Victim blaming 101

This Slacktivist piece on the victim-blaming inherent in certain kinds of advice [When good advice goes bad] prompted an epic comment mudstorm in which I briefly participated, kinda regretted it, stewed for a while, and started writing this essay.

The argument:

Are you really unable to see the difference between telling college students in general that binge drinking is dangerous, and telling FEMALE students IN PARTICULAR that binge drinking is dangerous BECAUSE THEY COULD GET RAPED? “Don’t do it because rape” will always sound like a victim-blaming threat in a way “don’t do it because you could choke to death on your own vomit” doesn’t.

Some Guy (actual Internet handle elided)
“Don’t do it because rape” will always sound like a victim-blaming threat if that’s the way you insist on hearing it. And apparently it is, since you put it in the category of “always”, meaning there is no way to express it that you won’t interpret as victim-blaming.

Right — that was my point. There is no way to express that particular thought — “girls, don’t do this thing, because you could get raped” — without it sounding like victim-blaming. There are ways to express DIFFERENT THOUGHTS associated with rape prevention which don’t come across as victim-blaming.

Some Guy
And here I thought the other guy was nuts for thinking that you need to maintain a 1:1 ratio between advising women to avoid rape traps and denouncing rape culture.

You might be trolling or sincerely misguided, but either way it’s obvious you’re not even attempting to understand my point. So, we’re done now.

Some Guy
What if you have a really dumb point?

And that’s the end. (I think his final comment went on longer, but that’s where I quit reading because I was starting to get angry, and nobody likes me when I’m angry. But everyone likes FILM CRIT HULK when he/she suggests that [we need to change how we talk about rape])

The discussion was prompted by Emily Yoffe’s essay (“College Women: Stop Getting Drunk: It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.”), which frequently lampshades its own victim blaming (meaning it calls attention to the fact that it will be perceived as victim blaming in order to deny that it is in fact victim blaming — a concept I borrowed from [Lampshade Hanging at TV Tropes].)

People like Some Guy assist in her denial, often expressing comments in a form like, “when we tell women not to binge drink, we’re not saying it’s okay to rape them if they’re drunk!” Right, and by calling you on your victim blaming, I’m not saying it’s “okay” for college students to binge drink.

Frankly, all of you seem a little confused about what exactly constitutes victim blaming — thinking it’s not victim blaming unless you put ALL the blame on the victim and NONE on the perp, or that it’s not victim blaming if the advice could be regarded as sensible.

Nope. Not how it works.

It’s victim blaming when you hold victims responsible for the circumstances that led to their own misfortune.

Its most common form is a statement like “What was he/she thinking, doing X? He/she should have known better!” It doesn’t matter if X is something objectively dumb, like poking badgers. It is still victim blaming.

So, you’ve probably blamed a victim at some point, because it’s really easy to do. I know I have (What on earth were you thinking, leaving your bag unattended in the middle of Heathrow Airport…?) And I can tell you this: nobody ever wants to hear it. You’re not informing people of anything. You’re not inspiring them to behave more responsibly in the future. You’re just making them think you’re kind of a jerk.

There’s this thing called the just world fallacy — read up on it. It should explain to you why victim blaming is nonsense, and also why we tend to do it.

Of course, in this particular instance, we aren’t talking about after-the-fact “you should have known better” blaming, but rather advice — “here is how, in the future, to know better.” So, am I saying that all advice is victim blaming? No. But it’s easy for advice to become implicit victim blaming, when that advice 1. Feeds existing victim blaming narratives, and 2. Fails to be genuinely useful or well thought out.

Yoffe’s advice — young college women, don’t drink to excess, because you could get raped — does both. So, as advice goes, it falls squarely into the victim blaming camp.

1. Feeds existing victim blaming narratives.
Some Guy & friends — do you genuinely not know that patriarchal culture has a long, sordid history of holding women complicit in their own sexual assault? Did you recently arrive on this planet from Mars? Yoffe knows this history. That’s why she keeps lampshading her victim blaming (“a misplaced fear of blaming the victim…” “Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But…”) Her rhetorical stance appears to be that her advice about binge drinking is so incredibly novel, useful and relevant that she absolutely needs to get it out there to the college women of the world, even if people like me “insist on hearing it” as victim blaming.

Possibly the most common victim blaming narrative about rape is that women bring it on themselves by acting like “bad girls” (however their culture defines a bad girl) — dressing slutty, sleeping around, going to the wrong part of town, partying too hard, leaving home without a burqa, etc. So when you tell women “don’t do X because it could get you raped,” and X is a pleasure-seeking activity associated with being a “bad girl,” you’re feeding that narrative.

As a contrast, imagine if I wrote an essay titled “Being a hardcore feminist bitch is the best way to avoid rape.” It could still be construed as victim blaming, perhaps, but it doesn’t feed into a pre-existing narrative the same way. Worse, Yoffe’s column isn’t content merely to scold young women about the possibility that their bad girl behavior will lead to them getting raped — it actually calls upon young women to use their sobriety to inspire young men to behave in a more virtuous manner.

