The Nuance of Victim Blaming

When Miss. USA, Nia Sanchez, said women should learn self defense to avoid sexual assault, she was accused of victim blaming, receiving numerous tweets to the tune of “how about instead of woman learning to protect themselves, men learn to not rape women?” When Police in Sussex, UK hung posters in female bathrooms at nightclubs, urging women to remain in groups to prevent sexual attacks, a representative of the national charity Rape Crisis said police should instead use their resources to target young men with messages about consent. When journalist Emily Yoffe wrote in Slate that binge drinking “presented a particular danger for young women because it made them more vulnerable to sexual assault,” she was disinvited to speak at a West Coast college for fear her presence would make student victims “feel unsafe,” and Alexander Abad-Santos, a writer for Vox and The Atlantic, responded by asking, “What about teaching men not to rape?”

Yet we don’t find this sentiment with any other crime. We lock our homes at night and put alarm systems in our cars; we move our wallets from our back to front pockets on the subway; we look both ways before we cross the street. And even though there is not a history of blaming theft victims like there is of rape victims, we still use preventive behavior every day without ever considering it victim blaming.

When it comes to rape, we have lost the nuance between victim blaming and preventive measures or taking responsibility for ourselves. Once someone has been attacked, it is wrong to hold any part of that victim’s behavior as responsible for the attack. But there is a difference between advising a woman not to binge drink or to stick with a group of friends because doing so makes her a less susceptible target, and asking a woman after she’s been raped “how much did you have to drink” or “why did you walk home alone.” There is a difference between proactively behaving in a way that reduces risk, and retroactively blaming a victim.

Part of the reason we have lost this nuance is because it has become difficult to talk about rape. The sentiment of solely “teaching men not to rape” is not inclusive of debate or different views. Shutting down discussion that offers any other solution, like those mentioned by Miss. USA and Emily Yoffe, leads people to avoid the subject altogether.

Education is key. Many colleges require freshmen to complete sexual consent education courses, and now California requires it of its high schoolers. Many college campuses have also implemented bystander intervention programs. Teaching and refining universal consent is a step in the right direction, but we haven’t fully embraced that a valid way to combat sexual assault is teaching women to protect themselves.

To consider societal education — or “teaching men not to rape” — as the only solution, in itself victimizes women by suggesting there’s nothing a woman can do to prevent or predict sexual assault and that she has no control over her life and body. Psychologist Ofer Zur says, “The victim is always morally right… and forever entitled to sympathy,” but that “to adhere to a victim ideology which states that victims are always and completely innocent is absurd.” That kind of victim ideology says to women that their fate lies solely in the hands of men who either have or haven’t been taught not to rape. That simply isn’t true.

ConsentEd is a group of volunteer crisis counsellors and sexual violence educators who are “working towards a world without sexual violence.” Their website states that “tips” like learning self defense and sticking in groups “create unreasonable expectations and restrictions” on women, which “contributes to survivors’ self-blame and guilt.” They claim these prevention methods “create a culture of fear” instead of working towards a “world where we feel safe.”

But the culture of fear already exists. The most conservative studies show one in thirty six women in college are sexually assaulted; others have it at one in five. We can either be naive and pretend to live in a utopian world where we can teach people not to be violent, or we can take things into our hands and be responsible for our own behavior, prevent it as much as we can, without blaming victims when those preventive measures don’t work.

As for “A world where we feel safe,” maybe the closest thing to that is living in a world where we feel confident enough to protect ourselves through self defense, friends we trust to look out for us, and being aware enough of our surroundings. All those things contribute to a safer world for us. A world where we don’t feel safe is one where we are sexually assaulted and are then told there is nothing to be done except go teach men not to rape, which is as abstract as it gets.

ConsentEd also say that these preventive methods “further the idea that certain things you do make you more vulnerable to sexual assault,” when really “the only thing that makes sexual assault happen is the presence of a perpetrator who chooses to assault.”

While it’s true that the only thing that makes sexual assault happen, ultimately, is a predator, there absolutely are certain behaviors that make people more vulnerable to sexual assault. There are patterns to victimization in sexual assault cases, as evidenced by the Campus Sexual Assault Study, which names alcohol consumption as a “major risk factor.” The study states that “women who frequently drank enough to get drunk were at greater risk of sexual victimization” and that “heavy episodic drinking was the strongest predictor of rape.” Therefore avoiding an exaggerated consumption of alcohol automatically makes one less susceptible to sexual assault; it isn’t victim blaming, it’s common sense.

Granted, a woman can be a black belt in self defense, be sober, part of a group, and still be sexually assaulted. There is no fool-proof solution or plan. If we really want to solve the problem, we can’t look at the solution as so linear, it has to be attacked from all angles: we need to think what law enforcement can do, what educators can do, what legislators can do, and yes, what women can do to keep themselves safe.

We can’t just say teach men not to rape, just like we can’t realistically say the solution to all crime is to teach people not to murder, rob, assault, and con. People who consider preventive behavior to be victim blaming aren’t interested in solving the problem, but rather creating a dichotomy of victims and predators. Education is important, but disregarding preventive measures as victim blaming and shutting down those who advocate it diminishes important nuances in the conversations we should be having. It’s counterproductive and it doesn’t further in solving the problem. It only lends to rob women of agency, and living life without agency is the furthest we can get from living in a “world where we feel safe.”

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