On Victim Blaming

Written by Liz Dolfi, one of Hollaback!’s freelance badasses (or, as some people call them, volunteers)

Many kinds of gender-based violence are still are part of our culture.  While tremendous progress has been made in women’s rights in the last century and many forms of violence against women are illegal, rape, domestic violence, and discrimination are still frequent occurrences. We condemn these things through our legal system and education and awareness programs, but resources for survivors are far from sufficient and many people still deal with shame and stigma after experiencing gender-based violence.  The various forms of street harassment that many people experience as a part of their daily lives are indicative of this culture.

Women in the United States are often raised to be deeply afraid of sexual assault in public places (despite the fact that you are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know), and as a result, most of the women I know go through a mental checklist before they leave their homes. Do I have a cell phone and mace? Does someone know where I will be? Can I afford a cab home or find someone to walk with?

Personally, I throw shapeless, baggy clothes on before I go outside, even on hot days because creeps on the subway seem to think that I get dressed for them in the morning.  I’ve woken up my partner and my roommate to walk me from the subway at 2:00am when I have gotten stuck with the late shift at my job. I won’t do laundry without a friend because of the lecherous men who sit on the stoop by the laundromat, spending the day groping and hollering at women. I peer into windows as the subway rolls into the station to make sure that I get into a car where other women are sitting.

I think that many people who experience street harassment frequently deeply internalize these compulsive attempts to keep ourselves safe. Some of us learn these behaviors through years of harassment, and some of us were raised with a deep sense that we are unsafe in public spaces and our parents spouted nonsense safety tips like “always have your keys in your hand when you are walking through a parking garage – you can use them as a weapon and get away quickly.”

I would like to think that some of the victim blaming that seems to occur every time someone shares a story about sexual assault or harassment is the result of the safety rituals we perform. When we hear than someone was assaulted when walking home alone at three am, our response is a horrified “what?! Why were you ALONE? And at 3am!!!”

This response is understandable, given how deeply we have internalized the idea that it is UNSAFE (picture that in five foot letters and orange flashing lights) to walk alone at three in the morning.  But, and listen carefully here because this is important, WE NEED TO CUT IT OUT.

Today, right now, everyone who thinks that street harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable needs to make a commitment to curb that culturally imprinted response and make sure that the first that thing comes out of our mouths when we hear about an incident of harassment or violence is “this is WRONG.”

Harassment and assault are the fault and the responsibility of the person who decided to treat the person they harassed or assaulted as less than human, end of story.

This is not about what we wear so we need to stop telling our stories by saying “I wasn’t even wearing anything cute,” “it isn’t as if I looked slutty” etc.  If I choose to walk down the street naked, that does not negate my rights over my own body or somehow imply that I am walking past you for the sake of your sexual satisfaction (I’m talking to you creepy Laundromat guys).  This is not about why we are on the street in the first place.  We need to stop staying “I was just trying to get to work” as if we need to justify our existence in public places. If I am a sex worker looking for consensual sex at a negotiated price, I am NOT asking for unwanted sexual advances and harassing me is unacceptable.

If we allow our own fears to shape the way that we talk about incidents of gender-based harassment in public places and sexual assault, we end up blaming victims, and ultimately ourselves, for something that is not our fault, and we encourage the people  who genuinely do blame the victim to continue to discuss these issues in that way.

So, I would like to recommend being careful with our language and ditching the qualifiers when describing assault and harassment as the official small feminist activist action of the day.  Let’s cut out the language that can imply victim-blaming and put blame where it is due.

3 responses to “On Victim Blaming

  1. Re this example cited by Liz Dolfi: If I am a sex worker looking for consensual sex at a negotiated price, I am NOT asking for unwanted sexual advances and harassing me is unacceptable.

    While I certainly agree with the basic premise that no one has the right to harass or threaten a woman (or anyone else, for that matter), I am sorry to see that the writer buys into the anti-feminist lie that prostitution is work like any other. There is no institution that better supports the presumption that any man is entitled to affirm his manhood by exploiting, abusing, and demeaning women as a class. The chances are very good that the stock response to a wman who dares to holla back to a man who yells insults at her in public is to be called a b-ch, a c-t , or a whore – all words meaning “prostitute.”

    Press reports on the finding of four corpses scattered near the beach in Babylon, NY refer to the body of a “prostitute,” not the body of a woman. Many headlines sexualize the murder of these people as a “Jack the Ripper” case, not as possibly the work of a serial killer.

    Since the writer is urging us to watch our language to avoid tivializing or dismissing sexual harassment as normal and something to be accepted or blamed on the victim of it, I would urge her and others to reject the lie that prostitution is “work” that “some” women freely choose without any societal coercion and not instead a choice men make to make themselves feel superior by dominating and subordinating a woman – the very act that Hollaback recognizes, when it is acted out in public, as deeply insulting and intimidating to the individual victim and to all women. Misogyny must be attacked at the root.

  2. @Twiss Butler

    People involved in sex work have a variety of experiences: some people are forced into sex work through violence and coercion, some people rely on sex work for survival (a situation where the notion of choice is complicated to say the least), and, yes, there are some individuals who have the privilege to be able to perform sex work because they choose it and sometimes they even find it empowering. My intention in this article was not to characterize sex work in general as ‘feminist’ or “work like any other.” While some forms of sex work could be characterized that way, this is certainly not the reality for all, or even most, sex workers, and the brutality and exploitation of the global sex trade should be a feminist concern. My point was simply that performing sex work (whether you choose it or not) does not make you less human. Sex workers are entitled to safety and respect in public places just like everyone else. It does not matter why you are on the street, what you are wearing, or whether it is the middle of the night or a Sunday afternoon – gender-based harassment in public places is not OK.

  3. Very well said. We do tend to blame women for what they were wearing or what time it was. The time does not matter because people have been stalked in daylight. It’s suprising for the media, but plenty of women can atest to that. We, women, are conditioned by the news reporters, newspapers, family members to constantly be on guard if we see or feel (in our intuition) that something is strange. We start avoiding people and places for our own safety, and it just creates unnecessary fear. We can’t get out of a train station with a calm state of mind. We have to walk fast while digging for the cell phone and the keys. I feel like men have it a little bit easier; although, I have heard stories that they were being looked at or followed by other men.

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