Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

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.

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2 thoughts on “Victim blaming is not just about hurt feelings. It helps create more victims.

  • TheRealThunderChild says:

    Bloody brilliant. As clear as, and erudite summation of rape culture as I’m ever likely to read. Should be compulsory reading in schools. With an exam.
    My husband has a fetish regarding men in adverts, that they are portrayed as a *bufoonish* foil to a savvy woman,and that roles are rarlely reversed.
    I have to point out constantly, that when they are(such as in the Argos alien baby ads) the traits that are considered *femenine* are often exaggerated and grotesque, to the point where the misogyny is often more glaring than if the protagonist had remained *female*.
    I also have to point out , constantly, that women in all media images, are naked, or near naked, whatever the product.
    I mean, do I need to see a manicured hand provocatively rub the area just above the (very brief) bikini to know an SPF works, or see a flash of breast to know a shower cleaning product is effective at combatting lime scale?
    I have to point out that the message of all of this, through page three to just about every shampoo ad, is a near subliminal message that women’s bodies are not their own, and that anyone is entitled to do with them what they will.
    Which is rape culture.
    Which is FAR more insidious than a man portrayed as the occasional *clown* .

  • Hecuba says:

    This confirms what other feminist researchers have uncovered and that is how males who commit violence against women and girls always rationalise their supposed non-accountability. Males who sexually prey on women and girls are not victims of their supposed ‘uncontrollable male sexual feelings’ but make a decision to enact their male pseudo sex right to females. Furthermore these males do not live in a vacuum because they know their male created male supremacist system justifies/minimalises/excuses their sexual violence against women and girls.

    The fact is we live in a male supremacist system and one wherein men collectively hate/hold women and girls in contempt because their sex is female. Most men claim they don’t hate/hold women in contempt but mens’ actions speak louder than their words, because only a tiny minority of males recognise and accept women and girls are human rather existing to serve mens’ needs and mens’ demands.

    Diana Scully’s book Understanding (Male) Sexual Violence is about Scully’s examination of convicted males imprisoned for sexual crimes against women and girls. Most of these male felons all uttered the same male rational illogic claiming they were wrongly convicted because the female victim was accountable not them. The book is illuminating reading and provides evidence of how and why mens’ rape myths exist and how and why men continue to justify/excuse/deny their accountability regarding committing sexual violence against women and girls.

    Likewise Jeff Hearn, a pro-feminist academic worked for a long while with males convicted of having committed intimate male violence against their female partners and Hearn heard the same male minimalisation/rationalisations/excuses. For example, one convicted male felon claimed ‘I don’t hit women I just gave my woman a slap because she was out of line!’ Another convicted male claimed ‘I didn’t cause those physical injuries my wife suffered because it was the table which caused these injuries!’ The male had hit the woman with his fist causing her to fall on to edge of a glass table – yet the male claimed he wasn’t responsible!

    Another common illogical rationalisation men make is to claim ‘it is those men over there who are the real rapists not us respectable white, middle class family men!’ Men always claim ‘it is those men over there never us men over here’ all of which reinforces male denial and deflects attention away from the actions of these male predators.

    Sue Lees also investigated the rationalisations males make when they are charged with having committed sexual violence against women and girls and the same lies are uttered by these men to justify their actions.

    However, these mens’ lies and claims would not be widely accepted as ‘truths’ rather than lies if men did not collude and uphold mens’ pseudo right of sexual access to women and girls. Mens’ legal system was created to protect male pseudo sex right to female bodies and whilst some males are convicted of sexual violence against women, we need to recognise this is how male supremacist system operates. Men regulate other mens’ sexual violence which is why only what men believe is the most extreme act(s) of male sexual violence against women and girls is ‘real’ whereas so-called ‘mundane everyday male sexual violence against women and girls’ is not ‘real male sexual violence’ but just normal male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies.

    To gain a better understanding of how male supremacist system enforces and normalises male domination over women it is essential this book is read. ‘Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Womens’ Lives by Dee L.R. Graham et el provides in depth analysis of how men created institutions and structures which normalise mens’ claim their male myopic view of women is the supposedly ‘definitive human one’ not merely the male standpoint which neatly erases women’s lived experiences of having to survive in a male created women-hating society.

    The ‘anger management’ programmes which men created to supposedly help men who make the choice to commit violence against female partners/wives is another excellent method of providing the violent male with yet more rationalisations excusing/denying his accountability. ‘Anger management’ programmes do not work because they reinforce the lie men are not to blame for ‘losing control’ when in fact men are in control and this is what they are enacting when they subject women and girls to sexual;physical;psychological violence.

    I’ve yet to hear the claim from men that given men are ruled by their sexual organs and hence cannot be held accountable then the answer is for all males to be subjected to a 24/7 curfew wherein males can only associate with other males and thereby allowing women and girls to live their lives free from systemic and calculated male violence. Such an idea is ludicrous but it is no more ludicrous than mens’s claims ‘I am not a rapist because rapists are those men over there not us men over here.’ ‘Other men include non-white men; non European males; working class males; homosexuals in fact any male but the male perpetrator(s).