When in Doubt, Blame the Victim

A cartoon from 1994 shows that ain’t nothing’s changed in a long while.

Victims of sexual assault know all about victim-blaming. Whenever a high profile case of rape or sexual assault hits the media, there are immediately people talking about how the woman (it’s almost always a woman) “was asking for it” by dressing “like a slut”, drinking too much, or hanging out in a disreputable bar. There’s so much wrong with this attitude that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m going to resort to a list, just to make sure I cover as much as I can:

  • First off, if we’re looking to blame someone for a rape, it might be a good idea to start with…the rapist. This should be obvious. But it bears repeating. You know what would end sexual assault? If people stopped sexually assaulting people. If there’s a woman wearing a mini-skirt, drinking tequila, and giving you the eye, here’s a hot tip to my fellow men out there: don’t sexually assault her!
  • Secondly, we need to be careful to distinguish between two very distinct things: causality, one the one hand, and culpability on the other. For example, it’d be totally rational to say “you know, any Jews in Europe in 1936 would have been really wise to just leave, if they could.” That’s obvious and uncontroversial. That’s just pointing out causality: Jews who left Europe would have avoided the Holocaust. But to argue that somehow any Jew who didn’t leave Europe was somehow to blame for what happened to them would be monstrous–and totally irrational. So it might in fact be true that certain behaviors may make women more or less likely to be victims of sexual assault (though as far as I know there’s no empirical evidence to suggest this) but this is totally irrelevant to the question of culpability. Even if a woman stripped down and ran through a frat party while snorting coke and chugging whiskey, she still wouldn’t deserve any unconsensual sexual contact. Period.
  • Third, this blaming the victim also distracts us from asking broader questions about sexism in our culture. While the media is paying a bunch of imbeciles to shout at each other about how short a woman’s skirt is allowed to be, the very same media companies are producing sitcoms, movies, and reality shows that portray women as inferior, submissive, unintelligent, sexually duplicitous, and hyper-sexualized objects. While no woman bears any culpability whatsoever for being raped, the media really probably do bear some responsibility for sexual assault in this country. People learn how to act from the media around them, and when sexual assault or domestic violence is normalized, that has a huge impact on how we interact with each other.

But blaming the victim is more than a way to shame the victims of sexual assault and deflect from the myriad ways in which our society promotes sexist and violent attitudes. Political, economic, and media elites don’t just blame the victims of sexual assault, they blame all victims, always and forever. Whether it’s welfare recipients, Palestinian refugees, the unemployed, Native Americans, or anyone else who’s ever gotten in the way of rich people getting more money, the victims of modern capitalism are not just beaten down, they’re lectured to by the very people who’re standing boot-to-throat with them.

This isn’t just arrogance or insensitivity, it’s an intentional strategy, akin to the political strategy behind contemporary Christian fundamentalism: re-phrame the debate to avoid actually talking about injustice. If people are busy arguing over whether a woman is to blame for being raped, then there can be no dialogue about how our society could combat sexism. If welfare recipients are cast as lazy, fraudulent drug-users, then elites can avoid any substantial discussion about the rapidly growing inequality in this country. If the unemployed are represented as lazy, or unskilled, or stupid, then no one will bring up the fact that our government intentionally keeps millions of people unemployed through the Fed’s monetary policy. If Palestinians, every last one of them–Christian and Muslim alike, women, men, children, the old, the young, the disabled, all of them–are portrayed as radical terrorists intent on murdering every Israeli they get their hands on, then the incredibly complex history of the region, the glaring injustice of Israel’s occupation, and the role that the US has played in backing that occupation, are all lost in the patriotic and self-righteous fury.

If we can recognize victim-blaming for what it is–a political tactic designed to keep the oppressed margianalized–then we can combat it. We have to remember that it’s not about responding to elites point by point–it’s about framing the conversation. Conservatives are expert in this, recognizing that their positions would never be popular enough to maintain support if people discussed them openly and directly. So no substantial issue is ever brought up, every debate is redirected into some superficial yelling match. Because they can win there, they can appeal to the lowest common denominator, they can talk about flags and eagles and 9/11, and they can manipulate enough people to get the job done. We have to take the conversation back, frame the issue in an honest way and talk about what really matters. In doing so, those of us who are Christians as well as leftists will not only be playing smart politics, but also emulating Jesus, who didn’t get bogged down in tired legalistic questions with the scribes or Pharisees, but talked boldly about justice and honesty, and was willing to pay the price for speaking the truth.

This also appeared on my open salon blog