“It’s just common sense” versus “Victim blaming”

“It’s just common sense” versus “Victim blaming” September 17, 2012

“All the ad does is point out that drinking leaves you more vulnerable to being raped, and that you can protect yourself by not drinking as much,” he told me adamantly.

“But can’t you see that that’s victim blaming? The message it sends is ‘if you get drunk and get raped, well, it’s kind of your fault,” I replied with both passion and exasperation.

“No it doesn’t! You have to read that into it! All it says is that not drinking or drinking less can reduce your chance of being raped. And inasmuch as that is true, it’s a good thing to tell people. It’s just common sense!” he insisted.

We were discussing a Pennsylvania ad campaign which sought to discourage teens from drinking by drawing a connection between drinking and getting raped. Our conversation went on for two hours, he insisting over and over that it was just common sense to encourage young women to watch their drinking, to dress less provocatively, and to take other precautions, all in the name of not getting raped. He likened it to the precautions you take to keep your house from getting robbed – I mean, they do say you should make sure your lawn stays mowed even when you’re on vacation for a reason! And me? Well, I just kept pointing out that these “suggestions” come within, and help perpetuate, a culture in which young women who are raped are told that it’s their fault because they were dressed too conservatively, or that the fact that they drank so much meant that they were asking for it.

All this background is to say that when a reader sent me a link to this image, well, this wasn’t a discussion I was a stranger to in any sense.

In other words, if you would take precautions to avoid being robbed, having your identity stolen, or having your car burgled, what’s wrong with saying you should take precautions to avoid being raped? It’s common sense!

I want to open this up for discussion, but before I do that I want to share my initial thoughts.

One of these things is not like the other

The statements the man in this panel makes are not actually parallel, even though he apparently thinks they are. In all the original statements, he tells the woman about cool security features. His last statement, though, is very different. If he had said “carrying a can of mace with you can be handy if you find yourself assaulted” or “it’s a good idea to have a friend call and check up on you the morning after a first date, just to make sure you’re okay” then yes, it would be parallel to the rest and I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But that’s not what he does.

If you want to avoid being raped, you should not dress like a slut.

Let’s compare. When he was talking about cars, he talked about this handy new mechanical thing and said it was “a great theft deterrent.” Did he say “if you want to avoid having your car stolen, you better buy this handy new mechanical thing”? No. He didn’t.

I know you want male attention, but when you seek it out by dressing a certain way, you can’t control whose attention you’re attracting – rapists or decent guys.”

Let’s compare this with the car statement again. Did he say “if you don’t buy one of these handy mechanical theft deterrent things, well, you can’t control the fact that your unprotected car will attract thieves.” No. He didn’t.

This might seem like a nitpic, but turns in language like this do matter. With his statement he’s placing the onus for not getting raped on the woman in a way that he does not place the onus on the woman when it comes to not having a car stolen. In other words, these statements are not parallel.

Two more quick notes regarding wording:

First, his use of the word “slut” is an automatic turnoff. Seriously. I am so over the virgin/slut dichotomy. Hows about letting women exercise control over their own bodies and make their own decisions without throwing around derisive terms, huh? All slut technically means is “someone who is sexually permissive” but it’s generally used in a negative way to target sexually permissive women as something unacceptable or undeserving of respect or normal courtesies and legal rights. Do we have a parallel word for men who are “sexually promiscuous?” No? Why ever not? Oh, that’s right. Promiscuous men are “jocks,” to be respected and looked up to, but promiscuous women are “sluts,” to be demeaned and looked down on. Ugh, there’s just too much in this for me to unpack right now. The point is, you can’t use the word slut the way he does and then act all innocent like “what did I ever do to upset you?” Not going to fly.

Second, what’s with the assumption that we dress the way we do simply to attract male attention? I wear what I do in an effort to feel comfortable, and to feel more “me.” For instance, I started dressing more provocatively than my conservative upbringing after I was happily married, and I didn’t change out of a desire to attract male attention as much as out of a desire to feel confident and express myself. I find that the idea that women who dress in certain way must necessarily be doing so in an effort to get male attention, rather than because that’s their style or how they feel most comfortable, offensive.

“Rape Culture”

The cultural context surrounding the “doing X will help you avoid being raped” is totally different from the cultural context behind saying “you should always lock your car.” Let’s do a thought experiment, shall we?

