Are Victims Ever to Blame?

The answer is absolutely not.

The other day, a group of friends and I were discussing a rape situation and one of them used the phrase: “well, she is so stupid, why did she go out to dinner with him?” I sat there, completely stunned by her words.

After her statement, I started wondering why a privileged, educated, well-traveled 27-year-old female would instantly blame the victim and justify an act of rape?

I realized that maybe it is not entirely her fault. We have been raised in a culture where sexual violence is frequent and rape excused and normalized by society and media. Our society perpetrates a ‘rape culture’ within which women are taught to avoid getting raped instead of men being taught not to rape. This is outrageous and we all should be scandalized by it.

Victims are often seen as just as guilty as – or even more guilty than – abusers. I acknowledge here that men are also vulnerable to sexual abuse, but in this particular moment I am focusing on sexual violence against women.

FACT: Sexual assault is NEVER the victim’s fault.

Sexual assault is a violent attack on an individual, not a spontaneous crime of sexual passion. No one ‘asks for’ or deserves this type of attack.

Apart from the social and mental implications of victim blaming on an individual, it also makes it harder for other victims to come forward and report their assaults.

This is a huge issue, and a great deal of victim blaming comes from friends and family. I urge you to think again before you contribute to one of the biggest challenges we face as women: justice for perpetrators.

Many of the things we hear or read about rape involves a stranger or a family member assaulting their victim. But what about when your partner is the one assaulting you? Rape within relationships and marriages is extremely common and victim blaming is even more prevalent – there’s a thought that ‘she must have done something wrong for him to act like that’. Between 10 and 14% of married women will be raped at some point during their marriages. 

We are used to living in a society where a husband or boyfriend has the right to do anything. So why does society still blame victims? Maia Szalavitz explains a psychological reason: “The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.” 

Personally, I am curious as to how most research seems to prefer the word “assault” or “violence” to “rape”. This is such an important issue, and it should be called by its name. A non-consensual sexual relation is rape, and I think that switching the words only makes the problem seem less prevalent, or less valid, than it is.

How can we all help to end ‘rape culture’? 

  • Always take a rape or sexual assault accusation seriously
  • Never make assumptions
  • If someone talks to you, support them to come forward
  • Speak up when women’s bodies are objectified
  • Speak your mind when someone jokes about touching or sex without consent
  • Stop asking what the victim was wearing or whether she’d been drinking alcohol
  • Bring this conversation to the table with the women and men in your lives

We need to help eliminate the belief that these conversations are too uncomfortable. Start speaking up.

Why I Need Tori Amos

Why do I need Tori Amos right now?

Because I just can’t handle it all on my own. Roy Moore. Al Franken. The President of the United States. Hollywood. Brock Turner appealing his sexual assault conviction.

Living in a perpetually heightened state of anxiety – and having my friends share that anxiety because #MeToo inevitably brings up something for everyone. Having good men tell me they’re “shocked” that their friends, colleagues and family sexually harass and assault women – and finding out that some of the good men I know never were good men after all.

When I began working for girls’ rights I knew it would be tough. But I felt that I could do the work with my spirit intact because the emotional distress was softened in a landscape of continual progress. I was part of the good fight, and we were winning.

But what happens when it feels like progress is not only halting, but reversing? What happens when I wake up every morning to a fresh new misogynist hell? When I’m bombarded by news and blogs and conversations that reveal and excuse another case of sexual violence? When I feel like my life’s work is being trampled by cultural regression to a time when we simply accept that men assault women?

I plough forward relentlessly. I work harder, returning to my work after my kids are in bed. I put feelings on hold, muting emotion in the moment because that’s the most effective way to operate in a crisis.

And I listen to a lot of Tori Amos.

Since I was 18, Tori’s music has been just short of everything to me (hint: I’m not a natural redhead). It’s self-care. It’s a respite. Depending on the song it can be exciting or sobering, and it’s always reaffirming and recharging.