“If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest [..] I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.”

This is sickeningly close to the way the religious right expects young women to behave with regard to sex — as guardian angels tasked with keeping not only themselves but the young men around them chaste through the inexorable natural power of their personal purity and self-restraint. (Because we’re talking patriarchy, here, and so of course young women have no actual power.)

On the “bad girls” narrative, Yoffe hits the absolute center of the double bullseye: young women can avoid rape by remaining virtuous.

Probably the second most common victim blaming narrative about rape is that women bring it on themselves by exercising the sort of freedom and autonomy that men in their culture are generally expected to have — walking alone in an urban area after dark, for example. Or drinking like men do (“Young women are getting a distorted message [..] their right to match men drink for drink”).

Does it matter when this freedom is used to do something objectively dumb, like getting falling-down drunk? Not really. The narrative is still victim blaming, as I explained earlier. And it’s still a problem when you want me to simply accept it as a given that women aren’t as free as men are — even if that freedom is to act like an idiot — because rape.

I’m not willing to let that one go. It’s completely ridiculous for any society to expect HALF ITS POPULATION to live like the beleaguered inhabitants of a futuristic dystopia, where criminals roam freely and law-abiding citizens spend every night cowering behind a three inch steel barricade, and any suggestion that you might want to clean up the town — by ending rape culture — is treated as a crazy feminist pipe dream. (“And here I thought the other guy was nuts for thinking that you need to maintain a 1:1 ratio between advising women to avoid rape traps and denouncing rape culture.”)

The usual defense of such advice is that you’re being realistic — sure, it would be nice if we could end rape culture, but that’s not going to happen, so given that, here’s how to protect yourself. (“it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at catching and punishing sexual predators; that’s simply not their core mission [..] just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.”) People often draw analogies to advice about how to avoid pickpockets.

Well, there are a few problems with that. One, is that the main point of Yoffe’s essay is to argue for the elimination of the binge drinking culture on campus — she talks about the link between sexual assault and drinking in order to motivate (threaten) young women into participating in her modern-day temperance movement, to get them to restrain their own behavior in the “hope their restraint trickles down to the men.”

Why assume that campus drinking behavior can be changed, but not sexual assault behavior? Is it because you truly believe one is more deeply embedded in the human psyche? On what evidence? Or, perhaps you just don’t care much about ending rape — because you are more comfortable in a world where it persists as a threat toward women who step out of line.

Would people like Yoffe urge us to be so resigned and fatalistic about armed robbery or murder, if those were as frequent as sexual assault? Would they make the same kinds of excuses that it’s “unrealistic” to think colleges can catch all the perps, because it’s “not their core mission”? When people murder, do we spend all our time picking apart the minutiae of just exactly what their victims did wrong in order to make them so mad?

Still, it might be reasonable to give young people — women and men — advice about how to protect themselves in a hostile world. But not if that advice…

2. Fails to be genuinely useful or well thought out.

“I don’t care even a little bit whether or not it’s ‘victim-blaming’ to tell women not to drink [..] The primary – and almost the exclusive – criterion I use in determining what approach I will take in preventing sexual assault on my campus is: DOES EVIDENCE SUGGEST IT WILL BE EFFECTIVE?”

[From The Dirty Normal]

Yoffe disingenuously denies that her essay is victim blaming, while at the same time implying that her advice is so incredibly useful that it doesn’t really matter whether she’s blaming the victim or not.

But is her advice really so useful? Part of its purported utility rests on the assumption of its novelty (“somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women [..] we are failing to let women know [..] wanted young women to get this information [..] not telling them the truth [..] students may also be unaware [..] students must get the explicit message”)

Okay, raise your hands all college students and former college students who are shocked — shocked! — to hear there might be a link between excessive drinking and sexual assault. Anyone? Bueller?

As a former college female, I am pretty sure she’s simply incorrect about the drink/rape connection being mysterious or surprising — I don’t remember being told about it specifically in so many words, but I do remember it being a generally understood truism that passing out at the wrong party could result in sexual assault. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that, because it was really bleeding obvious, thank you very much.

But, let’s assume that I was more aware than the typical 19-year-old, and most young college women really do need this particular bit of information — that excessive drinking can lead to sexual assault. Okay. But you know what? I certainly knew the connection back when I was part of her target population, and it didn’t change my behavior at all.

Why not? Because I didn’t think it applied to me. And why was that? Well, because I was nineteen. Duh. It’s a widely recognized fact that teenage boys/young men think they’re bullet-proof, but you know what? Teenage girls/young women often think that exact same thing. I’ve been reading Ann Rule’s book about the Green River Killer, who you might know preyed on prostitutes working the SeaTac Strip. Most of them were young, teenagers or not much older than that. At the time, these young women knew they were being targeted by a serial killer — did it get them off the streets? No, of course not. For one thing, many of them didn’t feel like they had a lot of other options. And for another thing, they didn’t think it would happen to them.

