I talk about rape a lot, because stories about rape come up in the media a lot, and I currently work and study in the media. I also happen to be passionate about ending sexual violence, correcting rape myths, and tackling a rape culture that hurts predominantly women and girls (although I will battle for male survivors too, who have their own unique experiences of surviving sexual assault). Stories about rape often spark discussion and you can bet that someone, at some point, will probably try to point out the ‘other side of the story’, or something along those lines.
Generally, in my experience, this means explaining the ways and means in which a victim brought their assault upon themselves, by dressing or behaving a certain way, or going to certain places, or both. I’ve noticed that these come up most when the discussion is of a case in which a woman is the victim. Aside from the fact that there is absolutely NO correlation between what a woman wears and the likelihood of her being assaulted, just for a second imagine what kind of world it would be if we had to dress for the things that we wanted in order to ask for them. If we went to McDonalds, we would have to dress as a giant Chicken Legend with a mayo or salsa skirt to display our preference. Fucking absurd, right? Yep. I say this jokingly, but dressing a certain way does not equal consent. It baffles me that people still continue to make this leap. I have been harassed wearing a sexy dress at a club. I have been harassed wearing jeans and a jumper. I have had “fucking scrubber” shouted at me while I walked down the street in a thick coat, scarf, gloves and hat.
Recently, a friend told me about an unpleasant conversation she had with classmates at her university about footballer Adam Johnson. In using this example, I am not implying that this is a rape case. This case is still on-going. I use it because the response to it that my friend heard is a kind of victim-blaming commonly heard in response to many stories of harassment, sexual assault and rape. Johnson recently pleaded guilty to child grooming and one count of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl. My friend, being one of the only women in her class, was the only woman in this discussion. The men in her group rushed to the defence of the footballer with the claim that they were trying to ‘point out the other side of the story’. She was messaging him, they said. She must have lied about her age, they said. She was probably really persistent and forward; she will have been dressing in slutty clothes to make herself look older and sneaking in to posh clubs to meet him, they said.
It always amazes me how fiercely some people can argue a point with so much ferocious ignorance. Had any of these men read a single article on the Johnson case beyond the headline, they would have discovered that in the Whatsapp messages between Johnson and the girl, she tells him her age, not once, but several times. After finding out her age, he Googled the age of the consent. According to later news reports, the girl cried on being questioned by the court, claiming she had not mentioned instances of more serious sexual activity because she was worried about getting Johnson into more trouble and worried she wouldn’t be believed.
So what are you really saying when argue that a victim was ‘asking for it’? When you say this, you’re not really giving a ‘fair’ and ‘unbiased’ view. You’re not saying anything new that victims of sexual violence haven’t had to endure hearing before. You’re not playing ‘devil’s advocate’, or ‘just pointing out the other side’. You are victim blaming. You are both spreading, and contributing to the continuing existence of, rape myths that hurt victims and allow perpetrators to walk free. You are choosing not to believe a victim. You are silencing them. In this instance, I think, you are saying that you would rather blame a 15-year-old girl – legally, a child – for an assault done to her rather than apportion a single spoonful of responsibility to the adult – the grown man – in the situation, who knew her age, knew the age of consent, but went ahead with things anyway. Is this really how little we expect of men like Johnson? That we would blame a child for their wrongs?
This kind of victim-blaming is common. It contributes the sense in many victims that they have done wrong, or that they won’t be believed. To those who absolve the perpetrator of all responsibility and make him a helpless slave to his own sexual urges, and instead would tell a girl that she should change what she wears to make herself less appealing, I would say this. Can you imagine living in a world in which you feel too unsafe to wear certain clothes because there are those who would say that they invite violence, harm and sexual entitlement to your body? You probably can’t imagine having your freedom restricted in this absurd way. But, when talking about a case of sexual violence, if you say “she was asking for it”, you help to make this world a reality for so many others. Think before you speak. We cannot end rape culture if we continue to place the blame for rape at the victim’s door and not at the rapists’.