Victim-blaming: an all-pervading curse

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.

Stupid celebrities?

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.

‘Sluttish’ girls?

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.

‘Work-shy scroungers’?

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.

18 thoughts on “Victim-blaming: an all-pervading curse

  1. Where do you draw the line?
    Is the sign in the car park which reads “Have you locked your car?” an unacceptable manifestation of victim blaming.

    Should the inventors of the drug detecting nail varnish have said to themselves “Whilst this idea has the potential to prevent a small number of crimes the signal that it sends will merely strengthen the rape-culture that exists in our sciety and therefore I will not pursue it?”

    • I think it depends on who is giving the message and when. Reminding people on a notice to lock their car is okay. Howevedr5, I got very annoyed a number of years ago when the Police said that it was up to motorists to buy expensive alarm systems to protect their cars. The way he put it it sounded as though a car that that wasn’t equipped like a James Bond’s was asking to be stolen. With nude photos I think it is sensible now with the internet to caution people about having them taken. However, that in no way excuses people who abuse other people’s trust by posting photos which were taken on the basis that they were private.
      I think it is the timing of the message that makes the difference between urging sensible caution and victim blaming.

      • My view on anybody taking nude photos of themselves is only do it if you understand and accept that the likelihood is they will end up on the internet and be seen by your family and work colleagues, and that they will be ‘out there’ for the rest of your life and beyond.

        However, the person who shares them be it your 17 year old ex-boyfriend or a hacker looking to make money obviously bears the moral responsibility for the crime or breach of trust/invasion of privacy.

      • I was cautious about having nude photos taken of me 30 years ago – once taken it’s easy to lose control of them/the negatives (esp if taken by BF/GF who you later split with whether acrimonious or not) & you never know when they might reappear in your future. Perhaps at a time when they can do maximum damage to your life. A 19 year old friend of mine (in the late 80s) used to exchange letters with a young squaddie in the British Army and thought it would cheer him up to get a topless pic of her in her next letter. She got replies from a dozen of his mates thanking her for it. She trusted him to keep it to himself. He was 100% at fault for betraying that trust, yes. I would NOT have done what she did because I don’t (and didn’t then) trust people to that extent. I thought then, and still think now, that if you cannot deal with the potential fallout of something like that becoming public knowledge, if you will find it embarrassing or humiliating, then you need to think long and hard before you take that action. The nude pics issue – the people who stole the pics are 100% guilty of any crime (assuming they didn’t own the images – ie, were the photographer) and 100% guilty of a betrayal of trust regardless of crime. The subject of the pictures may have been naive, like my friend, but that’s still not a crime. While I might say to someone who told me they were considering sending nude pics to someone that they’re taking a risk (and list the risks, just in case they hadn’t realised), I would never tell someone who had already had such images stolen and broadcast that it was their own fault.

        As a mother I damned well told my offspring to take all precautions they can to keep themselves safe. I would rather my daughter (and son, for that matter) check her drinks, let someone know where she is/who she is with, plan exit strategies, learn a martial art to defend herself etc than sit back and say “That’s all just victim blaming” and pat myself on the back feeling self-righteous and vindicated if she does end up being raped that at least she was taught that it’s up to men to be told that rape is wrong/bad & that she shouldn’t have to do anything to look after heself. I get a really bad feeling from people who jump up and down about the idea of nail polish/beer mats that detect rohypnol etc. There’s a nasty undercurrent through it all that they want rape to not happen but would rather a young woman get raped than be taught to protect themselves from the minority of men who are evil slime.

        “We shouldn’t teach girls to protect themselves, we should teach boys not to rape.” No, we should be doing both. We should be teaching both that rape (and all forms of assault, sexual or otherwise) are wrong. We should be teaching both how to protect themselves from the bastards out there that would prey on them. It’s not victim blaming. Victim blaming is saying “It’s your own fault that this happened” – we do see that, we see it when a judge hands down a suspended sentence, or acquits because the victim was drunk/had a short skirt on/is a prostitute. It is telling the victim of any crime, after the event, it’s your fault this happened – which should NEVER be said to any victim of theft or betrayal of trust. But saying “First of all, protect yourself/family/home” especially as advice to our daughters (and sons) as they are going out into the world is NOT victim blaming.

        We should all be able to literally and metaphorically walk down the street stark naked (physically & emotionally) in complete safety from any harrassment, verbal or physical; without worrying about what anyone might say or do; without concern about someone with a camera; in a sure knowledge that we will be respected and that any protection is unnecessary. But, in our “civilised” society at the very least, we can’t. Not yet. And until we can we should not be castigated for teaching our youngsters how to take care of themselves.