That’s how people are. Whatever it is, they don’t think it will happen to them. Does Yoffe’s essay do anything to change that? No. Absolutely not. Rather than trying to explain in any realistic fashion how even savvy and independent young women can become victims, instead she repeatedly characterizes women as dumb, powerless prey tottering around helplessly like gazelles on the savannah:

She emphasizes, again and again, the vulnerability of female campus assault victims: “inexperienced young women [..] in potential peril.”;”sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole.”;”defenseless, terrible things can be done to them.”;”serial predator who encourages his victim to keep pouring the means of her incapacitation down her own throat.”

My inner 19-year-old is rolling her eyes and my current self isn’t too impressed either.

Anyway, there was another reason I didn’t think such concerns applied to me: because when I drank too much I was with my friends, and I trusted my friends.

Was that stupid? Should I have trusted my friends? In my case, that trust was never betrayed. I had (and have) awesome friends.

But here’s the thing — most rape is acquaintance rape, and that means most rape is a violation of trust. Trusting your friends not to take advantage of you when you’re passed out isn’t all that different than trusting them not to take advantage of you when you’re sleeping. If your friends are jerks who can’t be trusted, maybe you being drunk gives them an opportunity to display this in the worst possible manner — but even if you’re 100 percent sober 24/7, YOUR FRIENDS ARE STILL JERKS WHO CAN’T BE TRUSTED.

Isn’t that the bigger problem? People who think it’s okay to act like jerks?

Trusting a guy to drive you someplace — that’s huge, because not only are you trusting your life to him as a driver, but if he really does mean you harm, now he can drive you to his creepy murder cabin way out in the middle of nowhere. We know that both Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway frequently started by getting the victim alone in their car. So, you wouldn’t get in the car with Ted Bundy or Gary Ridgway. But would you get into a car with your friend who wanted to give you a ride home from the library? Of course you would. And would you get in a car with the guy you were going out on a date with? Again, of course you would.

Would you let Ted Bundy walk you to your car? If you were Ann Rule, and you didn’t yet know that your friend Ted was a serial killer, of course you would.

Sure, as a woman you’re “supposed” to live your life behind that steel door — but aren’t you also “supposed” to let some people on the other side of it? Are women supposed to never date guys? Never have male friends? But wait, don’t we also judge women harshly if they never get married? How are they supposed to get married if they never date?

You see where this is going.

Everything we do as humans involves some kind of risk assessment, and if we’re female, that risk assessment usually includes risk of sexual assault. There’s a huge difference between “most sexual assaults involve alcohol” and “most of the time you drink, it leads to sexual assault.” The first one might be true — but the second one is absolutely NOT true. So is it any wonder that so many young college women take that bet? It’s a crap shoot either way. The only thing you really get, if you’re raped when sober, is nobody trying to tell you that you should have known better. (Well, known better because of the drinking. They’ll undoubtedly find some other reason to tell you that you should have known better.)

Yoffe’s advice puts women in a very familiar no-win scenario: be “good” all the time and maybe get raped, or party on and maybe get raped. That’s what happens when you act like the victim is the only one with any choices. As Jim Hines points out, “Rape prevention efforts have targeted women for ages. Yet sexual assault continues to be incredibly common.” Shouldn’t that make us suspicious of any rape prevention advice that narrowly targets the actions of women as potential victims of sexual assault? No matter what else is going on, history strongly suggests that it isn’t going to help.

The Some Guys of the world seem to treat it as self-evidently ludicrous to address rape from the perpetrator standpoint (“And here I thought the other guy was nuts…”) But why do we think it’s so ridiculous to try to tell men what to do, and so reasonable to tell women what to do?

I think we have a patriarchal bias that leads to us thinking of women as children who must be instructed, collectively under the authority of society as a pseudo-parent, while men are adults who make their own decisions (even if those decisions are stupid or criminal).

You might think it’s ridiculous to tell men not to rape, BUT HAVE YOU ACTUALLY TRIED IT? Both men and women grow up in a culture of insanely mixed messages about sex, coercion, and consent. A song like “Baby it’s Cold Outside” can be regarded as a cute and family-friendly Christmas classic, yet the exact same scenario in real life frequently results in date rape followed by a rousing chorus of “she should have known better.”

“Girls, don’t do this thing, because you could get raped.”

It’s victim blaming, sexist, and also useless as self-protection advice. If you aren’t willing to engage with why any of that is true, then you are part of the problem, you Yoffes and Some Guys. You are aiding and abetting rapists, giving them cover for their crimes by shifting some of the blame for their behavior onto their victims. Because the real truth is this:

“Girls… you could get raped.”

Next time: I share some self-protection advice that I consider to be NOT victim blaming.