As a writer who likes to focus on news/current events, I’ve been a little dubious about delving into feminist discourse and engaging with those ideas. As I don’t personally identify as a feminist (I’ll write more about that in another post) I’ve found discussing the issues that relate to feminism quite difficult because so many people will quickly become offended and angry if you disagree with them, even if you don’t actually disagree with them as much as they think. However, I’ve been thinking and reading about this stuff for a while now and I think it’s time to get involved.
This is the first of a few social issues topics I’m going to be looking into, and for this article, I’m going to be looking at the concept of victim blaming.
I do believe the victim blaming does happen, but I think there’s a bit more to the concept than we tend to assume. As far as I’ve seen, a lot of people will automatically assume that if you were sexually assaulted you were drunk and provocative, and so some people think that not being drunk and provocative will ensure you’re not sexually harassed. And that’s just not the case.
One time I was coming home on a Sunday evening (around 7pm) after a shift at the Zoo. I was wearing a long red anorak type jumper and jeans, and I was tired and anti social as hell. And these dudes on the bus kept talking to me, and asking me where I was getting off and such, and then they tried to follow me home even though I barely engaged with them and told them multiple times I didn’t want to hang out with them. I’m not saying that is sexual assault because it’s not, but it is a form of harassment, and it’s not pleasant. Harassment happens a lot, and it can happen no matter what you’re wearing. People can also be assaulted in jeans, tracksuits, and conservative clothes.
Because of this, it can get really annoying when people assume every time you’re harassed it’s partly your fault. I understand the frustration behind it, but I do feel that to help people understand this a greater distinction needs to be made between the different situations that sexual harassment or assault could happen. People can be harassed and assaulted when they are drunk and semi-clothed, but that isn’t the only instance where it could happen. It can also happen in broad daylight, or on public transport, or when you are walking home from work. It can happen at random, it can happen to women regardless of their sexual history, and it is often not provoked or encouraged in any way.
I don’t feel the campaigns that went viral depicting acts of everyday sexual harassment went far enough because as far as I saw they didn’t mention young people under the age of 18, who are actually more likely to experience this kind of thing frequently, but I do believe that these campaigns were and are very important, and that is one part of feminism I could definitely get behind.
The backlash against safety precautions
The problem, as far as I can see, is that some people refuse to accept that there can be a difference between harassment or assault that occurs when the victim is drunk, unaware and vulnerable, and that which happens in other situations This difference doesn’t mean that one is worse or more justifiable than the other, but it is just a different discussion. For the rest of this article, I’m going to to be talking about assaults and crimes as relating to drunk, unaware victims.
There’s been a backlash against so-called victim blaming for quite a long time, and I’ve seen it focus quite a lot on safety adverts and warnings telling girls not to get too drunk and wander off alone. Some people believe this is avoiding the problem, that it doesn’t matter how drunk a girl is because she has a right to do whatever she wants and not have to worry about people taking advantage. Some people say that the focus should be on teaching boys not to rape, not teaching girls how not to be raped. And of course that’s true. People shouldn’t sexually assault other people, and people shouldn’t rape other people. Period. No ifs no buts.
The unfortunate truth is that some people do sexually harass, assault and even rape other people, and I don’t believe it’s something you can just educate away. I do believe they should include consent and when it is not possible for someone to consent in those obligatory ‘growing up’ classes they have at school. They should also talk about street harassment, and why boys should not harass girls who don’t want to interact with them. You can’t really teach social skills in a classroom, but perhaps some basics in body language and how to tell when someone is interested and when someone doesn’t want to be approached could help.
They should also talk about male victims in abusive relationships (in both homosexual and heterosexual pairings) and how that does exist because there is still a lot of misunderstanding and understanding about this issue, and I believe they should also educate both men and women about the dangers of getting too drunk. Because when you get really drunk, you are vulnerable. And some people might take advantage of you. Some people might hurt you. You could also hurt yourself.
Educating people about these issues is important, but I think this idea that you can ‘teach’ people not to be rapists, that all rapists are ‘confused’ as to what constitutes rape and what doesn’t, is quite naive. The consent lessons could help some people, but ultimately we are already taught as individuals within this society that crimes such as rape and sexual assault are bad. ‘Rape culture’ may refer to a society where rape victims find it hard to get justice because people will question their story and then a conviction is hard to come by, but by the reality of the crime, rape is not easy to prove in a lot of cases.
It often happens in secluded places without witnesses, if it is reported a few days, weeks, months or years after the event there will be little or no DNA evidence. It doesn’t mean rape isn’t a terrible thing and rapists shouldn’t be punished, but by the nature of the crime it is often very hard to achieve a conviction without substantial evidence, whether the judge personally believes the victim or not. A court of law has to remain unbiased until they receive enough evidence to tilt them one way or another whether they want to or not, and if they don’t get that evidence and there isn’t a confession it is very difficult for them to proceed. It is especially hard to make a conviction if the victim was intoxicated and therefore does not have a clear memory of the event, in the same way that it is harder to make a conviction several years after the event when the exact details may not be as clear.
A court of law has to remain unbiased until they receive enough evidence to tilt them one way or another whether they want to or not, and if they don’t get that evidence and there isn’t a confession it is very difficult for them to proceed. It is especially hard to make a conviction if the victim was intoxicated and therefore does not have a clear memory of the event, in the same way that it is harder to make a conviction several years after the event when the exact details may not be as clear.
