Ever since the Vancouver Slutwalk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about why society is so quick to blame victims for being sexually assaulted. I suppose that many people would attribute the tendency to sexism, and probably they wouldn’t be wrong. But discussion usually ends with that diagnosis, so it still leaves me wondering why.
Logic, of course, has nothing to do with this assignment of blame. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence make clear over and over, that what a woman wears has no correlation to how likely she is endure catcalls or face assaults. Whether a woman is wearing a baggy sweat suit or a mini-skirt and stilettos just doesn’t seem to affect her safety; if clothing did make a difference, then a niqab would be a sensible outfit.
So why is the idea that the victim is to blame so much a part of our culture?
Part of the reason may be that our modern industrial culture usually assumes that women are responsible for all forms of sexuality. Just as women are the ones supposed to be responsible for contraception, so they are assumed to be responsible for being assaulted. The fact that power is at least as important as sex in sexual assault is simply ignored.
But the main reason, I suspect, is connected to the middle-class perception of autonomy. Given the degree of comfort in technological society, middle-class, urban North Americans generally assume that they have complete control of their lives. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that life is so comfortable in our suburbs that many of us are well into our third or fourth decade before we personally encounter serious injury or death. That is why the September 11th attacks were so devastating in the US, even on the other side of the country – people were used to assuming that such violence could never happen so close to home.
In this shielded world view (which affects almost all North Americans, because middle-class values are the ones that the media mostly depicts), the first tendency when faced with a crime is to wonder what you (or the victim) could have done to avoid it. Assuming that wearing different clothes or that walking in a different part of town could have avoided the crime is a way to preserve the belief in autonomy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is often false.
Faced with the details of a sexual assault, assuming that certain actions can prevent them may be more comforting than the truth that these incidents are random and largely outside anyone’s control. And from there, it would only be a short step to blaming the victim for not following the practices that are supposed to ensure safety.
Never mind that these practices are as useful as carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. Perhaps psychologically, what matters is not so much whether the precautions work, but that believing in them helps preserve the illusion of autonomy.
Perhaps that is why, too, the victims are ostracized. Just as people who have been seriously hurt or lost someone close often find that friends expect them to get over their problems quickly and will drift away if they don’t, so a victim is shunned because they are living witnesses to the fact that our self-autonomy doesn’t exist. Only those who have seen enough of the randomness of the world to understand it are likely to stand by a victim, because no one else can understand their experience – and because, secretly, everyone else is afraid to see the illusion for what it is.
In other words, what I am suggesting is that blaming the victim is not just a matter of callousness or stereotyping. For some people, the assumption may simply be hiding the fear that something similar might happen to them.