A college newspaper published an opinion piece claiming that women are responsible for being raped? It must be a day ending in Y.
Of late, there seem to have been a flood of victim blaming columns, articles, and commentaries not just in the student press but in the mainstream media, raising some interesting questions about what is going on socially. Are there really more of them? Are we just seeing them more? And why does society so doggedly insist on hating women at all costs?
The latest controversy over a victim-blaming column comes courtesy of “The Daily Campus,” put out by Southern Methodist University. The column’s author, Kirby Wiley, asserts that: “What is the common theme in the majority of sexual assault or rape cases on college campuses? Alcohol abuse...The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day. If women quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable, it will be much less likely for men to try and take advantage of them.”
She’s not alone in believing this. Dear Prudence said much the same thing at Slate recently, in a column that attracted considerable flak from readers infuriated at seeing an advice columnist doling out gems like “a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.”
These rape and alcohol columns all fall out among similar lines; at this point, you could practically use a template. Author (often female, as was the case with both of these) says that rape is a distressing problem, and that alcohol abuse often goes in hand with rape cases. Author suggests that solution to rape is encouraging young women to drink less. Author dismisses concerns about victim-blaming, arguing that young women need to learn to look out for themselves.
Sometimes the author is magnanimous enough to suggest that of course the perpetrators “share responsibility.”
I feel like I say this 100 times a week, but here it is again anyway: the only people responsible for rape are rapists. The solution to rape involves getting people to stop raping people, and that responsibility lies solely on the people who think it is acceptable to rape. And clearly we need to educate people about what rape is, and how they are complicit in it.
Many of these columnists talk about wanting to expand the conversation surrounding rape and sexual assault, and I actually agree, although not in the direction they seem to want to expand it. I want to talk about why young women are viewed as easy prey for rapists and what it says about us culturally that we insist on blaming women for being assaulted. I’d like to talk about why disabled people, trans women, sex workers, and people of color are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, what that says about our society, and why it is that their reports of sexual assault are often ignored and minimized.
I’d love to talk about the culture of masculinity in this country and why men feel so confident raping women. It’s not just the misogyny of columns like this, but a more complicated tangle of circumstances about what it means to be a man, and what sexuality looks like. Why aren’t we teaching men about enthusiastic consent? Why aren’t we teaching men that lack of “no” doesn’t mean yes, and that a woman who clearly isn’t in a mental state to make decisions can’t actually consent to sex?
The United States has a very conflicted and complicated relationship with sexuality; it’s a highly sexualized culture, but at the same time, it’s a culture bound up in shame about sexuality. Women aren’t supposed to be sexually assertive and confident, while men are evidently sex-driven monsters incapable of moderation. Men who have a different relationship to sexuality are viewed as suspect, creating an environment where there’s a heavy pressure to behave “like a man” when allegedly masculine behaviors often involve hurting people.
Frankly, many of these columns are really rather insulting to men, suggesting that they’re so out of control that they can’t help themselves when they see a drunk woman around. That women are just so tempting that they need to be responsible for keeping themselves in line, or men can’t behave responsibly around them; are we back in the 19th century? Should women cover their ankles to avoid giving men inadvertent boners when strolling in public?
Every time I see one of these “women are to blame for being raped Because Alcohol” columns, I grind my teeth. If there’s one thing about rape that’s apparent, everything is evidently a risk for rape: what it really boils down to is that looking like a woman (whether femme, butch, or beyond) is evidently grounds for rape, and how exactly are women supposed to protect themselves from looking like themselves?
Women are raped when they’re completely sober. When they’re out with friends or on dates with people they’re meeting for the first time. At the gym and among people they think they can trust. After dinner, by authority figures, in the office, on the train. What is the “common theme” in sexual assaults on campus and elsewhere?
Which means that rape prevention needs to start by targeting rapists, not their victims, and the media should be focusing on people who rape, not people who are raped. For every victim-blaming column comes another reminder that a woman should have done something, done more, done anything, to “protect herself” from something that was not her fault. Oddly enough, we live in a culture where many women feel extremely guilty over their rapes. Funny how that happens when women are taught that rape is about a woman’s personal responsibility, not about the responsibility of the person (usually a man) who raped her.
While talking about this this morning, Lesley asked me if I thought these kinds of columns are getting more frequent. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I do think a complex web of factors is drawing them to our attention more. For one thing, the internet has made it much easier to access and share content, which is how disgusting editorials published in relatively small campus newspapers can spread like wildfire across the nation.
For another, people are openly writing about and challenging this kind of rhetoric more and more, which means that every column spawns reams of responses, and there’s a very active community organized around fighting victim-blaming. Whether it’s police to tell women not to dress like sluts, advice columnists telling college women not to drink, or college students telling their peers that a giant media conspiracy is preventing discussions about alcohol and rape, there are people ready and willing to refute the claims being made.
The result is much more conversation around the issue of rape and responsibility, which inevitably leads me to ask if there’s been traction on shifting the narrative about responsibility. Are more people rethinking their stances on who is responsible for rape as a result of these discussions? Or are they taking place in an outraged echo chamber filled with people who already know that rapists are responsible for rape? Because if it’s the latter, these conversations are clearly not having the desired effect, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.