Victim blaming is not just about hurt feelings. It helps create more victims.
Perpetrators of any crime need to overcome barriers in order to do it. External barriers, such as a locked door or a victim's resistance; and internal barriers, such as their own discomfort with what they are doing, worries about the consequences, and understanding of social stigma. I want to talk about these barriers in sexual offending today, following on from a conversation with my esteemed hostess at @EVB_Now a wee while ago, because this is where I believe cultural attitudes to victims have a profound effect.
I'm a probation officer. It's a vital part of my job to try to understand why crimes are committed, through examining evidence and through talking to and assessing perpetrators. This assessment helps inform sentencing, parole decisions, and longer-term work to try to reduce the chance of re-offending. I have sat in a great many cheery little windowless rooms in prisons across the country talking to people about their lives and their actions, and trying to get at the thought process that underpins those actions. This piece is based on that experience.
My conversation with our hostess initially concerned the notion of planning in sexual offending. Especially where alcohol is concerned, sexual assaults and rapes are often characterised as impulsive decisions, a sudden rush of lust, a reaction to seeing a short skirt or tight t-shirt. What has continually struck me over the years at work is how often this is just not the case. There is a difference between opportunism and impulsivity: the vast majority of sexual offences I have dealt with have involved if not planning, then seeking the opportunity. Are they stalking darkened alleys with a knife and a balaclava thinking, "I am going to brutally rape someone tonight"? Hardly ever. Are they feeling a particularly strong sense of entitlement that night, a feeling that they deserve to have sex and it wouldn't be very fair of a woman to refuse? A lot of the time, yes, and it's not a coincidence that they find themselves loitering outside clubs where they might find drunk women, or visiting a friend they think has been giving them signals and might be up for it, for example. Where perpetrators insist an assault was actually consensual sexual contact, this impression of entitlement often comes over loud and strong.
This is where breaking down internal barriers to the act comes in. 99.9% of convicted sexual offenders I have met have loudly expressed the belief that rape/sexual assault/child sexual abuse is disgusting and wrong and that those who do it ought to be strung up, etc etc, to the point where I have a kind of internal Bullshit Bingo card built up for this kind of defensiveness and denial (a card I have often found myself ticking off whenever I venture below the line on articles about feminism online. Saying baldly that RAPE IS TERRIBLE means virtually nothing to me about your goodness these days, chaps). At the stage when I usually meet them, pre-sentence, perpetrators are often attempting to convince themselves and others in earnest that they are not one of those monsters.
Crucially, though, they also have to go through this rationalisation process in order to commit the offence in the first place. It may be less explicitly concerned with preconceptions of sexual offending than when these are brought to the fore after their conviction, but the process happens, and it is vital to their ability to act. Denial of wrongdoing post-conviction is not always a bad sign - quite the contrary, where it shows an awareness of the horrors of sexual offending and the impact on victims, and a desperate attempt to distance oneself from that. To not be 'that guy.' That's something we can work with in probation, and something that can break down quickly post-sentence. The dissonance might not be there in the first place, might not have contributed to their offending, if mainstream discourse on sex offending and the people who do it was different.
Looking at internal barriers tells us a lot about levels of premeditation: it shows us that individuals make decisions at a lot of stages before committing an offence, though they may seem unconnected at the time, decisions which they are responsible for. However, these choices are partly informed by a cultural context. This is what I understand by 'rape culture', a term I fear has lost its meaning and force through exactly the defensive, black-and-white view on things that I've been talking about. I think the dynamic also applies to a lot of 'hate crime' and domestic abuse. It is the enabling of further violent and sexual crimes through blaming of the victims, minimisation of the harm caused, and either excuses made for perpetrators and/or perpetrators reviled and demonised to the point where people don't think they have to worry about anything but wolves prowling in the night. And that they certainly don't have to worry about the impact of their own actions and words, of our media and the way it chooses to tell the stories of these crimes. Culture and media cannot be complicit in an isolated incident involving an irredeemably evil monster. The monster never laughed at sexist jokes in the pub after work, never nodded along when a comment was made about what a woman could expect wearing a dress like that or walking alone late at night, never read the Sun headline about a rape trial that has stuck with me since I saw it at the age of 12, "ROUGH SEX GAVE WIFE A THRILL". The monster doesn't engage with media and society, he's too busy sharpening his knives in his cave.
Victim blaming doesn't just let perpetrators off light - it enables and emboldens them. Much of the work to overcome internal, psychological barriers to offending is being done for them, and they are allowed or encouraged to see external barriers like victims' resistance as invalid or as part of normal sexual politics and gender relations.
I have framed this discussion in terms of male perpetrators and female victims, as that's what I overwhelmingly encounter and the models of gendered sexual behaviour that underpin such crimes are most prevalent and more widely accepted. The passive/active conception of female/male sexual interactions, for example, is still something that's so deeply seated that it can be hard to even get people to acknowledge it exists - let alone that it allows some men to think unwanted sex is no more than a mild inconvenience for the passive vagina. Yeah, that one gets some blank expressions even at workshops with other practitioners in my field. But I think the cultural dynamic I've tried to elucidate can certainly apply in other perpetrator profiles too: for example, with stereotypes of masculine sexuality used to excuse male perpetrators and then to mock or discredit their male victims in the next breath.
This is why I think EVB's work to challenge attitudes and media reporting of sexual offending and domestic violence is so important. It's not about semantics, pedantry and hurt feelings - it's about changing a culture that enables and excuses great harm, and ultimately about making us all safer. I'm proud to support them.Download this post as PDF? Click here