Victim Blaming: The Absurdity of Rape Justification

I remember the first time that I was made aware of victim blaming. It was before I knew that there was a term for it, before I knew rape statistics & facts for the society that was I growing up in. Honestly, it was before I even had a mature understanding of what exactly “rape” meant for the survivor of such an act, beyond knowing that it was real bad. When I was around 10 years old, I was watching a daytime talk show with my grandma. A young female was talking about how she had been raped and suddenly my grandma vehemently stated that the girl had been asking for it — dressing the way she was. I can still remember gaping at her, the otherwise most kind and caring person that I had ever known, and realizing that what she had just said was completely fucked up.

What is victim blaming?

Victim blaming occurs any time that the responsibility for the crime of rape/sexual assault is pushed onto the survivor or “victim,” instead of the rapist being held completely at fault. Whenever you have heard someone bring into question a survivor’s attire, sexual history, alcohol/drug consumption, or even the physical time & location of the attack, you have witnessed victim blaming. The sad truth is that this harmful behavior is everywhere, being spouted by the young and the old, male and female.

A 2010 UK survey, Wake Up to Rape, found that 56% of responders thought that “there are some circumstances where a person should accept responsibility” for being raped. Disturbingly, females were more apt to blame the victim than males were: 71% of women vs. 57% of men thought the victim was to blame if they got into bed with their perpetrator. Younger responders were also more harsh, with 20% of 18-24 year olds (vs. only 7% of 35-50 year olds) placing blame on the victim if they simply had a conversation with their perpetrator and accepted a drink from them at a bar.

What prominent rape cases have taught us over the years is that anyone can be blamed for their own rape. In the 1989 Glen Ridge rape trial, where a girl with cognitive disabilities was sexually assaulted with a baseball bat and broom handle, the perpetrators’ defense attorney tried to convince the jury that the victim was a sexually aggressive lolita. In 2011, the press found it necessary to report that an 11 year old girl, who had been gang raped by 18 males, was known to dress “older than her age” and “hang out with teenage boys.” And in 2012, individuals in their hometown and across the internet showed support for the Steubenville football players, bemoaning the loss of their athletic careers after they sexually assaulted a girl who was so intoxicated that there were jokes about her being dead.

The effects of victim blaming stretch far and wide. 

Victim blaming plays a major role in rape culture by insinuating that victims deserve what they get, and that perpetrators are put into positions where they “just can’t control themselves” — or shouldn’t be expected to. This has a harmful effect on everyone. Survivors of rape and sexual assault often internalize the blame. Men (although not the only gender to be rapists) are unfortunately reduced to a distrustful Neanderthal stereotype. And many individuals structure their lives around what feminist writer, Jessica Valenti, calls a “rape schedule.” (If you have ever considered buying rape protective clothing, taken a more populated or brightly lit route instead of the most direct, or avoided going somewhere alone for fear of being raped, you have lived by a “rape schedule.”)

By focusing on a victim’s “mistakes,” we ignore the importance of consent. Not teaching consent leads to beliefs like those expressed in a 1998 survey of Rhode Island students, where 62% of boys and 58% of girls in the 9th grade said that a person had the “right to sexual intercourse against their date’s consent if they have dated a long time.” It doesn’t matter if someone is completely naked, if they are a sex worker, if they have had several other sexual partners, if you have had sex with them in the past, or if they have changed their mind about having sex now. Sex without consent is rape — no matter what the victim did or didn’t do. Yet we still focus on teaching people how to avoid getting raped, not how to avoid raping.

Speak out against victim blaming!

Sometimes it seems that victim blaming occurs out of nothing more than meanness and one person/group’s sense of entitlement over another. However, victim blaming can also be seen as a misguided way that some people try to make sense of the world. It’s a classic example of the “Just-World Fallacy.” By insisting that the victim was doing something in order to deserve punishment, other people are able to separate themselves from that victim. This is how we get comments like, “I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped.” It’s a way for people to stay in denial that sexual assault could happen to anybody — including themselves.