  2. I’ve noticed this, not exclusively around the issue of women and sexual assault, but that’s way up there of course. There’s often an overt comparison with theft – someone actually said to me “If I left my car unlocked I’d deserve to have it stolen”.

    Well there’s the thing, isn’t it – nobody “deserves” to be a victim of crime, whatever the crime is. And actually, very often if you do leave something unlocked, or lose something valuable, etc, you find that not everyone is a potential criminal just waiting for someone to come along who “deserves” to be a victim; crime is 100% caused by the person who commits the offence.

    I’m actually not sure how we’ve slipped into this way of holding the victim partially to blame for the crime committed against them. I think we just have to combat it wherever we see it.

  3. > 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.

    You’ve defined the woman as a victim automatically. But by definition, preventing a crime means one is not a victim. And being able to easily prevent a crime and avoid becoming a victim is empowerment, and not some sort of affront or oppression, surely?

    > 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.

    But this is how we treat everybody else in society. Why should girls drinking in bars be treated any differently? Securing a mud hut from thieves was very difficult 5000 years ago, but now that technology has given everybody an affordable and easy method of deterring thieves (doors and windows with locks) we judge people who don’t use this technology as irresponsible, and hence in some way contributing to their own downfall when they go away for the weekend leaving their house unlocked and come back to find all of their stuff has been stolen.

    Some actions increase the likelihood of being raped and some actions decrease the likelihood of being raped. Logically, we would expect feminists – who claim rape is the worst thing ever (as bad as being murdered) – to actively embrace ANYTHING which might help to lower the chances of being raped.

    Yet this is so often not the case. And many feminists actively encourage and engage in behaviour which vastly increases the likelihood of being raped or sexually assaulted. It serves the feminist agenda to have as many women as possible in as much danger as possible (real or imagined, avoidable or not).

    Preventing or deterring rape (or better yet removing its root cause which is a violent and abusive upbringing) takes away the justification for modern feminism which is so heavily justified by feminism’s claim that we live in a ‘rape culture’. It is significant that feminism refuses to officially condemn violent parenting, and treats attempts to deter or avoid rape as a bad thing. Go figure….

    > 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’.

    That is an unhelpfully emotive way of phrasing it. Women who behave irresponsibly and recklessly are not literally ‘asking’ to be raped, but their behaviour is inviting it. All behaviour invites certain consequences. Being a young woman drinking in a bar or a party does not mean you should be exempt from the consequences of your chosen behaviour. Nobody else is.

    People who get drunk and then drive home are not ‘asking to crash’ but their behaviour is inviting a car crash. People who leave a candle unattended all night next to a net curtain are not ‘asking to have their house burned down’ but their behaviour is inviting it.

    Telling women they should NOT be pro-active in avoiding sexual assault and rape situations because it is ‘victim blaming’ simply encourages them to put themselves at unnecessary risk. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of instances of rape and sexual assault, which could have been avoided but weren’t because that would be ‘victim blaming’.

    This is all good news for feminism. Just as increased crime is good news for big government, increased rape is good for feminism. In fact feminism and big (socialised, intrusive) governments are two ends of the same stick. Both thrive on social dysfunction.. real, imaginary, overhyped, encouraged or manufactured.

    • I do understand your perspective – but I think you’re reading things into the post at aren’t there. For example, I’m certainly not telling women not to be pro-active in avoiding sexual assault – I’m questioning the idea of this kind of advice as paramount in dealing with rape, and asking what are the consequences of promoting and emphasising this kind of advice. The difference between the two may be subtle but it’s important. The idea, however, that you can compare crashing after drunk driving with being raped when drunk is pretty repellent, when you think about it, isn’t it?

      • > I’m questioning the idea of this kind of advice as paramount in dealing with rape

        The advice is not supposed to deal with rape as a social issue. It is just (part of) a strategy to reduce the chances of becoming rape victim. It is supposed to protect women, not reduce the number of rapists in the world…… just as locks on your door are supposed to protect your property, not reduce the number of thieves in the world.

        The only way to deal with the issue itself (ie reduce he number of rapists in the world) is to reduce the amount of violent, abusive and neglectful parenting in he world. Rapists are just repeating violence and abuse they suffered as children. 90% of mothers admit to still assaulting their children and children are most at risk of sexual abuse from women. If we stopped hitting and abusing our children rape (and most other violent crimes) would be virtually eliminated from society.

        > The idea, however, that you can compare crashing after drunk driving with being raped when drunk is pretty repellent, when you think about it, isn’t it?

        How so? Both are avoidable. Both are horrific experiences. Both place a burden on the rest of society (ie firemen, police, courts, counselling, medical care, the stress, worry, expenses of friends and family) – all of which was avoidable had the woman chosen to act more sensibly and responsibly.

