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Victim-blaming and social control

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 15:51 EDT
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Tracy Clark-Flory has an awesome piece up at Salon about the proliferation of "how not to get raped" tips, and why they are so messed up. And yes, she quotes me in it, but that's only one reason (along with quotes from other feminist bloggers) that I liked it. She really does a nice job of explaining why people proliferate these tips, most of which are unworkable or not useful anyway, but explaining why it's just such a bad idea. The reason is straightforward: these "tips" are actually a list of reasons that it's okay to rape someone. If the tip is, "Don't wear miniskirts", that ends up saying to rapists, juries, and cops, "If she was wearing a miniskirt, she had it coming." Rapists basically use these tips as a checklist for what to look for in potential victims, for the same reason that burglars wear gloves and masks: it's a keep-yourself-from-going-to-jail strategy. If you attack drunk women, women who have a history of having (gasp!) sex, women who are wearing miniskirts after dark, then your chances go up of not getting caught. Your victims will be afraid to come forward, the cops won't take it seriously, juries will let you off. So every time you pass around a "how not to get raped" list, you're saying to rapists, "Here are the women you can rape and we, as a society, will allow it." That the list of "tips" often involve things that are basically impossible to avoid while living a halfway decent life just adds insult to injury. It's worth noting that "tips to avoid rape" tend to overlap neatly with "list of things that society believes makes you a bad girl in violation of ancient chastity norms that should have gone completely out of date already". 

Scott Lemieux linked a really great article recently that showed exactly how true this is. Police estimate that Jeffrey Marsalis has raped over 50 women, and that he's such a fan of raping that he kept raping even while charges were being arranged against him for previous rapes. And yet juries decided, somehow, that it was more likely that 7 separate women had consensual sex with him and were so ashamed that they accused him of rape than that he's a rapist. They also decided this while finding him guilty of lesser sexual assault charges. Which is to say, the jury just used "consenting sluts express regret" as a cover story for what they were actually saying with their verdict, which is that "bad girls" don't deserve the protection of the law. After all, it's illogical to say, "Well, I think you clearly enjoy sexually assaulting women, but even though your assault meets the legal definition of rape, I'm going to downgrade it because maybe her 'no' was only a 75% 'no', even though she was drugged and incapable of fighting you, plus all these other women are lying sluts."  No one can actually believe that. The much simpler, more straightforward explanation is that the women in question violated the ever-growing Rules of Not Being Raped, and the jury feels rape was what they had coming. That the jurors ran away from the victims while hiding their faces just confirms this. 

What did the women in question do that was so bad that they had it coming? Well, they met up a man for a date and consumed 1 to 3 drinks on that date. And basically, that's about it. They also didn't feed our need to see women suffer for the sin of being willing to go on grown-up dates with men; since they didn't weep profusely on the stand, the jury just didn't like them. We need our women to cry, so we're satisfied that they regret the sin of going on dates with men who seem nice enough. (Of course, not going on dates with men who seem nice enough makes you a frigid bitch. The important thing to remember, is you can't win.) Perversely, social pressures on women to feel bad about themselves if they were raped only added to the jury's assurance that the victims had it coming. Since the victims were so ashamed of being "bad girls" who go on dates and consume moderate amounts of alcohol instead of staying virgins who run knitting clubs, they didn't report immediately. Their compliance with the social shame we dish out to rape victims was used to shame them further, and justify the rapes. 

Yeah. It's dizzying. The take-home message is you simply cannot win. I found it interesting to read this article next to this GQ piece about a Russian serial killer. Even though serial killing is much worse, obviously, serial killers and rapists actually have a lot in common. Both do it for the thrill, both tend to have inferiority/superiority complexes with regards to their victims, both are secretly proud of themselves and are easy to provoke into bragging about their crimes, and both have sadistic compulsions. But what I found interesting was that there was not a whiff of victim-blaming in this GQ piece, even though the victims did stuff that, if they were rape victims, would have been considered such an egregious violation of the "tips" that most juries would be chomping at the bit to let the offender go. The victims drank heavily, they went into the woods even thought they knew that there was a killer working there, and they even went to the place in the park where he liked to dump bodies. But they were mosty male victims, and so I imagine that changes our ideas strongly about what they are and are not allowed to do as people. Which isn't to say that I blame them! I don't. They had their reasons, and their reasons are that it's impossible to live your life without making friends or being about in the world. I just wish that what we see so easily when it comes to male victims of serial killers, we could see when it comes to female victims of rapists. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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