I was drawn to how she rocks out the piano and I fell in love with the feminine stream of consciousness she professes in heartbreakingly beautiful metaphors. In some songs she explores feminine archetypes and has conversations with characters like Persephone, a goddess in Greek mythology who was abducted and taken to the underworld. For someone who works with child brides, this has been a call to action, but now this metaphor is becoming more and more personal. On her new album, Native Invader, Tori imagines Persephone returning from this underworld:

“which taught you can’t escape anguish

But how to live with it

Then reports from the robins

Form in you an inner radiance

It’s as if they fused with a spirit you knew

Who’s come back again”

And boom, she just spat out a woman’s life in one song. And it’s not just about Persephone, but about me, too. And about #MeToo.

Right now Tori’s music is helping me process our culture as I struggle to continue my work with girls. She reminds me that it’s OK to feel angry and heartbroken and that we can’t always understand conflict. She also reminds me that pain does find a resolution because “one story’s end seeds another to begin.” And through her activism – her 23 years campaigning for US sexual assault helpline RAINN – I see her actively seeking out resolutions.

On her recent tour, Tori opened many of her concerts with her song, ‘Iieee’. To me, it’s always been a sultry song that evokes sex and male aggression and, like much of her music, mixes flirtation with vexation. When I saw her in concert this fall, I wasn’t sure how I would interpret the song that night and in this context, as her songs always prompt individual and quite visceral reactions.

Then there she was, opening the show with her red hair, funky glasses and dizzyingly high heels. When she wailed that “we scream in cathedrals,” I thought of #MeToo. When she then threw herself back as she cried out “why does there gotta be a sacrifice,” I thought of the tremendous loss of joy and dignity that so many of us are experiencing.

And then she tossed her red hair behind her shoulder and turned toward the audience in defiance as if to say, “we’re stronger than this.”

And we are.

For more information on navigating these potentially triggering times, read RAINN’s tips for survivors on consuming media.  

Sexual Assault in the Media

Content note: this post contains multiple references to sexual assault

There continues to be a normalization of sexual violence in media and popular culture. The current culture around sexual assault tends to place blame on the victim and trivializes the idea of rape, and this train of thought stems from factors such as how news stations report acts of sexual violence and how sexual violence is portrayed in television shows and popular music.

There are several trends in the way sexual crimes are depicted in news reports that help contribute to the culture that has pervaded society. News stations will often report that a rapist “had sex with” a victim instead of outright saying that a victim was “raped”. This phrasing downplays the severity of what the victim had to go through and implies that consent was given.

News reports will often focus on the clothes the victim was wearing and how much the victim had to drink. A New York Times article published in 2011 is the perfect example of this. It quotes people familiar with the victim saying that “[the victim] dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s [and] she would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.” By drawing attention to these details, the report does not hold the rapist accountable for his actions and places blame on the victim instead, ultimately suggesting that the choices of the victim led to her rape.

News stations also tend to empathize with the perpetrator instead of the victim. This was especially true in the Steubenville rape trial, when CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow stated that it was incredibly emotional and even incredibly difficult for her to see two young men who were star football players and very good students with such promising futures watch their lives fall apart. In contrast, she didn’t mention any sympathy for the victim whom they raped, who will likely hold on to this trauma for the rest of her life.

The way sexual violence is portrayed in television shows and music also has an influence on rape culture. Jokes about rape will often appear on television, which causes viewers to fail to take sexual violence seriously. Rape jokes are especially prevalent in the show Two Broke Girls, where Kat Denning’s character, Max, constantly trivializes rape  and the long-lasting effects it has on the victim. In one episode, she mocks a victim of date rape and whines while saying “Somebody date-raped me and I didn’t think I’d live through it, but I did, but now I am stronger, and I’m still needy.

The videos and lyrics in popular music can promote rape culture by making sexual violence seem ‘sexy’. In Robin Thicke’s infamous song “Blurred Lines,” he contributes to this culture by singing about how the lines around sexual consent are blurred and asserting that it’s up to men to interpret what women want.

Sexual violence has become normalized in media and popular culture. I believe that the way news stations report cases of sexual assault, and the way it is portrayed in television shows and popular music, play a large role in rape culture. This culture blames the victim for rape as well as trivializes rape and the effects it has on its victims. It is clear that something must change in the media to attack rape culture.