I’m not saying it’s not a bad thing that so many rapists are never convicted, but I just don’t really know what the courts can change to make things better. They have to remain unbiased until they are given sufficient evidence, and if they don’t get that evidence whether they want to or not they can’t convict based on your version of events alone. I know it’s horrible, but I really don’t know what the solution is.
I have never been a fan of the term ‘rape culture’ because when people use it it seems to encompass anything from cat calling to penetrative rape. Whilst this isn’t always the case, I keep seeing people using examples of street harassment as examples of ‘rape culture’, and that doesn’t sit well. You cannot rape someone with your eyes or with your words. Catcalling and unwanted attention are not pleasant, it can be frightening and it has the potential to turn into an assault, but it in itself is not assault, and it is certainly not rape.
Sexual harassment is not pleasant. At best it is annoying, and at worse it is frightening. But someone trying to talk to you, whistle at you or get your phone number is NOT in the same category as penetrative or enveloping rape. The idea that a guy catcalling you is closely related to rape seems a bit ludicrous to me, and it definitely seems to undermine the experiences of rape survivors.Rape shouldn’t be a buzz word that’s thrown around to identify any form of sexual harassment or unwanted advances. Rape is rape, harassment is harassment. The distinction needs to be made.
You can’t just teach the problem away
It is common knowledge that theft, violence, murder, rape and pedophilia are all bad. We have laws against them, we have news stories about them which condemn the crimes and the perpetrators, and these crimes go against the ethics that most people at least pretend to live by in our society. This does not, however, stop some people from doing any of those things. To explain why any individual let alone multiple individuals murder, rape and abuse children is a job for trained psychologists and even then we may never fully understand, but I doubt the people who committed these heinous crimes wouldn’t have done so had they just had a consent class at a university or school that they may or may not have attended.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try, but I think it’s incredibly naive to say “well just teach them not to do bad things, don’t teach us to stop them.”. Because the world isn’t just magically going to ‘become nice’ someday. A lot of people are not going to do these things, but some will, and I don’t know if that will ever change. As we cannot read and police people’s minds, we don’t know what they are thinking. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they are going to become a murderer, a thief, a child molester or a rapist. You can’t lock someone up before they have committed a crime. So whilst we can and should talk about these issues and spread awareness about them, I don’t think we can ever ‘fix’ the entire population so no one ever does anything terrible to another person.
The importance of safety
Whilst not all sexual assaults happen when women are drunk and unaware, it can happen. It does happen. You should follow simple safety measures when going out, such as not leaving your drink unattended and trying to stay in a group if you’re going to get wasted because it’s safer. It doesn’t mean something will happen to you, and it certainly doesn’t mean it should happen to you. It also doesn’t mean something may not happen to you at another time, in another situation. But whilst you can’t protect yourself from everything, you should at least try to protect yourself where you can, and not put yourself in unnecessary danger regardless of the fact that that danger shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Sexual assault isn’t the only thing that could happen either. If you’re drunk and unaware you’re an easier target for muggings, you might get in a fight, you might lose your belongings and get stranded, and you could also injure yourself. Sexual assault is something you should try to protect yourself against, but it’s not the only thing. To say that women have the right to wander around off their faces at night and not have to take any precautions because nothing should happen to them isn’t that helpful because of course nothing should happen to them.
Of course it’s the attacker’s fault, not the woman’s. But something could still happen to them. Isn’t it better to not be alone or not be so drunk that you’re totally unaware in that situation? Of course you have the choice and the right to do what you want, but we do not live in a PG-rated violence free Utopia, and until such a fairy tale ending comes about we shouldn’t pretend that we do.
One could use this logic in other situations. What would you do if someone said it was wrong to tell children not to talk to or go off with strangers because the adult shouldn’t harm the child even if the child does engage with them, get into their car or go to their house. And no, of course they shouldn’t harm the child. But they might. Some people would. Of course it’s not a solution to the problem, and of course if something did happen it is never the child’s fault. But you’d still rather not risk anything happening to your child, and that is why you tell them to be careful or you don’t let them walk far on their own. Not because you’d blame them if something did happen to them, but because you want to prevent something happening to them in the first place.
As far as I can see, advising women to take simple safety precautions when they go out drinking isn’t an example of rape culture, it’s sensible advice. I guess you could argue that it’s sexist to assume that women need to use these precautions when men don’t, and in some ways I’d agree. Men may be less likely (although it’s definitely not impossible) to be sexually assaulted on a night out, but all the rest of the issues above still apply. I’d say the fact women are reportedly more likely to experience sexual violence than men, the fact that women tend to be smaller than men and are perceived to be less physically strong, and the fact that many may perceive them as an ‘easy target’ is why these campaigns tend to focus on women, but maybe we should be targeting men as well.
I do believe a degree of victim-blaming does happen in our society, but I feel our collective efforts are focused on the wrong thing. Statements like “instead of teaching women not to be drunk, let’s teach men not to rape them” are true, but they are also a little pointless because you can’t just teach someone not to be a rapist in the same way you cannot teach someone not to be a murderer or a thief. We should teach consent, we should emphasize the legal implications and as a society we should condemn them, but we can’t assume that everyone who does a bad thing simply ‘needs to be educated’ and that crime will go away. We need to accept that even though we shouldn’t have to, we still need to protect ourselves as much as we can, not just from sexual assault but from all the bad things that people can do to each other.