‘Victim-blaming’ is a phrase that has become widely used over the past few months, both within and outside of feminist literature. The fact that more and more people are speaking out against this attitude is undeniably positive; but the ease with which the phrase has been integrated into feminist discourse is an indicator of the sheer scale of the problem, and that is deeply worrying. The tendency to blame the victim – to suggest that it is in some way the fault of rape victims that they were abused, or that women ‘invite’ sexual abuse through their behaviour, appearance or attire – is both widespread and deeply abhorrent. The defence of Ched Evans – who was convicted of rape and is therefore guilty under the law – and the outpouring of vitriol on Twitter against his nineteen-year-old victim demonstrate that this is no minor issue.
And yet, I am uncomfortable with how the ‘victim-blaming’ rhetoric has been used in some circles in recent months.
The F-Word published an article about a month ago in which Elin and Hennie Weiss criticised a travel guide issued Canadian government and aimed at female travellers, which advises women to carry a photograph of a man or wear a wedding ring in order to deter unwanted ‘admirers’:
This safe-travel guide is quite reminiscent of attempts to keep women safe by blaming the victim and making the woman the one who is supposed to deter men from aggressively pursuing her. Instead of the government actually targeting the men who act inappropriately against women, women should be able to take care of it themselves, simply by printing a photograph of a man and purchasing a fake wedding ring. Simple as that.
The authors argue that by publishing the guide, the Canadian government is excusing the behaviour of men who might harass women by placing the responsibility to avoid such attention on the victim. I have not read the travel guide, so I am unable to comment too critically on its content. There can be no doubt that if the book were indeed claiming that pretending to have a male partner would guarantee female travellers safety in every situation, it would be misleading and wrong; and the idea of having to call upon the image of a male protector to deter unwanted advances is a little nauseating. But as a technique which is effective in some situations, frankly it may prove to be useful advice.
In this article, one of the authors uses her own experience of being subject to sexual harassment in a busy street while travelling with her sister to illustrate the point that such advice is not always effective. I am not arguing with this. Some men will behave in an intimidating or abusive manner towards women regardless of what they are wearing, how they act or where the encounter takes place. But this story highlights the problem of arguing using anecdotal evidence. I am not for a second suggesting that the story is untrue, or that the scenario could have been prevented had either the author or her sister acted in a different way; but one cannot extrapolate from one incident (even from many) that all situations are the same. The authors are right to say that in many cases, there is little that the target of abuse or harassment can do to prevent it. But it would be enough to deter some men; and if wearing a wedding ring or carrying a photograph of a man will give some women an easy exit from uncomfortable situations, then providing the information can only benefit the reader. It’s not going to help in every situation – but if it will help in some, then I’m all for it.
Similarly, the argument that pretending to be married, or not walking alone through certain areas, or booking a taxi home on a late night will not protect women from all perpetrators of rape or sexual abuse is one that I have seen used to argue against campaigns which aim to raise awareness of dangers to women. Feminist writers often cite the statistic that women are far more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger – but surely this does not mean that we should not try to protect women from all kinds of rape? They are separate issues. Taking particular measures to protect oneself in one situation may not be helpful in another; but this does not make it any less valid.
Of course governments should be doing everything they can to educate all of their citizens about proper conduct, and deterring men from behaving in a violent or threatening manner towards women. But suggesting that the Canadian government should work to change the behaviour of some men in foreign countries instead of advising their own citizens is completely illogical. Simply put, it is completely unfeasible. Perhaps they should lobby foreign governments for harsher punishments for sexual harassment or better education about respect for women. But realistically, one government’s influence over another’s criminal justice systems is severely limited, let alone small-town ignorance and the attitudes of what I would like to think is an unpleasant minority. And so they must do what they can to protect their own citizens.
Yes, in an ideal world, advice such as this would be rendered completely unnecessary. But it is an indisputable fact that there are certain situations in which it is statistically more likely that women will be subject to some form of harassment or abuse. I am opening myself up to criticism here by suggesting that walking alone at night in an area in which a high number of rapes occur on a regular basis constitutes unwise behaviour. I am not for a second suggesting that a woman would be to blame if she were attacked; but that does not change the fact that it is unwise. That should not be the case – of course every woman should be afforded the right to walk wherever she damn well pleases without fearing for her safety – but it is. And yes, this should be challenged – but women should have the freedom to choose. This may sound like somewhat of a contradiction, as it’s one of the main arguments used against such warnings. But surely in order for a decision to be considered freely made it must be informed. In light of this, we should be making every effort to protect women. However unsavoury it may feel, this must sometimes include making women aware of the dangers they may be faced with in given circumstances, as well as tackling the root cause.
That these two ideas are somehow mutually exclusive seems a bizarre notion to me. Of course we should be doing more to challenge those whose behaviour harms women, whether deliberately or through ignorance. But I do not think that directing criticism at those who advise women to take measures to protect themselves is helpful. I would argue that this is a misdirection of the righteous anger at victim-blaming which is rife our society. Surely a more constructive and helpful approach would be to challenge these notions while still supporting women – we should be taking a holistic approach which aims to support women in every way possible, rather than fighting one corner or the other.