#RapeCultureIsWhen We Don’t Know What Rape Culture Looks Like

Photo Credit: Chase Carter, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Chase Carter, Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell began tweeting with the hashtag, #RapeCultureIsWhen in response to claims made by TIME Magazine and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) that rape culture is “over hyped.” Over the next two hours, #RapeCultureIsWhen proceeded to become a trending topic in the United States. The tweets expressed frustrations and thoughts that rape culture cannot be devalued.

 

While all can agree that rape is a despicable crime, last month RAINN argued that rape doesn’t occur because our society is affected by rape culture, but rather “by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

Caroline Kitchens affirms this critique of rape culture in her TIME magazine post by highlighting that the majority of men have absorbed enough rape prevention messages throughout their lives to conclude that rape is horrific. Basically, society doesn’t need to keep teaching men and boys not to rape, because we’ve already done a pretty good job. She claims that instead of causing the small percentage of offenders to stop, the rape culture campaign vilifies men undeservedly. Kitchens purports:

“By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.”

There is truth here. The majority of men in our society grow up realizing rape is bad and should not happen. There is agreement that survivors shouldn’t be trivialized, but empowered to respond. We understand that the law promotes the ability to consent. We can’t blame culture because we know that yes is yes, and no is no.

Or do we?

The greatest concern I have about devaluing rape culture is not that men and boys still do not get the fact rape is wrong. The paramount worry is the lack of knowledge about what rape, or consent for that matter, actually looks like.

The notion that rapists only make up a “small percentage of the community” may feed the myth that offenders are shadowy strangers looming among us that our parents taught us not to talk to. I have found that most individuals I know who have found themselves subject to rape and sexual violence knew their assaulters well. Undoubtedly, these offenders heard the same rape prevention messages and knew that rape is a malicious act. However, if you asked the assaulters if they had ever raped, their answer would be no. In most of these cases, this is because there was never a perceived decline of consent. In fact, several of the survivors had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that they had been assaulted in the first place because they didn’t provide a “no” either.

Was this because they were never properly educated on rape culture?

I would argue that often in circumstances, rape occurs because a definition of what consent looks like is never established. Recently, I watched a brilliant video by Dr. Lindsey Doe, whose expertise specializes in sexual health. She provides an extremely accessible answer to the important question:

What is consent?

I appreciate the succinctness of her response:

“Consent is not the absence of a no, but the presence of a yes.” -Dr. Lindsey Doe

Not only does it appropriately address that rape culture exists, but it provides a practical way to move forward. Not “moral panic” as Kitchens accuses of rape culture activists.

That being said, I can’t help but add to Maxwell’s efforts. #RapeCultureIsWhen the response of silence to sexual advances is determined as consent. #RapeCultureIsWhen assaulters rape while their victim is intoxicated and cannot provide consent. #RapeCultureIsWhen someone blames themselves because their fear was greater than the ability to vocalize “no.”

The reason why rape culture cannot be devalued and is not being “overhyped” is because while there is a mutual understanding that rape is wrong, there is still a lack of discernment of consent, as well as a flimsy definition of consent. We cannot ignore that rape culture exists. We can help one another to call it when we see it.

Cover Photo Credit: Neal Jennings, Flickr Creative Commons

I am Angry – And You Should be Too.

November 25th marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There is only one thing wrong about that – the fact that we have a need for such a day. It makes me angry.

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Infographic by WHO

I am angry, because according to the World Health Organization, 35% of women and girls around the world will experience intimate partner or non-partner violence in their lifetime. WHO is calling this ‘a global health problem of epidemic proportions’. I am angry because in the US, every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted – and nine out of ten victims are women. I am angry because in India, women and girls have a bulls-eye on their backs whenever they step outside their homes – and too often also within their homes. I am angry because there is an endless number of such examples, from all over the world. While the reasons behind violence against women and girls, as well as the form that such violence takes, vary between countries, one thing is common to all women and girls regardless of location:

No woman or girl is immune to this epidemic of violence.

