To do this, we must ask ourselves difficult questions like:
- Why do women continue to have the prevention discussion when it puts an unfair burden on them?
- Why do we take on the responsibility for preventing rape when the responsibility really belongs on men not to rape?
- Why do we criticize and stigmatize other women for their choices?
- Why do we look at a victim and try to find a way to blame her?
For that matter, why don’t we ever stop to see that we may have been in similar positions in our past although with a different outcome? It doesn’t take a mental gymnast to do this. It’s just a series of simple questions…
1. Have you ever been in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
2. Have you ever been alone with a member of the opposite sex?
3. Have you ever consumed alcohol in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
4. If you answered yes to all the previous questions, were you raped in that situation?
Most people can probably answer yes to questions 1-3, while answering no to question 4. Yet, one common criticisms we hear is that a victim drank too much alcohol, leaving herself vulnerable in the wrong situation. Well-meaning experts will suggest that women not drink in excess around people they don’t know or trust. Still, this warning contradicts the vast majority of experiences that women have. Rape is the anomaly, not the rule. Why do we still hold rape victims to a standard that we, ourselves, do not live up to?
One answer is self-preservation. In order to get out of bed and face the world every day, we must have some sense of safety. We can build our sense of safety by mentally checking off behaviors that we see resulting in negative consequences. I will not touch hot burner on the stove because I once burnt myself. I will not go around railroad signals to beat a train because I saw the pictures of resulting collisions in driver’s ed. We tell ourselves we won’t get hurt if we follow all of these rules. We tell ourselves that we are in control of our fate. The same is true of rape.
It’s tempting to think that if I can figure out what a rape victim did “wrong,” then I can protect myself from that crime. I tell myself that I will never make the same mistakes, so I will never be raped. That way, I can go out and face the day without fearing for my personal safety when in the presence of any man. The fact is, though, this mental checklist does not protect you. Women can do everything “right” and still get raped.
Even women who have been raped fall victim to this mental accounting. They examine their own situation for some thing they can latch on to- something to which they can attribute the negative consequences. That way, if they just avoid that behavior or situation in the future and they will never be victimized in the same way. Victims blame themselves so they can feel a sense of control over their future. Control has been taken away by the rapist and the victim is willing to do almost anything to get that sense of control back- even to blame herself for her victimization.
As women and as human beings, it is difficult to accept that we are not in control. Rape, however, is a crime in which we are not in control. The only person in control of the situation is the rapist. He chooses to whether to rape or not. With that power comes the ultimate responsibility and ultimate blame. It is not the woman’s fault that she was victimized, but it’s understandable that she might blame herself so she can get back some sense of control. With rape victims, it is a difficult process to navigate self-blame, victim-blaming in society, and her ultimate powerlessness over her body and safety during the crime. That is why agencies exist to meet the myriad needs of rape victims.
For the rest of us, we need to learn to accept or refuse responsibility as is appropriate. I must take responsibility for not touching a hot burner. It is my hand and I choose where I put it. I must take responsibility for not trying to beat a train. It is my car and I choose not to cross the tracks when a train is coming. I cannot, however, prevent myself from being raped and if I am raped, it is not my fault.
To blame a victim is a natural method of coping with the threat of victimization. Thus, we must make a concerted, conscious effort to question out assumptions about blame or guilt. It requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves. As women, we must lead the way in refusing to accept blame for what a criminal chooses to do to us. However, we cannot simultaneously ask men to take responsibility for preventing rape while we blame a woman for her actions before a rape so we can feel safer. We must decide to hold rapists solely accountable for their actions, even if it means our world is more uncertain or more dangerous than we would like.
Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services