The recent events in Steubenville have brought the topic of “rape culture” back into the spotlight. While I was reading articles about the case, I was truly shocked that the first reaction of the media was to blame the victim and feel sorry for her attackers. After hearing journalists make excuses for the rapists and lament their bright futures, I couldn’t help but wonder how victim blaming is so easily accepted and overlooked. Besides that fact that it is unfair and hurtful to women, it seems demeaning to men as well. When we make excuses for rapists, we are saying that they cannot be held accountable for their own actions. By blaming a sexual assault on the victim’s appearance or the fact that they was drinking, we are basically saying that men have no control over their own actions. By absolving them of all guilt in the situation, you are admitting that violence is inherent in man’s nature and that we cannot reasonably expect anything better.
Jessica Valenti explained this perfectly in her article entitle Rape is Not Inevitable:
Here’s the thing—when you argue that it’s impossible to teach men not to rape, you are saying that rape is natural for men. That this is just something men do. Well I’m sorry, but I think more highly of men than that. (And if you are a man who is making this argument, you’ll forgive me if I don’t ever want to be in a room alone with you.)
And when you insist that the only way to prevent rape is for women to change their behavior—whether it’s recommending that they carry a weapon or not wear certain kinds of clothing—you are not only giving out false information, you are arguing that misogyny is a given. That the world will continue to be a dangerous and unfair place for women and we should just get used to the fact. It’s a pessimistic and, frankly, lazy view on life. Because when you argue that this is “just the way things are,” what you are really saying is, I don’t care enough to do anything about it.
Our tendency as a culture to put the responsibility on women to prevent their own rape is so prevalent that most people don’t even noticed it. Before I went to college, I received the typical speech from my parents: don’t go out alone, watch your drinks, always walk home with a friend. I’m sure most young women received the same advice at some point in their life. At the time, I did not wonder if the boys my age were receiving the same speech, and I didn’t realize how this puts all the responsibility on women to prevent their own assault. By making someone responsible for “not being raped”, we are not solving the problem of why rape occurs in the first place.
The prevalence of victim blaming was also discussed in connection with the recent gun control debate. Zerlina Maxwell, a political writer and commentator appeared on Fox News to talk about the role of rape in the gun control debate. Sean Hannity, Fox News anchor, suggested that gun ownership is necessary to prevent rape and sexual assault. Hannity suggested that every woman should carry a weapon to give them the power to fight off a rapist and Zerlina responded by saying:
I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there…You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust…If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.
The day after Maxwell appeared on Fox News, a photo of her with the word “idiot” written across her face went viral on social media sites. She received a viscous backlash including death and rape threats. So, how is it that her comments were so controversial? What is so shocking about saying that a victim should not be held responsible for their own assault? Isn’t is clear that rapists are the problem, not the fact that their victims are unarmed? One big problem with this segment on Fox News is that they were clearly trying to politicize the issue by using sexual assault as support for an argument against gun control. One article entitled “Democratic Strategist’s Shocking Claim: Women Don’t Need Guns for Self Defense, Just Tell Men Not to Rape Women”, is clearly misinterpreting Zerlina’s comment as an attempt to support their political agenda.
Zerlina also pointed out that the majority of rape victims are assaulted by someone they know, and who has already earned their trust. While carrying a weapon may help someone fight off an attacker on their way home, it will not protect them from the rapist that lives down the hall. Sean Hannity then suggested that criminals don’t listen, so there is no point in telling them not to rape and women will always be at risk. The truth is that most rapists are not typical criminals, this was clearly demonstrated by the Steubenville case. The problem is not that rapists have no respect for the law, the problem is that they have no respect for women – which is something that we can try to change.
This is a really complicated issue that does not have a simple answer. I am hopeful that by continuing to focus on the empowerment of women in general, the next generation will have a healthier concept of who is responsible for sexual assault. Hopefully, the publicity that the Steubenville case has received will be a wake-up call for some people in the media, and that they will be more conscious of the way they cover rape cases in the future.