/ 19 May 2017

Stop victim-blaming. It’s perverse

University campuses are a hotbed of rape culture.
University campuses are a hotbed of rape culture.

“There is no such thing as a safe space in this country if you’re black and a woman and lesbian. You’re a walking coffin,” said a young lesbian activist at a roundtable conversation I was part of this past week.

Story after story of exclusion, marginalisation, violence and invisibility dovetailed the latest wave of public reports of violence against girls and women in this country.

I feel drained by it all. Yet my emotional fatigue is not and cannot be close to what it must be like to be a woman in this country.

The arbitrary fact of having a penis confers on me male privileges I did not choose. I am a beneficiary of a global history of misogyny. So I feel pathetic, quite frankly, to even express exasperation.

Women don’t even have the space to emote openly. I have more space than they do. We men get rewarded for showing empathy. I get positive feedback for being an ally of women in a world where the standards for affirming men are low.

The young woman activist, however, cannot even emote openly about her story of surviving misogyny without being policed.

“Why did she go back to his house after she met him at the club? What did she expect the man would do? It’s like putting candy in the room and leaving a child there and being surprised it eats the candy.” This is almost verbatim what a man said on my radio show on Tuesday in an orgy of gross victim-blaming.

This culture of victim-blaming is so insidious that even women participate in it. One older woman called into the same show and urged women who are raped not to walk away from the rapist but to help their rapist deal with “the wounds and anger” that cause them to rape.

She cited the example of a perpetrator who had been abandoned by his dad. His absent father had left the boy “wounded and angry”. The boy sexually assaulted a girl.

The woman then said the victim has a responsibility not to walk away but to help the perpetrator.

The level of perversity in this comment is horrific. It stems from a seemingly innocent motive, the desire to help stop that young rapist from raping more girls. But why the hell should a survivor of rape be held chiefly responsible for recovering the humanity of the monster who attacked her?

This is taking victim-blaming to a whole new level. It sends a message to girls and women that they are, first, responsible for being attacked and, second, that as punishment for their supposed irresponsibility of making boys and men rape them, they must also help to soothe their victim-rapist.

Yes, that is what this is about: calling perpetrators the victims and victims the perpetrators. It is a violent inversion of reality as the ultimate expression of hatred against women.

Rapists and murderers aren’t born criminal. I am not suggesting that we should refuse to make sense of the head space of rapists.

We must ask difficult questions about the underlying drivers of violence if we are to eliminate the gratuitous acts of violence in society.

It is critically important, however, that in trying to empathise with a perpetrator, who might also be a victim of a biography he did not choose, that we shield women from misplaced accusations of being partly or wholly responsible for being raped or murdered.

A woman going home with a man after meeting him at a club does not thereby consent to having her rights violated.

The idea that her rights are reduced if she does not predict that he will rape her and so walk away from him is one of the most toxic and common bits of bullshit we routinely reinforce in public and private discourse.

Instead of teaching girls and women how to avoid getting raped we need to instruct boys and men not to rape.

We can do this even while grappling with the terrible range of structural drivers behind this war against women: violent masculinities; poverty and inequality; absent fathers and broken families; inequality; an absence of role models and mentors; a dysfunctional criminal justice system that does not deter us.

But a horrible, broken, unjust world does not excuse rape even if it makes it more likely that people will lash out in violent ways as an expression of loss of power and hopelessness. We can grapple with the complexities of these factors that fuel and sustain rape culture while demanding that men behave.

The way to get this balance right is not to perpetuate the culture of victim-blaming.

No girl or woman has a duty to stop rape. Boys and men have a duty to stop hating, raping and murdering women. We do it. We must end it.

See “‘Not all men’ misses the point”