An opinion piece by Hillary Di Menna
We hate victims. If women didn’t want predatory sexual advances they wouldn’t welcome them through their behaviour and clothing; if a transgender person wanted to be taken seriously they would try harder to fit in; if someone is abused by their partner, they wouldn’t provoke it. I’m tired of this sad trend—the one in which it isn’t inherently oppressive social institutions being questioned, but the victims of them. Victim blaming is a lot easier than changing things. In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks says we need to focus on love and compassion, imagine the change that could happen if we spent more time caring and less time justifying oppressive violence?
There’s this socially constructed illusion of choice that everyone can succeed, monetarily and in earned respect, if they just work hard enough. However, as we know, that equality will never exist without equity; this pull your life up by the bootstraps mentality does no one any good. Rachel Fudge writes about this in her essay “Girl, Unconstructed” published in Bitch magazine’s 2006 collection Bitchfest. Fudge is critical of the Girl Power movement in contrast to the Riot Grrrl movement, zeroing in on the confusion between equality and equity: “[Girl Power] turns the struggle inward, depoliticizes and decontextualizes the cultural messages about gender and behaviour … If, as Ann Powers wrote so hopefully nearly a decade ago, girls are seen as ‘free agents,’ they have only themselves to blame for their failures.”
The all-about-personal-choices rational excuses crimes such as rape and forcing individuals to live in poverty. If you don’t want to get raped, don’t dress like a slut. If you don’t want to be attacked, carry a weapon and don’t walk outside after dark. Don’t have a baby if you want to succeed in your career. This messaging tells us there rules are to be followed—forget changes in accepted behaviour amongst genders and middle to upper class nepotism within the workplace. The rules women are expected to follow are especially highlighted by mainstream media, school dress codes, court rooms—and almost everybody—when it comes to sexual violence. The strong are survivors, victimhood is for the weak.
“Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability—it’s also about avoiding vulnerability,” Dr. Juliana Breines writes in a 2013 article for Psychology Today entitled ‘Why Do We Blame Victims?’ “The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.”
Bad girls are the ones that don’t follow the rules. They may have sex, be working class, be queer, have an addiction, live with mental-based illness and/or be a person of colour. In Canada, notably, the dehumanization of Aboriginal women also persists. Such as the 2015 case of Cindy Gladue, a sex worker who was brutally murdered, and whose alleged murderer was initially found not guilty until a recent appeal. Stephen Harper has said that Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women is not an epidemic and not on the Conservative’s radar. Our current government is doing no better.
Aboriginal women are dehumanized the same way other racialized women are when it comes to sexual violence. Black women must live with the hypersexualized Jezebel archetypes used to justify sexual violence because—so the horribly misogynistic and racist theory goes—being women of colour, they are inheritably hypersexual and animalistic. You’d be forgiven for thinking the only time powerful white folks seem to care about women of colour who are victims of sexual violence is when is when the crime is committed outside of western society.
For instance, horrific stories like this make western headlines: a 10-year-old girl living in Paraguay, was raped and impregnated by her stepfather, was denied her right to an abortion. That was undeniably a huge injustice. Nothing like that would happen in North America. Like, in 1988 when Stephen Friend, a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, said it is almost impossible for a woman to become pregnant through rape, because her body will “secrete a certain secretion, which has a tendency to kill sperm.” OK, that was three decades ago. Things must have changed. Yet only five years ago Republican Todd Akin said that from what he understands from doctors, “If it is legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
Akin apologized for his comments, but then retracted his apology in his 2014 paranoid titled book Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Faith and Freedom. Here in Canada, during the same year as Akin’s comments, Rob Ford’s niece, Krista Ford reiterated the rules for women in a tweet: “Stay alert, walk tall, carry mace, take self-defence classes & don’t dress like a whore. #DontBeAVictim #StreetSmart.” Her famous uncle is no better.
But even though media headlines and interviews with neighbours glorify the good girl—the straight-A, virginal, young, white girl—the courtroom does not award the same spot on the pedestal. Alice Sebold, author of Lucky and The Lovely Bones, was raped in 1981 and has fought inside and outside of the courtroom to prove this. In a 1989 piece for The New York Times, she writes about how not only did the justice system fail her but even her own father could not figure out how she was raped if she did not want to have sex: “When I was raped I lost my virginity and almost lost my life. I also discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and how safe I was.” As we see with Gladue’s case, 26 years later, not much has improved. In her book Men Explain Things To Me Rebecca Solnit writes, “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” How does a victim gain credibility when they live in a world that denies bad things happen to those that don’t deserve it?
“When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe,” Breines writes. “That no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable. The idea that misfortune can be random, striking anyone at any time, is a terrifying thought, and yet we are faced every day with evidence that it may be true.”
When I was 14 years old, I reported my rape to a nurse at a sexual health clinic. She told me, “We don’t use the word rape here.” Just two years later I was sitting in my high school office, where my vice principal, in response to my reporting a student threatening my sister and I, told me that he just likes me and maybe I should go on a date with him. Hey, boys will be boys. Kids can be cruel. And if we stop seeing the world in binary blacks and whites, good victims and bad victims, we may just see we have a lot of work to do.
An earlier version of this post can be found in Hillary Di Menna’s old column for This Magazine, ‘Gender Block’.
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