        Just because rapists are bad people and rape is unpleasant does not make irresponsible and stupid behaviour any less irresponsible and stupid. It is sexist, belittling, disempowering and ultimately dangerous to give young women the message that they have – as young women – reduced agency, reduced control over their lives and reduced personal responsibility compared to everybody else. That is a form of ‘objectification’ (treating young women like china dolls). Treating women that way is fine if you are prepared to chaperone them when they go out, but if they are going to go out drinking on their own they need to behave like responsible adults if they want to stay safe …. just like everybody else has to.

      • > You’re talking as if “feminists” and “feminism” are a single hive mind

        At the very least all feminists must adhere to feminist theory, otherwise they (and the feminist movement as a whole) is exposed as no more than a ‘mob’ who do not adhere to any core principles.

        I judge the feminist movement – and thus feminists who claim to belong to that movement – by their most outspoken and celebrated authors, spokeswomen and activists (ie the ones approved of by feminists) as well as by the feminist movement’s achievements in influencing political policy and social attitudes and behaviour.

        Is that wrong to judge the feminist movement in those ways?

        If you (or anybody else) has issues with feminist theory and don’t like the achievements of the feminist movement in the political and social spheres, then maybe you are not a feminist…?

        > assure you nothing could be further from the truth.

        I agree with you that in the real world people who call themselves ‘feminists’ have wildly differing and contradictory stances and ideas about reality. In the end feminism DOES come across as just a ‘mob’ full of various factions all trying to use the feminist movement to gain power and influence, vent their hatred/ fear/ disrespect for men (and women) and demand free stuff and special treatment from men, from society at large and from government.

        I am aware that in this age the only requirement to ‘be’ a feminist (ie be accepted into the feminist movement) is to declare oneself a feminist (preferably in caps with lots of !!!!!! at the end).

        I am aware you don’t have to actually do (or not do) anything to be accepted into the movement. And there is really nothing a feminist can do or say which will get her (or him) thrown out of the movement either. For example, the recent remarks by the outspoken feminist professor who said the recent case of adult women staff having sex with underage boys at a detention facility was not rape because underage boys are able to give consent. She was not thrown out of the feminist movement for being such a blatant ‘rape apologist’. In fact feminists rallied around her, defended her from criticism and even made threats against those calling her out.

        But that is just an issue to do with recruitment policies and the lust for power (the more banner waving feminists there are in the world the more powerful the movement is as a vehicle for social and political change). It has nothing to do with actual feminist theory (ie the claim of deliberate and systematic oppression of women by men throughout history AKA the ‘patriarchy’ etc).

  4. No doubt there is a victim blaming culture around rape but Yewtree convictions showed that juries are perfectly capable of believing victims evidence when there was not a great deal of forensic evidence.

    So yes you have some good work there but you also have this bourgeoisie ‘blogocracy’ who it feels like are more interested in building colonies on Twitter than advancing equality. They seem wilfully cut off from society in a way that is very worrying for the future of activism. And suddenly there’s Farage hovering up votes.

    I’m non white so often see feminist arguments through that prism. If I walked in a ‘racist area’ (thankfully such things don’t exist really) and get attacked then yes, at some point, some it would not be victim blaming or whatever to see ‘why did you walk there?’. But as people above state it’s all about context and timing.

    Sadly leftie hysteria seems to have abandone context and timing for clickbait headlines.

  5. You’ve hit the nail right on the head! By perpetuating this notion that victims should be responsible for their assault/harassment because they should have been more careful and taken precautions, basically perpetuates an ideal that sheds most of the responsibility from the perpetrator! We are taught to assume the victim is lying or irresponsible and sympathise with the perpetrator because of this, especially in cases which the media reports focus on the clothes or inebriation of the victim and not on the fact that someone should not have taken advantage of that state. It’s sad to think we live in a world where far more people will go to jail for tax evasion than rape… and even they get longer sentences than those who have sexually assaulted.

  6. When the police carry out an investigation they create hypotheses as to what happened and then try to show that one or more of these are facts. It should work that they do an investigation before they create the hypotheses – which stands to reason. When my mum was killed on a road, however, the police created 4 hypotheses on the night of her death; these were (1) she was drunk and stumbled into the road (2) she misjudged the speed of the car (3) she didn’t look where she was going; and (4) the car didn’t see her because she was wearing dark clothing. There are no hypotheses regarding the driver – not one – yet the investigation had not begun – no forensic expert had yet to arrive at the scene – no witness statements had yet been taken. Yet the hypotheses were stuck. Victim Blaming? I think it’s endemic.

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