According to RAINN, 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men will experience an attempted or completed rape. 73% of sexual assaults are committed by someone that the victim knows. Educate yourself! Recognize the ways that people commonly place blame on the victim, even when they are denying it. (Ex: “I’m not saying she/he deserved it, but…”) Some horrifying and depressing, but real, examples can be seen in the “Shit Everybody Says to Rape Victims” videos on Youtube (here and here). Familiarize yourself with the many analogies that people use to try and justify victim blaming, and learn how to refute them. A fantastic article to help with this has been prepared by the humanist organization, Nirmukta.

The next time that you hear someone engaging in victim blaming, speak up. If we don’t tolerate other violent crimes against our fellow humans, why would we make an excuse for sexual violence? Nobody deserves to be raped.

Enthusiastic Consent: Sexy & Necessary

According to RAINN’s website, 1 in 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. There is a sexual assault every 2 minutes in the US alone. When Yale frat boys enthusiastically chant “No means yes, yes means anal,” it’s no surprise that a recent UK study found that nearly 1/3 of students are not learning about consent in sex ed. (Imagine what that says about students in the US, where any sex education beyond abstinence is practically nonexistent.)

Consent is…

Sexual consent is when all persons involved in any sexual activity have voluntarily agreed to that activity. A consenting person is free of mind-altering substances, as well as manipulation or force from others. They have a full understanding of the situation and are old enough to legally agree to it. Consent can have limitations. A person may consent to oral sex but not intercourse, spanking but not if it leaves bruises. Consent can also be revoked at any time. Even if someone previously agreed to intercourse, but changes their mind mid-act. Even if you have been with your partner for years and have had sex hundreds of times.

There are two types of consent: verbal & nonverbal. Verbal consent is very explicit, using one’s words in order to remove doubt or confusion about the situation. In the most basic sense, this is telling someone else “I want to have sex with you.” However, even though communicating verbally is much more efficient, many of us rely on nonverbal cues during sexual activity. If you want to have sex with your partner, you may moan and unbutton their pants in order to make your intentions clear. But this can be a tricky situation, especially for new couples.

Consent is not…

Consent is not based off of assumptions. While writing this, I was reminded of an email forward from when I was a teenager that described what different kisses mean. According to the wisdom of the internet, a kiss on the stomach meant “I’m ready.” I don’t know about you, but kissing a guy’s stomach came long before I was ready to have sex! My point is that different people interpret actions in different ways. If you gauge your partner’s desire for one action (sex) by their enthusiasm for another action (undoing their pants), you make the mistake of assuming. In this example, your partner may be expecting petting, oral sex, or even just some pants-less time together.

Consent is not the absence of “no” or “stop.” An argument during the Steubenville rape case was that the victim never said no — even though she was intoxicated to the point that even her attackers described her as “like a dead body.” Anyone in their right mind can see that this is absurd. But people also refrain from saying “no” for plenty of reasons beyond being physically incapacitated. Peer pressure and a fear of rejection are just a couple of big influences, especially for young individuals. “Maybe” or “I guess so” also don’t count. If the person you are with seems to have some reservations about sexual activity, stop and have a more in-depth discussion about it. 

Despite what some believe, consent does not ruin the mood. It shows your partner that you are concerned for their comfort & pleasure. And what’s better than knowing that the person you are with truly wants to be with you?

My Challenge to You

The sad truth is, even if we know all of this and we aim for explicit consent, we get lazy sometimes — especially in long-term relationships. Therefore, my challenge is that you make an honest effort to give & get consent. I’m not saying that you have to explicitly ask for consent every time you kiss or touch your partner. You can discuss consent beforehand. The next time things are getting a little steamy, you can whisper in their ear what you’d like to do, or ask if they’d like for you to get a condom. If you’re shy, showing your consent nonverbally is still better than nothing — but take it beyond just “not saying no.” Remember: consent is an enthusiastic yes!