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The Blame Game

February 17, 2010

**Trigger Warning**
I also want to note that I do not want to exclude the fact that men are also victims of sexual assault and women are also perpetrators, and I don’t want to diminish the experiences of male survivors. However there is a significant tendency for cases to break down in this way, and that this was the situation that seemed to be addressed in the survey. There is also a huge gap left here in the gross amount of violence against trans people, which were not addressed in the survey and I’m not sure I have the resources to cover. I am speaking from my upbringing as a white, cisgender woman, and my perceptions about how other girls were raised to think about sexual violence. If anyone was raised with different experiences or perceptions, please share in the comments.

A new survey out of the UK reports that more than half of respondents believed that  victims were partly to blame for sexual assault. But the major story being reported is that women were less forgiving than men in terms of individual situations in which victims should take part of the blame. I find it kind of problematic that of all the nuances in the statistics, the majority of the media chose to report, first and foremost, these gender differences. For example, there was also the interesting finding that young people between 18 and 24 were especially likely to blame the victims, which I’d love to hear some ideas as to why this is the case.

You can find more here, but one of the statistics is particularly telling: Of the women who believe that victims are partly to blame, 71% said they were to blame if she got in to bed with her rapist, as opposed to 57% of men. But here is another finding:

Alarmingly, they also found that one in three men claimed they didn’t think it was rape if they made their partner have sex when they didn’t want to. Thirteen per cent of men admitted having sex with a partner who was too drunk to know what was happening.

Perhaps this complete lack of understanding of what can be defined as sexual violence influenced how people chose to allocate the blame? Many survivors reacted specifically in the comments with experiences of assault from their husbands/boyfriends/friends and how long it took them to understand it was not their fault. One woman wrote, “It was only several years later that I accepted that I hadn’t deserved what had happened, that it wasn’t right, and that it was actually rape. What should I have done? Who should I have told?”

There is obviously a large disconnect in how sexual violence affects peoples lives and how the threat can become internalized. Cisgendered women are aware of the threat of sexual violence from the time they are very young, even if they have not personally experienced violence I’ve written before about getting to a point in my early teens when this concern became almost debilitating. I took many steps to avoid violence in my own life, and was aware of the perils of any given situation. Walking home from school: risky. Walking alone at night: highly risky. Being alone with an older man: out of the question. In Cara Kulwicki’s article for the Guardian she explains how our attachment to our own safety leads to a tendency to blame survivors. Women are incentivized to blame victims, because of the myth that if they “follow ‘the rules’ – don’t go out alone at night, don’t get too drunk, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt too much – they themselves are safe from becoming victims.” Women often hold fast to these way to prevent sexual assault in order to feel some agency over their own bodies and not view themselves as victims. The individual choices that women choose to make for their own safety, does not mean that others can or should make that choice. We’ve made that mistake before during a discussion group, which brittalinn powerfully responded to:

The brainstorming about how we can protect ourselves from sexual assault left me profoundly disturbed. The suggestion that rape is an inherent risk of certain behaviors is highly problematic. The idea that not going home with someone that I do not know or trust, or not getting too drunk, or not walking alone at night, or not wearing revealing clothing is an effective deterrent of sexual assault, is just totally false. Women can be raped in the safety of their own homes, by their own husbands. It happens all the time. The idea that there is something that I can and should be doing to prevent sexual assault is a form of victim blaming, and it was really disheartening to find this attitude within the body positivity group.

These “rules” that many women often commit themselves to adhering to are not solely personally generated. There are many, many examples of “ways to prevent sexual assault” guide produced by men, women, colleges, and police stations. Advice includes things like walking in well-lit areas, watching how much you drink, and carrying a gun. Some acknowledge that most sexual assaults come from people women know, others re-inforce the trope that rapists are sick individuals that jump out at you from the bushes. Often this trope allows men to reinscribe themselves as protectors of women. I’m not sure I can make the claim that men blame victims less because they feel the need to protect women, but I do think it is the nature of the patriarchy to feel that women’s bodies [Or any bodies that don’t “fit” what it means to be a man] need to be regulated and controlled. Because women aren’t really allowed agencies over their bodies in the first place, how could they be blamed for violence?

Although I question some of the ways this survey has been reported, I’m glad this information about victim-blaming is getting out there in way that emphasizes how wrong it is. The article includes reactions from survivors about how they feel about the results of this survey. (Trigger warning here too) Some of their stories are pretty heartbreaking, but take it back to why it’s so important that we listen to survivors and emphasize that it’s not their fault. We should take away from this study, not that there may be some different reactions based on gender, but further questions about how we, as a culture, can support survivors.

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