Let’s imagine a culture in which people who leave their cars unlocked and then have them stolen are told it’s their own fault – they should have locked their cars! A culture in which people who park on the wrong side of town and have their cars stolen are told its their own fault – they shouldn’t have parked in that area of town! A culture in which people who give someone a ride in their cars and then have them stolen are told its their fault – they never should have let someone into their car in the first place. By leaving their cars unlocked, or parking on the wrong side of town, or letting someone else have a ride, they were asking for their cars to be stolen! But at the same time, in this culture, locking your car or parking on the good side of town or never giving someone a ride does not actually guarantee that you won’t have your car stolen. In fact, doing all those things doesn’t necessarily lessen your risk of having your car stolen. Locked cars parked on the right side of town by people who never give others rides, it turns out, are stolen with no less frequency.

In this culture people who steal cars are frequently let off the hook because, well, the owners of those cars shouldn’t have left their cars unlocked. Or shouldn’t have parked on the wrong side of town. Or shouldn’t have been in the habit of giving people rides. In this culture people who never give rides, never leave their cars unlocked, and never park on the wrong side of town and then have their cars stolen are afraid to admit they had a car stolen for fear of being told it was their fault anyway – and because they’ve internalized the idea that it was their fault, somehow. In this culture locking your car doesn’t actually guarantee that it will not be stolen (or even limit the risk), but instead simply means that if it is stolen you have a greater chance of being viewed as a “legitimate” victim of car theft. Unless, of course, you parked that locked car on the wrong street. Or gave people rides. Then you were clearly asking for your car to be stolen whether you locked it or not. In this culture when you call the police to tell them that your car was stolen, the first thing you’re asked is “did you leave it unlocked? Where did you park? Have you ever given someone a ride in your car?”

Now, imagine living within this culture and hearing someone say “make sure to lock your car, or else it might just get stolen.” Perhaps you had a car stolen at one point, and never reported it because you had left it unlocked and correctly realized the police would just dismiss your report because of that. When you hear this statement, what you hear is “yes, it really was your fault.” Someone else living in this culture, someone who has stolen a couple of unlocked cars, hears “yep, I didn’t do anything wrong, they were only getting their just deserts for leaving their cars unlocked.” Others hear “people who leave their cars unlocked shouldn’t be surprised if they’re stolen because they’re asking for it.” People in the jury of a trial of a suspected car thief hear “it’s only natural that he stole that car because, after all, it was unlocked.”

And remember that, even with all this, locking your car, or parking in the right place, or never giving rides, does not actually lower your risk of having your car stolen. Trying to convince people to lock their cars, or park in the right areas of town, doesn’t do squat to fix the problem, which is that people are freaking stealing cars. Instead, all it does is contribute to a culture in which people stealing cars get off the hook and the victims of car theft are themselves unjustly blamed.

In other words, the surrounding cultural context matters.

And if you’ve always wondered what was meant by the phrase “rape culture,” well, I think the above paragraphs are a good starting point – though I should note that any analogy only goes so far, and when we’re talking about rape we’re talking about women’s bodies, not an external possession like a car.

[Edit: Several commenters have pointed out flaws with my analogy given that in the real world locking your car does help prevent it from being stolen, but in rape culture, studies have found that what a woman wears actually does not affect her risk of being raped. The supposed “safety precautions,” you see, don’t actually do any good given that, for instance, the vast, vast majority of rape is committed by someone a woman knows. Mea culpa for the flawed analogy. For more, read the comments – there’s some seriously good stuff there!]

I’m running out of time here, but I want to mention two more things. First, doing XYZ does not automatically protect a woman from being raped. Rather, most women who are raped are raped by an acquaintance, and some rapists specifically prey on modestly dressed women. Second, all the emphasis on getting women to do XYZ risks sending the message that women who do not do XYZ are clearly “asking for it.” This means that a woman who doesn’t take all those precautions and ends up raped can end up blaming herself for what she did wrong. It also means that men can end up viewing a girl who is dressed provocatively and drinking too much as, well, “asking for it” and therefore fair game. And it means that society, yes, can talk about things like “legitimate” rape.

And you know what else? It means that the emphasis is taken off of consent and placed instead on what a woman has to do in order to avoid being raped. 

Additional thoughts?

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