Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

The victims are not the problem

I have a confession to make. While following coverage of the horrific gang rape and murder in Delhi, which included shocking statistics showing this was part of a wider culture (a rape reported on average every 18 hours; reported rape cases rose nearly 17% between 2007 and 2011; between December 16 and January 4, 2012, of the 501 harassments and 64 rapes reported, only four were followed up by the Delhi police), I allowed myself to feel a tiny bit smug. A tiny bit superior.

When I read that one of the assailant’s lawyers, Manohar Lal Sharma, said the victims were responsible for the assault because they shouldn’t have been on the streets at night as an unmarried couple, and that he had not seen ‘a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady’, that ‘even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect’, I allowed my smugness to grow. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘we’re more enlightened in this country. Thank God we have a more effective legal system and a society that has progressed beyond such thinking.’

How humbling, then, how disillusioning to read comments like Mark Williams’ Tweet about the brutal rape in Walthamstow:

‘The story about the 12yr girl being raped in London in early hours of Sunday morning is horrific. But what was she doing out at that time?’

Should we look into the victim’s family background to ascertain whether she was also the victim of neglect? Yes. Should politicians take this as a cue to look at the area itself and examine underlying socioeconomic problems? Absolutely. Is that the police’s top priority when investigating the crime of rape, or the media’s when reporting it? No. Categorically not.

Herein lies the problem. Comments like Mark’s may not be made with any malicious intent, but they demonstrate a worrying tendency to automatically treat perpetrators and victims of crimes of a sexual nature differently than those in other crimes, and to focus attention on individual cases and any extenuating circumstances rather than admitting there may be a larger cultural pattern we need to address.

Why does it take so long for victims of abusers like Jimmy Savile to be believed? And why do so many victims feel it’s not even worth trying to speak up? Because of that tendency. ‘What’s wrong with this girl that she would say such a thing? Let us examine her psyche, her family, every corner of her life. She must be perverted, or disturbed, or at least unfortunate; she deserves our scrutiny, investigation, pity, judgement.’ If that’s the likely response to you finding the strength to report your traumatic experience – being given a label that adds to your feelings of powerlessness, humiliation and violation – the temptation to stay silent must be overwhelming.

Added to that is the social pressure evident in the (to put it mildly) misguided response of many observers to the vile online attacks on women such as Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Hadley Freeman and Grace Dent. Muddled apologists like Toby Young, strangely lacking in basic human empathy, seem unable to comprehend what these victims have suffered and that removing a few highly visible individuals does not make the problem go away. The problem is not the victims. The problem is the perpetrators and the culture that protects them.

From the ‘attention-seeking drama queens making a fuss’ school of thought comes the advice to stop engaging with the trolls, stop expressing opinions, stop daring to question your treatment. Again, this may not be intended maliciously; some commenters may truly believe that a) they are worlds away from the misogynistic trolls, and b) they are being clever, and wise, and helpful. They are not. That abusive behaviour will remain even if these high-profile victims depart; their presence and courageous campaigning simply shines a spotlight upon it.

Along with that misguided advice comes the grumbling about upsetting the status quo, altering the culture of Twitter, using police time and media attention to force changes. Yes, we shouldn’t make snap judgements, allow celebrity to dictate policy or make decisions purely out of emotional response and/or public pressure, but I do not believe that is the case here. In our society and in our legal system, we have already accepted that harassment is a crime, that rape is a crime, that threatening violence is a crime.

What this week’s events have demonstrated is that there are still people who are unclear on these points, particularly when there is a sexual and/or online dimension. So, a few clarifications: rape is not a playful Fifty Shades of Grey version of sex – it is an unwanted, forced physical assault; there is a human being behind every avatar, both those who abuse and comment and their subjects; and the behaviour on online forums should and will have real consequences, thanks to people who continue to speak out, no matter what it costs them.

But if the Toby Youngs of this world need any further assistance, I would advise following these simple rules:
1. If YOU were harassed, threatened, assaulted or horribly violated in this way, would you like us to ponder the philosophy of free speech or slowly debate the merits of your case while constantly, patronisingly questioning your right to speak, move, dress, respond and seek justice, or would you prefer we focus on your attackers?
2. If someone YOU cared about, a family member, spouse, lover, friend, was harassed, threatened, assaulted or horribly violated in this way, would you like us to ponder the philosophy of free speech or slowly debate the merits of their case while constantly, patronisingly questioning their right to speak, move, dress, respond and seek justice, or would you prefer we focus on their attackers?

Yes, we could ask what we can learn from a case where a 12-year-old girl was alone in the streets of Walthamstow late at night. Yes, we should look at the system of care that was far too easily abused by people like Jimmy Savile. Yes, we can ask searching questions about our relationship with a developing online world. But that’s for tomorrow. Today, our duty is to the victims.

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