Shifting The Blame

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Yep – I’ve resurrected this blog from the outer, most cobwebby corners of the internet to talk about an issue that is incredibly close to my heart.

Yesterday, I tweeted the following in aid of Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week: “If I choose to walk home by myself, at 3am, and I get sexually assaulted – THAT IS NOT MY FAULT. That is, and always will be, the fault of the perpetrator. Let’s use this week to combat victim blaming and myths surrounding sexual assault“.

My tweets don’t normally get more than five or six likes, at best. This one got 858 likes and 191 retweets (and counting). Clearly, then, this is an issue that speaks to a great many people.

Needless to say, I also received a fair amount of online abuse (never fear, they’re all blocked) – “stupid girl” was one of the kinder responses (the remainder of which I’m not going to dedicate valuable word space to here). The troll like comments in themselves don’t bother me; there are plenty of deeply unhappy people out there who will lash out at any woman speaking her mind on the internet, and I don’t take it personally. What bothered me were the people who engaged with me in a rational, level-headed way; but who fundamentally believe that I am wrong in thinking that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to protect myself from sexual assault.

A few people have asked – out of genuine curiosity – exactly what I meant by this tweet, and so I’ve decided to answer all the questions in one fell swoop here. (Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert. The below is all my personal opinion, based off reading I have done and sexual consent courses I have taken part in.)

Let me be clear: I am not – I repeat, not – suggesting that we should all run round in the darkest alleyways we can find in the early hours of the morning, scantily clad, courting rapists and sexual abusers. I am not suggesting that we should all deliberately put ourselves in known dangerous situations just because we believe it’s our right. I myself would never do what I laid out in my tweet (not only because of the risk of sexual assault; there are myriad other reasons why that is an unsafe course of action). That was not the point of the tweet.

The tweet was a metaphor that I used to illustrate the societal myths that are so prevalent; a hypothetical situation demonstrating the need for us to shift the blame from the survivor of sexual assault to the assaulter themselves. We live in a culture that – should a woman get assaulted in this way (and I’m using a woman as an example here purely because it relates more closely to my own personal experience) – will ask e.g. a.) what was she doing walking down a dark alleyway on her own at night? and b.) what was she wearing?. Those are the wrong questions. We should be asking how, when, where and why a sexual predator came to be assaulting this woman; not asking what she could have done to prevent it.

A lot of people latched onto my mention of the “short skirt” in the initial tweet. I should add here that very few sexual assaults occur as a result of sexual attraction on the perpetrator’s part. Sexual assault is about asserting power over another human being; consequently, it makes absolutely no difference as to whether a woman is wearing a tank top and a miniskirt, or a tracksuit and a woolly hat. Neither is likely to increase nor diminish her risk of being assaulted. I threw in the “short skirt” element to highlight a prescient societal myth surrounding sexual assault, and all the trolls who responded to that only proved my point (thanks guys – you did my work for me!). The power element makes the questions of “what was she wearing”, or “why was she wearing that”, or “what did she expect to happen in that outfit” totally irrelevant; and yet these are questions we continue to ask.

Another issue with the clothing aspect of it all is that it implies that on some level I should be making it easier for the perpetrators to resist assaulting me, by desisting in wearing provocative clothing. Again, this isn’t the case, because it’s so rarely to do with sexual attraction; and that aside, it is not on me to make their lives easier. It’s on them not to assault me. End of.

I also want to add that I am not denying the risk exists, or that we shouldn’t try to keep ourselves safe as we do in many other areas of life. I am just saying that it is not for me to attempt to eliminate the risk posed to me by sexual predators; it is on them to eliminate that risk by altering their behaviour. I can already hear many people asking (e.g.): “If you didn’t bother to lock your door one night, and then you got burgled, you’d have to take responsibility for that, right?“. This is a hugely valid point, and one that I struggled to answer for a long time. But my questions for you, in that case, are: a.) Would you place the same value on your personal possessions as you do on your body? and b.) Does the act of locking your door at night equate to the constant vigilance (and emotional energy) involved in weighing up the relative risks of getting a taxi vs. walking home, or of carrying your keys in your hand as a precaution, or of crossing to the other side of the street when you see a shadowy figure coming towards you? Does locking your door at night to prevent burglary limit your freedom – freedom of e.g. dressing how you want, or walking where you want? Because if not, they’re not comparable.

It should not be up to me to protect myself from sexual assault. It should be up to the assaulters not to assault me in the first place. Until we accept this, significant societal progress will never be achieved in terms of challenging rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse. 

I am always really happy to discuss this; it’s a nuanced, sensitive issue and there are a lot of elements I haven’t covered here (capacity and/or freedom to consent; the fact that the dark alleyway scenario isn’t even the most prescient, given that most assaults tend to occur between two people already known to each other, often in a bedroom; and the ever-present issue of alcohol, which is something people love to bring up when placing the blame on the survivor). I’m still learning, and I’m not suggesting I’m an authority. And if I’m fundamentally wrong about any of the above, I am absolutely more than happy to be made aware of that – the last thing I want to do is spread misinformation! The purpose of this blog post was to explain in a bit more detail where I was coming from when I initially tweeted. And there’s the added bonus of resurrecting this blog, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time!

I’m going to close with the words of Chanel Miller (the woman who was raped by Brock Turner in 2015) as taken from her powerhouse memoir, Know My Name (2019): “Women are raised to work with dexterity, to keep their nimble fingers ready, their minds alert. It is her job to know how to handle the stream of bombs, how to kindly decline giving her number, how to move a hand from the bottom of her jeans, to turn down a drink. When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”

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