It was one of those really hot summer mornings we’ve had recently, and I decided to put on my white dress. It is airy, it is short and I feel good in it. Out on the streets, I didn’t have to wait too long for the first sexist comment, making me feel really uncomfortable. But what actually scared me most, was my own very first thought: “Well my dear, maybe you should have put on something else.”
“What’s wrong with me?” was my next thought. I was obviously blaming myself for a sexist comment I got from a random guy on the street. I was obviously thinking I would provoke sexist comments with my outfit. I was obviously thinking it was my fault that he made this comment.
Of course it’s not my fault if someone says something sexist, no matter what I wear. But my very first thought after this incident demonstrates a serious societal problem, and there is a term for it: ‘victim blaming.’ That is, holding the victim responsible for what happened. It starts with stating, “a woman shouldn’t wear a short skirt if she doesn’t want to be leered at or to get sexist comments” and ends with saying, “well, if she hadn’t gone out dressed so revealingly and got drunk, she wouldn’t have been raped — she’s kind of been asking for it.”
Victim blaming implies that sexual violence is a woman’s fault, because she dresses in a certain way, because she is occupying certain spaces, because she is behaving in a certain manner. In our societies, there are very deep anchored views about what women are allowed to do in public and what they are not allowed to do — and if they don’t stick to them, then they have to bear the consequences.
Victim blaming belongs in the context of a rape culture; a culture where sexualized violence is seen as something that happens, as something normal. So women have to protect themselves if they don’t want to become victims of a sexual crime. And if they do become victims, well, they better be more careful next time. In a culture where victim blaming is the order of the day, victims are generally distrusted, they are blamed for making something up, for lying, for exaggerating.
A 2005 survey by Amnesty International shows just how widespread victim blaming is, even in ‘modern,’ ‘western,’ ‘liberal’ societies. Twenty five percent of the survey’s British interviewees — which included both men and women — thought that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing; 22 percent had the same view if a woman had many sexual partners. Nearly a third of the people surveyed (30 percent) held a women partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than a third (37 percent) if she didn’t say ‘no’ clearly enough.
These numbers — which can reasonably be assumed to be similar, if not higher, in many other countries, even a decade later — illustrate the problem. Women victims are blamed for being suggestive, provocative, seductive; in short, for ‘asking for it.’ But this also reveals a certain image of men: Men are seen as uncontrolled sexual beings, helplessly lustful, not able to defend themselves against a sexually provocative woman.
The Hungarian Police Department published a video towards the end of last year, that shows three young women partying, dancing and flirting in a club. The video ends with one of the women being assaulted by a stranger off camera. In the end it reads, “You are responsible, you can do something about it.” Four days after the video was published, the same police force released safety advice warning that flirting by young women could elicit violence. These two pieces of ‘advice’ caused a storm of protest, not only in Hungary; instead of addressing offenders, as the Association of Hungarian Women demanded after the video was published, there was outrage that the police had appealed to women and their behavior.
You could see this advice as well-meaning, as attempts to protect women. But it is more than that; it is all about control. Such advice does not address the problem — a culture, where sexual violence against women is considered normal — but women, and in this way it is an attempt to exert control. They advise women not to get drunk, not to go clubbing, not to walk home alone at night, not to meet up with strangers, not to wear a miniskirt. And if women ignore this friendly advice, they risk being sexually assaulted. Such advice, whether given by the Hungarian Police or anyone else, restricts women’s liberties.
Of course it is easier to tell women what to wear instead of tackling structures anchored in society. But it won’t change a thing.
Tomorrow I’ll put on the dress again. K