouraging it ourselves. I’ve had moments when I’ve thought to myself of a friend – ‘What did she think was going to happen?’

Thinking thusly comes naturally, and it is not difficult to see why. The rates of sexual assault seem so overwhelming, and its trauma so great, that it is almost too much to bear to consider that its victims are entirely innocent. For a perpetrator especially, it is easier to imagine that the victim could have avoided the situation had they really wanted; that subsequent psychological distress is not solely one’s own fault. I also attribute the popularity of this mode of thought to the seeming common sense underlying it. Every person who commented on my friend’s post did so intellectually, and more troubling still, posed seemingly plausible arguments as to why victims are partly responsible for their sexual assault if they fail to identify and avoid risky situations or actions.

Such an argument was aptly summarised by Kody:

‘…But I’m also sick of hearing people taking their ‘rights’ to some idealistic fantasy land e.g. ‘I should be able to wear a KKK outfit in a black neighbourhood in the US’. Of course you should… But you have a HUGE chance of being beaten up. What about: ‘I should be able to walk where I want, when I want, dressed how I want’. I totally agree, you SHOULD. However, there is some level of common sense that says if you choose to exercise that right in a fucked up neighbourhood… you are likely to have something bad happen to you… (to play devil’s advocate) perhaps the judge had more info to go on? Perhaps: ‘I just happened to be in a rough bar in the worst part of town, and got assaulted’. That might warrant the judge giving some advice… It seems to me that there is definitely a point (of risk) where a victim starts taking part in the consequences.’

For the remainder of this paper, I will specifically address Kody’s comments, because I feel that they epitomise arguments which attempt to justify victim blaming. Alluring as they might be, these arguments are not logically sound. Further, the consequence of their implementation in real life is, and would be, socially and psychologically damaging.

Firstly, Kody’s argument is invalid because it over-estimates the ability of individuals to avoid particularly ‘risky’ situations. Intuitively, we apportion less blame to a person who suffers the negative consequences of taking a risk the more difficult it was for them to avoid that risk. By claiming that the woman in question was partly responsible, Kody’s comment insinuates that it would have been an easy task for her to avoid the bar. However, saying so ignores the social context in which women make the decision to ‘risk it’. Women are constantly bombarded with the messages:

‘You will have fun if you go out. If you don’t go out and experience the night scene, you are a prig and missing out on lyf.

When you go out, you have to dress provocatively – otherwise you are a prude. You’re worth nothing if you do not look sexually attractive. The way to look sexually attractive is to dress in provocative clothing.

You will only be happy if you find a man. Any man will do. 

You will only get a man if he is sexually attracted to you. And you can find a man when you go out at night.’

Women who dress provocatively to garner sexual attention, and go out to bars full of the kinds of men who will make them feel sexually attractive, aren’t too dumb to evaluate the consequences – they’re products of society. When a girl abides by that society’s rules and does the things she’s been told to do – it tells her that it’s her fault when she is abused.

In the long run, it would be immensely difficult for any woman to avoid ‘risky’ situations, not only because they’re reared to enter them, but also simply because ‘risky’ situations are everywhere and impossible to always avoid. Given the number of dangers faced by women on an everyday basis, they cannot be expected to let such dangers dictate their lives, as doing so would greatly diminish their opportunities and inhibit their happiness. Women cannot and should not be expected to always stay inside and only wear clothing which men deem ‘acceptable’, because fulfilling such expectations would be severely limiting. If I were to always choose the safest option in what is a pretty constantly dangerous environment, I would be choosing to deny myself other desires. The negative consequences of denying myself these desires would accumulate over time. Therefore, ultimately, risking some danger will procure more happiness in the long term than avoiding that danger entirely. Hence, it is not unreasonable for me to go to a bar if I so desire. Having evaluated the consequences, going out and having fun is most likely to make me happy in the long term. It is not my fault if that probability is not realised, because at the time that I made the decision it seemed the best option.

Further still, Kody’s argument splits women into two groups – smart and dumb, suggesting that dumb women get raped. This is clearly an over-simplified, damaging and obviously false suggestion. Individuals who choose to take risks aren’t necessarily flippant or stupid, but do so for a reason. They are dressed a certain way for a reason they deem valid, and are in a certain place for a reason they deem valid. Not only that, but they are simply making choices that most of us would. When faced with the decision as to whether to go out and have fun, or to stay inside to absolutely ensure safety, the average person will choose to go out. We might all acknowledge that this is a more dangerous decision, but given it seems almost impossible to fight the temptation, and the majority of us would succumb to it, is it really anybody’s place to blame a person when they do?

Even if it were a valid point that the risk undertaken by victims somehow makes them responsible for the actions of another, victim blaming is still an unjustifiable and destructive way of thinking.

The moment we lay any blame on the victim of sexual assault is the moment that this blame is detracted from that laid on the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter whether or not the woman is actually, abstractly, in any way responsible; when someone says ‘Well, YOU should have stayed home’, it decreases the guilt felt by men for their actions. Not only will men feel less responsible for crimes committed in the past, but less responsible for their actions in the future. And that will directly affect how they act towards women in the future.

Not only does justification of victim blaming encourage individual crimes, but it solidifies the power structure which greatly limits 51% of the population. Kody’s comments, and any arguments which justify victim blaming, clearly send the message that women should accept that men hold the power in society. If all women take Kody’s advice, not only will they always fear men and stay inside knitting on Friday nights instead of having fun, but society will continue to believe that male aggression is inevitable. Some men will continue to think that it’s their right to sexually harass women because their bodies demand it of them (and that it’s the woman’s fault for provoking their ‘natural’ bodily urges), and others will continue to view women as feeble and in need of their protection.

Failing to challenge, and even endorsing, the status quo = continuation of the status quo. It is akin to racial segregation in the US. I doubt Kody would look back on that period of history and say – ‘If Rosa Parks got beaten up after sitting at the front of the bus, that would partly have been her fault. Therefore, Rosa Parks should have sat at the back of the bus. Rosa, make sure you sit at the back next time.’ Women need to keep going out, to keep entering male dominated spaces and to keep dressing however they please because they must continue to remind men that it is their right to be able to do those things without being harmed.

It is important to spell out plainly and simply what arguments like Kody’s are really saying. What they are saying is that there are public places which women should not enter, times that they should not go out and clothes they should not wear, and that they will be punished by men if they do any of the aforementioned. If the woman is irrational enough to risk this punishment, then she is partly responsible for it – meaning, she deserves what she gets.

To Summarise: Segregation should be continued, for the protection of the oppressed.

Because this is its crux: victim blaming not only has a destructive psychological impact on victims themselves, but on women and society in general. It should therefore never be encouraged or practiced.

If a man attacks a woman, that is the man’s fault. Not hers. Any amendment made to that basic idea – like ‘in some circumstances it’s partly the woman’s fault’ – erodes it. I should feel free to go out at night. Sure, TECHNICALLY I am free to go out by myself. But in reality I’m not. My actions are severely limited because I live in a patriarchal society which says shit like ‘If you go to that place, or if you go out at that time, or if you go out by yourself, it’s your own fault if you get raped.’ For a liberal society, that’s not good enough. It is the basic premise of liberalism that every person is free to act as they best see fit, so long as that action does not harm others. The onus is therefore solely, and should always remain on the perpetrator of sexual assault, not the victim.

 ~ Caitlin Gordon-King
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