The real problem with “victim blaming”.

I’m often uncomfortable with the reflexive reaction to “victim blaming” in sexual assault, because although I have a negative reaction to it myself, I think the now-automated Twitter response actually mistakes the nature of the problem. The problem isn’t that nobody ever locates any personal responsibility with the victims of other crimes – they do, and police campaigns about locking your car are not met with cries of outrage. The simple act of giving well-meant advice is not the problem. The problem is that locking your car is really easy, while implementing the type of advice people often give young women is actually impossible if you want to live anything like a normal life.

At various times in my life, especially after high profile rapes and murders, I’ve been told by young men with straight faces that I shouldn’t get drunk around men I don’t know and that I shouldn’t go out unless I have a “safe” way to get home. Let’s just contemplate what this would mean for me as an unmarried woman, shall we? Seriously. Let’s think about it. No drinking at bars, pubs, nightclubs, or most house parties. That’s what that actually means in practical terms. So… what? I can only consume alcohol in the safety of my own home or at a (female) friend’s house?

Thankfully, only drinking in my own house also handily solves the problem of getting home at night after socialising, since my options in Melbourne are walking (not safe), taxis (definitely not safe), public transport (stops at midnight), cycling (inadvisable while drunk), and driving (illegal while drunk). A magic carpet, maybe?

I have a theory about this stupid advice, which is actually the same theory I have about the internet feminist freakouts about “victim blaming” that end in the words “teach men not to rape”, as though a few sessions with a white board and a laser pointer would solve all Adrian Bailey’s problems.

My theory is this: it is deeply distressing to confront the reality that most women are at constant low risk of sexual assault, either by friends, relatives, partners, or strangers, and that there is actually very little that can be done about that in the short term. We may hope for and try to enact cultural change, and we do our best to “stay safe” while still living as full citizens with freedom of movement and association, but the next Adrian Bailey is out there somewhere. Even in a completely fascist legal system with life sentences for rape, arbitrary sexual assault would still happen.

This is a fact that mature adults need to learn to live with – we should do all we can to curb sexual assault and mitigate the harms it causes, but this will take decades of hard work, and even then, incidence will never fall to zero. Ill thought-out advice that assumes women could make minor behaviour modifications for major reductions in risk is simplistic and embarrassing, and indicates that the people offering it have not seriously confronted either the issue of sexual assault in our society, or the practical realities of women’s lives.


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