Don’t Blame the Culprit!

An article on the ACLU blog this morning caught my attention, reporting that in Norristown, PA., the state has introduced legislation to force landlords to evict tenants if the police are summoned to their address. Such ‘nuisance ordinances’ might seem reasonable if your neighbour’s a drug dealer constantly getting raided – but what if your neighbour’s a victim of domestic violence?

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Pennsylvania is quite a scary state all told, really. Do you know someone is only guilty of rape if one or more of the following criteria has been met – (1) the victim was physically forced in a way “that would prevent resistance by a person of reasonable resolution”; (2) the victim was unconscious, (3) the victim was drugged, (4) the victim has a mental disability which rendered them incapable of consenting.

These might seem like reasonable critera – if you’re raped by a stranger in a dark alleyway. However, the chances of that happening are pretty slim. You’re much more likely to be raped by a friend or relative – by your spouse, even. You’re more likely to freeze up than fight back. And what if you are grabbed by a stranger in the street and that stranger has a gun? Unless you show the wounds to prove you fought back, the most they will charge your rapist with is assault. As you can probably guess, the maximum sentence for sexual assault is far lesser than a rape charge.

Essentially, the law says if you want to see the book thrown at your attacker, you need to risk your own life. But hey – if they kill you they’ll get a harsher sentence yet!

My point of course is not to be flippant but to prove that the law is an ass. PA law still takes into account whether or not the parties are married in cases of statutory rape (if he’s your husband you can’t say no, apparently…) and it’s hardly the only state to do so. Bad enough that all rape is not equal in the eyes of the law – and it should be; there is absolutely no just reason why it is not – but now you can end up homeless if your partner beats you? Seriously?

This is part of a wider trend that I’ve seen growing in recent years, and – I am afraid to say – it is a largely American phenomena.  I’m talking, of course, about victim-shaming.

There seems a general consensus – in public, between friends, enshrined in law – that if something bad happened to you, you must have allowed it to happen. This thinking hold that victims who freeze up during rape essentially permit sex. That women who get beaten by their husbands deserve to be kicked out of their houses. After all, it’s just inconsiderate of you to expect your neighbours to have to listen to you having your face panned in because Ricky had one too many again.

But let’s explore where that attitude comes from. Setting aside the breathless lack of compassion inherent in such thinking for a moment, what’s the underlying cause? There are, as with everything, a number of chains of logic to follow with each of these examples. Let’s take the first one; a girl getting raped by a stranger.

Ann gets raped in an alleyway by a young man of the same age who followed her when she left a party where they were both in attendance. That sounds like a plausible scenario, right? The kind of thing girls grow up getting warned about. When he grabs her, Ann freezes. She’s got a couple of scratches on her arms and legs where he tore her clothes but otherwise she’s (physically) unharmed.

Firstly, if that happened in Pennsylvania it wouldn’t count as rape. But how many people would blame Ann? She shouldn’t have left the party alone; she shouldn’t have drunk so much; she shouldn’t have walked down the dark alleyway; she should have fought back; she should have carried a rape alarm, or at least screamed bloody murder; she shouldn’t have worn such provocative clothes, or flirted with him at an earlier date, or… The list goes on.

None of those things – none of them – are a licence for anybody to commit a rape. A woman (or man, for that matter) should be free to dress how they damn well please and walk where they damn well want without fear of being assaulted; and if they are assaulted it is categorically not. their. fault.

There’s also another underlying premise lurking beneath all of the victim-blaming that is equally false and dangerous – the idea that every man is a potential rapist. I see this one bandied about all the time: that all a girl has to do is wear a skirt too short, or flirt too much, or appear in any way an easy target and the men will swarm like sharks, unable to restrain themselves.

This is the biggest pile of sloppy, steaming bullshit I have ever heard.

The thinking that says every man is a potential rapist – while degrading to men – also manages to both excuse the actual rapists while blaming the victims (who should have been prepared not to be raped…). It says that a man committing a rape is only doing what all men would do were women generally not so vigilant about ensuring they couldn’t get away with it. And if a woman isn’t vigilant when she knows she spends her life surrounded by men all straining against the ties of societal niceties to ravage her and she does something to provoke the inner animal which cannot be held accountable for its actions, then more fool her.

Essentially there is no such thing as a good man; only women capable of fending them off.

When I grew up I was taught that we are all thinking, reasoning human beings able to tell right from wrong and if we do something bad then we should be held accountable for it. That there is no excuse for what we do. Just the same as I don’t need everything in every room I enter to be nailed down to prevent me from stealing it – because I am intelligent enough to understand that stealing is bad; and moral enough not to do it anyway – nor do I need people to take measures to prevent me from raping every pretty girl I see.

There’s also the arrogance inherent in victim-shaming: the “I wouldn’t be so stupid” school of thought. It stands to reason, if all men are potential rapists and all women have to spend all their time subtly fending them off – by not flirting, being provocative, wearing sexy clothing, drinking or going anywhere alone, particularly after dark – and some woman doesn’t manage to fend a man off, then she is less intelligent than all those hoards of women who have managed to get through their lives (so far) successfully not being raped.

The fact is, everyone’s got an opinion – “I’d have fought back” / “He wouldn’t have got far with me!” – but no-one knows how the hell they would react unless they were in that situation themselves. To pretend they do is as arrogant as it is ignorant.

It’s just as easy to say that no man would ever hit you; but I imagine if you asked every victim of domestic violence, none of them would say they’d have predicted they’d end up in that situation. And it’s very easy to say you’d leave but in reality walking away is usually a hell of a lot harder.

I prefer to live in a world where I view the majority of the people in it as fundamentally good. Where every man I meet isn’t thinking how best to assault me. And when bad things happen I prefer to live in a world where we punish the culprit, not the victim. Rather than blaming the girl who wore a skirt some may think was a tad too short, let’s blame the guy who couldn’t muster the self-control not to force himself on someone who clearly didn’t want his attention.

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