Something has struck me about a whole range of different recent stories, covering many of the different things that I’m interested in: the tendency for the victims to be blamed. I’ve seen it in tech stories, in legal stories, and above all in political stories. It’s often implicit rather than explicit, and often it seems as though the people doing it don’t even realise that they’re doing it – I’ve been attacked for even suggesting it on some occasions – but it has deeply negative consequences, some of which we don’t even notice.
When Jennifer Lawrence’s naked photos were hacked and leaked onto the Internet, along with those of a number of other celebrities, there were many reactions, some good, some bad. Two, however, had close connections to victim-blaming. The first was the idea that anyone who takes naked pictures of themselves, or allows those pictures to be taken, only has themself to blame if those pictures are leaked. The second was that anyone who puts unencrypted information onto any cloud-based server only has themself to blame if their data is stolen. In both cases the victim-blaming is pretty direct. It’s your fault for having the photos, and your fault you didn’t upload them securely enough. Serves you right.
A little earlier was the story about inventors developing ‘rape prevention nail varnish‘, so that girls and women can dip their fingers into drinks to see if their drinks have been spiked with ‘date rape drugs’. For many people this just sounded like a good idea – a piece of innovative technology, another tool in the armoury of ‘sensible’ girls and women. For me (and others) it wasn’t nearly so clear: it rang alarm bells of implicit victim blaming.
The victim-blaming here is much less direct – but it works at a number of levels. Firstly, it’s putting the emphasis on what the victim could do to prevent the crime – and hence, at least in part, holding them responsible for that crime. Secondly, by adding to the armoury of tools for ‘sensible’ girls and women it could be used to suggest that any girl or woman who doesn’t use it is not being ‘sensible’, and hence is in some way contributing to their own downfall. It’s not such a huge step from that to the idea that girls and women who don’t do everything possible are in some way ‘asking for it’. They’re sluts. They deserve what they get – and don’t deserve our respect and support when they get it. It’s an attitude that pervades our media in a hideous way – the front pages of the tabloids over the summer, showing ‘scandalous’ behaviour by British youngsters (mostly girls) in places like Magaluf are just the tip of the iceberg. From most accounts that’s the kind of attitude that contributed to at least some of the failures of the authorities to deal with the hideous evens in Rotherham. They weren’t the sort of ‘deserving’ victims that the authorities should be putting all their efforts into protecting.
Perhaps the most common example of victim-blaming of them all is with the current attitude to people on benefits in this country – the regular suggestion, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, that people who are poor, people who are on benefits, are essentially responsible for their own fates. The latest manifestation of this is Esther McVey’s newly announced psychological ‘attitude tests’ for unemployed people, to see whether they’re ‘resistant’ to work. This is pretty direct: the suggestion is that the reason for people’s unemployment is their attitude to work. If only they had a better attitude, they wouldn’t be unemployed.
Of course this isn’t a rare attitude in relation to benefits – indeed, it might well be the most common. The ‘striver/scrounger’ agenda has been pushed very strongly by almost all the political parties in the UK for the last few years, with almost no alternative presented let alone supported. It stretched to almost all areas: poor people are poor, according to this analysis, because they’re ‘work-shy’, Their kids are hungry because they’re not good enough at managing their budgets, or because they waste their money on flat screen TVs, junk food and binge drinking (which also makes their girls ‘sluttish’ of course). Their health is poor because of their bad life-style choices. Those who are disabled brought it upon themselves – or they’re lying about their disability to start with, because they’re work-shy and are looking for excuses. For all these reasons, they’re to blame, and they don’t deserve anything. It’s their own fault.
Being sensible – and taking precautions
In each of these cases – and in many others – it all looks very ‘sensible’. Of course we should all use more secure online services. Of course we should understand and use encryption. ‘Of course’ we should think about whether it’s a good idea to take a naked picture of ourselves. Of course tools like ‘rape prevention nail varnish’ are helpful. ‘Of course’ it would be helpful to unemployed people to see if they have psychological issues that make it harder for them to find jobs – but we should also understand the messages here, and think a bit more about what those messages mean.
It’s a very short step from saying ‘please take precautions’ to saying ‘those people who don’t take all precautions necessary only have themselves to blame’. Indeed, the second is often the unspoken part of the first. From that, it’s a small step to saying that anyone who becomes a victim must have themselves to blame. Only stupid people have their photos leaked. Only sluttish girls get raped. Only work-shy people are ever unemployed. The more we emphasise the precautions, the easier it is to fall into this trap – and trap it is, because it’s completely false. Anyone can have their system hacked, their privacy invaded, their intimate information accessed. Anyone can get raped. Anyone can lose their job. It’s not their fault – but it’s all too easy for people to assume that it is. It’s all too easy for the people themselves to believe that it is their own fault.
Letting the real culprits off the hook
…and that has many more consequences. If it’s people’s own fault that things happen to them, then the real culprits get a free pass. The hackers who work so hard to break into private data to find people’s pictures. The people who spread those humiliating and damaging photos around the internet – and the people who seek them out and view them. The men putting the rape drugs into the women’s drinks – and then rape them. The bankers who crashed the economy – and the unscrupulous employers who pay peanuts and sack people at a moment’s notice. All the people who are really responsible – and changing whose behaviour would really make a difference – are given what amounts to a free ride. They may even be encouraged to do more – if those stupid celebrities do those stupid things, we’re doing a public service by exposing them. They deserve it.
…but they really don’t. More than that, who are we to judge what kind of photos people take of themselves, what kind of clothes they wear, what kind of places they go to to enjoy themselves? Jennifer Lawrence should feel free to take whatever photos she likes – and certainly shouldn’t be expected to learn to use what really are hideously user-unfriendly encryption systems. I have huge problems getting them to work myself! Women should feel free to go out and enjoy themselves without feeling that if they don’t behave perfectly, test every drink they’re offered, wear only the most modest clothing etc, then they’re fair game for any sexual predator. People should be able to expect employers to behave responsibly – and to pay a decent wage.
Until we stop putting the blame on the victims, things aren’t going to get better. Indeed, they’re likely to get worse. It’s a vicious circle – and we need to break it.