With the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby scandals there has been a lot of talk about sexual violence, why we tend to turn a blind eye when a celebrity behaves badly, and why women don’t report these crimes.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think the last question is one of the most pressing and puzzling, and one that I can shine some light on.
Looking at the statistics, we know that one out of every six women (in the US) is raped or faces attempted rape. So why aren’t thousands of women swarming police stations demanding justice? Why do we refuse to talk about it, share it, out our attackers from the hilltops or march in the streets?
Some do, and as we’ve seen in the news recently, they face seething backlash, accusations that they are lying, additional trauma while navigating the justice system, and the ever-present insinuation that they have done something wrong.
That’s all been discussed and debated. What I find the most shocking and disturbing is the big “I Told You So” that is set in motion from an early age.
Setting Victims Up for Failure
From the time we are old enough to understand, girls are told that if we are not careful we will be raped. We will be hurt. We will be taken advantage of, humiliated, used and abused by men if we are not careful.
We need our daddies and brothers to watch out for us.
We need to suck it up and accept that “boys will be boys.”
We need to watch our back when we go out at night.
We need to watch our drinks and each other when we are out with our friends.
We need to always, always be alert and aware to danger because if we do not, and we are not careful, we will get raped.
This sets us up for inevitable failure.
Be Careful. Avoid the Unavoidable.
Every day we are reminded that violence, and violence against women in particular, is normal and ubiquitous. That it is completely unavoidable.
Every day a new victim turns up. Women are routinely abused, brutalized and murdered as a regular part of our daily lives through the news, on CSI, in movies and games, jokes, advertisements and frat boy chants.
I once turned on TVO (which is a bit like the Ontario version of PBS) and within two minutes witnessed a woman violently beaten by her husband in an otherwise tame period piece. The frequency in which this kind of scenario is thrown into our consciousness is absolutely shocking.
And so, the violence isn’t shocking anymore. This unfortunately creates a sense that there is no escape from violence, real or imaginary.
Despite this persistent perception that women are constantly at risk of being victimized, and not likely to escape it, we still put the burden of responsibility on women to “be careful,” and to keep themselves out of danger.
With sexual assault, unlike with other crimes, we tend to question the victim before the attacker. For example, if someone is mugged, even if it’s in a high-crime area, people generally don’t ask questions like:
“Why were you out alone so late?”
“Why didn’t you protect yourself better?”
“Why didn’t you fight them off?”
“Why were you in that neighborhood anyway?”
“Were you out drinking?”
This is the problem. This is the “I Told You So.”
When we believe that violence against women is inevitable, and women choose to live our lives anyway, the implication is that we accept the risk. That we know what to expect, and should therefore not be surprised when bad things happen.
In other words, constant warnings that the world is a dangerous place effectively place the blame on victims for daring to exist in the world.
What Has to Change
Regardless of the precautions we take, one in six of us will still be victimized. And likely by someone we know. Because rape is something we are taught we must avoid at every turn, and is our responsibility to avoid, when it happens we are made to feel that we just weren’t careful enough.
We weren’t diligent enough. We failed to keep ourselves safe. We should have known better. We shouldn’t have let it happen.
Until it’s seen as something out of the ordinary, something outrageous and unthinkable, many women will not report rape.
Until we stop telling our daughters to watch out, and start telling our sons to watch themselves, many women will not report rape.
Until we recognize that most assaults are not perpetuated by ‘stranger danger,’ but most often by people that we know, trust, admire, and even love, many women will not report rape.
Until we remove the sense of sole responsibility, failure and shame from victims, many women will not report rape.