The inevitability of sexual assault
Whose fault is it when a woman gets sexually assaulted? For most people I interact with, the answer seems obvious: the assailant is at fault. Otherwise we’re blaming the victim.
In spite of that commonsense logic, though, there seems to be a sustained argument on the other side of the debate, and not only from right-wing talk radio. For example, over on the Guardian there’s quite a discussion about how The Pretenders star Chrissie Hynde blames herself for previous sexual assault, with the following excerpt pretty much summing up her position:
She said: “Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t f*** about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges … those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do.
“You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this? You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive.”
In Bangladesh, we similarly see arguments for why people marry their daughters off young which rely on the inevitability of sexual violence:
“I photographed the wedding of Akhi’s 13-year-old sister last year, and when I asked her mother why she was marrying her daughter off, she described not feeling comfortable to let her walk to the corner store because she would be harassed by men and boys,” Joyce said. “She also said no boy wants to marry a girl older than 18. If a girl is still single past that age people will ask too many questions. She knew it was wrong to marry very early, but they weren’t from a wealthy family, and she told her daughter’s husband to wear condoms for a few years, so it will be OK. Marriage is seen as a cover of respect and protection for women. By not going to school, it reduces the risk of being sexually active outside the house or be harassed while commuting.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think sexual violence is outrageous and wrong. The last thing I’d want to do is to suggest acquiescence in the face of it. I don’t want to blame victims or make things worse for them in any way. But we hear arguments like the above from reasonable, thoughtful people, who have plenty to lose by being wrong. They’re coming from personal experience which we should listen to. We should, in addition, examine why the “logical” argument doesn’t seem to work with them.
I have a theory. It’s about what our cultural expectations about men are. I’ll divide it into cases.
- Men can more or less control violent urges and are not inherently sexual predators. In this worldview, women of all ages should be free to wear whatever we want and go wherever we want and expect only consensual sexual interactions. This is an ideal world, which one might call civilized. Mind you I’m not even talking about being bombarded with idealized visions of sexualized femininity on billboards (but that would be nice too). I think I more or less live in this world and that means I’m lucky.
- Men are divided into two groups: sexual predators and “others.” Just as it would be silly to ask a lion not to kill an antelope when it’s hungry, and similarly it would be ridiculous to think that (some) men wouldn’t rape a woman if they had the chance. That’s along the lines of the worldview of Chrissie Hynde. If you really think that there just simply are men out there who are uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexual predators, then of course it’s up to the individual to steer clear of them. And it doesn’t make her wrong and us right, it just means we have different expectations of what men are like.
- No man can be trusted, they’re all trying to take advantage of women at all times, and harassment is to be expected. This does seem to be more or less the expectation in certain situations, like in the above quote from a mother in Bangladesh as well as all the communities torn apart by war and insecurity and desperate poverty. If someone faces this kind of reality, they have to work within it, even if it means marrying off their 13-year-old daughter before she’s ready or willing. It’s a bad choice versus a worse choice.