When I first read the news at Feministe that a full one-quarter of people surveyed in England and Wales said that a woman is fully or partly to blame for a rape if she wore sexy clothing, my first response was, as it should have been, complete and total dismay. It wasn’t surprise — no, I got over that a long time ago — but still, sadness, and the feeling that also always shows up, which says that maybe we really never will overcome this kind of victim-blaming.
But then I saw the actual chart, reproduced below, which shows the responses for each individual scenario given, and I changed my mind. I suddenly got optimistic.
Now, I need to be entirely clear that I’m not optimistic because I think this is good news. It’s not. It’s horrible news, and we should be furious about it. I want you to get angry, and get angry right now, if you somehow aren’t already. In fact, if you somehow end this post not pissed off at the findings, I’ve done something terribly wrong. That so many people still blame rape victims for the behavior of their rapists is utterly appalling, unforgivable, and needs to be changed immediately.
But the reason I’m optimistic is because looking at that chart, I believe that those minds can indeed be changed.
Allow me to explain. I don’t know if it’s just my brain, or the way that the human brain is wired in general, but when I see a chart, my mind is instantly drawn to the highest numbers. The highest numbers are, thankfully, housed in the “Should never be held responsible” column. The numbers are 72 and 84. And they represent “if she is out in public wearing sexy or revealing clothing” and “If she is out walking alone at night,” respectively. These same questions also have the very lowest values in the “Should be held responsible” column.
And something struck me about this immediately. It hit me that these two specific examples given are the two that have been most widely debunked in the media. And they’re the two that the feminist movement, individual feminists, and other social justice/anti-violence/gender equality-minded people have seemed to focus on first, and hammered home hardest since their movements began. It strikes me that we, and those before us, have worked so desperately on these two.
When reaching for an example to use to satirize rape apologists, what do we pull out? The short skirt, and walking in “that part of town.” We pull them out because they’re the most recognizable. And they’re the most recognizable because they’ve been worked on so ardently.
Take a look at the next highest number on the chart. It’s 62, in the “Should never be held responsible” column, and corresponds to “If she is drunk.” Now, that number, like the rest, is way too low. Way, way too low. But for the amount of times that I hear this rape apologist excuse made day in and day out, that drunk women really wanted it, and shouldn’t have been so drunk, and really said yes but are now using their drunkenness as a way to get out of a bad decision . . . it’s also a remarkable achievement. And you know what else? It seems to me to be the point most commonly hammered home by feminists today.
What I’m sayings is that for all of the anti-feminist backlash, and for all of the very real problems and horrific attitudes that still promote rape culture and are still much too prevalent, our movement is working. Think about which feminist arguments are made most commonly against rape apologism in the media. And look at the chart. There’s a real and clear correlation there. And while of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, I have a really hard time believing it to be a coincidence.
What if we apply the same fervor that has been applied to the movement to not blame rape victims who were out alone at night, or dressed in revealing clothing, or drinking, and apply it also to the more “controversial” areas where we still see the most blame — and work on convincing people similarly that prostitutes are not to blame for their own rapes, either? Or that a lack of a “clear no” is not the same as a clear yes, and that enthusiastic consent needs to be the model?
I know that it won’t help rape victims right now. I know that at this moment, it especially doesn’t help those victims, like sex workers and others who are deemed unrapeable and most to blame just based on who they are, the color of their skin, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation. Right now, it likely doesn’t ease the pain or stigma of what those women who didn’t say no, or didn’t say no forcefully “enough” for some rape apologist out there, are feeling. Saying that if we work hard enough, we can make sure that future women who are victims of sexual violence have less stigma and blame attached to them might not mean a whole lot to some of those women. As one of those women, in fact, who falls into a category where most people apparently still think that I am to blame, I fully understand how it can be cold comfort that at least other rape victims who were wearing revealing clothing get a very slightly easier time. And I certainly don’t want to minimize what these results mean for women as we speak.
But still, I think that all of this counts for something. That at least some women are seen by fewer people as to blame for what was not their fault? That we can likely do the same for more women, and even more for the previous group? That hell, maybe we could even prevent more sexual violence in the process? That matters.
And I’m not saying that no one is doing the work I outlined above already. Organizations like SWOP and many others fight for sex worker rights every day, including the right to be free of violence and not blamed for it when it occurs. Feminists write about these things too. And I see feminists all the time arguing for models of enthusiastic consent — I do it here several times a week — and a new anthology (which yes, I am in) is entirely dedicated to the concept. We’re working on it, certainly.
We need to keep working. We need to work harder. Melissa at Shakesville says:
Sometimes it really feels like there aren’t enough teaspoons in the world for this shit.
But there are. We’ve just got to get people to pick ’em up.
She’s right. Maybe I’m in a pie in the sky kind of mood, unlikely though it may be. I don’t know. But I see the chart, and after feeling hopeless all I can do is believe that yes, we can do this. We just have to keep picking up the spoons, and get new people to pick up the spoons, and get ourselves bigger spoons. And far too slowly but still surely, we’ll see the numbers change.