The situation of my home country, Finland, also makes me angry. According to Naisten Linja (“Women’s Line”), an organization that works to prevent violence against women and girls and to help victims of such violence, over 40% of Finnish girls and women above the age of 15 have faced physical or sexual violence or have been threatened with violence. I’m angry because the risk for Finnish women to face domestic violence is twice the average of the European Union. Another thing that makes me angry is the backlash that this Day causes every year: what about men? Isn’t violence against men as important, why are there so many resources directed towards eliminating violence against women – why aren’t men getting the same attention? Of course the violence men and boys experience is equally important – but more often than not, it is not a case of gender-based violence. Gender-based violence and discrimination are issues that stem from the fundamental belief that the female sex is of lesser value, of lesser importance, than the male. Gender-based violence tells women and girls:

You are not worthy – you are weaker, less important, meaningless, powerless.

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Photo by Shareef Sarhan; courtesy of UN Women

Gender-based violence doesn’t just cause physical pain and damage – it breaks, destroys, shames, violates, dehumanizes. Men might be over-represented as, for example, victims of gun violence – but this is not necessarily an example of gender-based violence. Almost always, the victim of domestic and sexual violence is a girl or a woman, and females across cultures experience more gender-based discrimination and inequality than males. It is important to recognize these distinctions, so that we can pinpoint the fundamental reasons behind violence against women and girls properly and therefore also respond to them with the right approaches and tools.

We all should be infuriated because images of violated and dominated bodies of women are used to sell everything from cars to shoes to men’s suits and perfumes. We should be livid because of what Google’s search engine reveals about the attitudes towards women and girls. We should feel enraged over the fact that when media reports rape cases, what the victim was wearing or whether she had been drinking is still often mentioned in the opening paragraph. Finns should be furious over the fact that the number of reported rapes in Finland has nearly doubled in the past ten years. We should be fuming over the fact that there are countries where rape victims are forced to marry their rapists, and countries where a husband can’t rape his wife because under the law, marriage is considered to equal “consent”. We should be enraged for the fact that freedom of speech is used as a justification for spreading images of bruised, battered and violated bodies of women and girls in social media, with captions such as “next time she’ll stay in the kitchen” – but images of breastfeeding mothers get censored, because they are considered offensive. Violence against women is a global phenomenon – an epidemic – that has become a tool for power, a tactic for war, a marketing strategy, form of entertainment, punch line of a joke. Those are reasons for being enraged, furious, angry, not only today, but every single day. Violence against women is a human rights violation, and there is never, ever any justification or excuse for it. November 25th also started a global campaign of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, and there is plenty of work to be done. This issue touches us all – based on statistics, it is likely that we all know a woman or a girl who has faced violence – or that we ourselves are those victims.

Orange Your World in 16 days - Image courtesy of UN Women
Orange Your World in 16 days – Image courtesy of UN Women

I am infuriated, I am enraged – but I won’t take out that anger by attacking someone else, I won’t threaten or verbally abuse people online, I won’t punch anyone, and I won’t forcefully take something that isn’t mine. Instead, I will gather and harness that anger, and try to turn it into fuel for something positive. I will try to turn it into action, and from there into change. Will you do that too?

A version of this article was originally published in Finnish by Kepa, an umbrella organization for Finnish civil society organizations working on global development issues. 

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: MUMBAI BANS LINGERIE MANNEQUINS

For centuries, humans are seen as the ‘most intelligent’ of the earth-dwellers, as organisms that possess the faculties to think, exhibit and control. Our mental faculties are meant set us apart from animals— giving us better control over our animalistic instincts and thereby lending sophistication to our social behavior.

However, humankind seems to be experiencing ‘turn-ons’ and ‘turnoffs’—tiny button-like movements within us—that we can’t seem to control. Our inability to control our animalistic behavior, or situations that lead to ‘turn-ons’, make us aggressive and animalistic. When we can’t control ourselves any longer, we begin to make irrational and impulsive decisions.

The Municipal Council of Mumbai, India, has decided to take action against what seems to be a breach in the law of human behavior.  Post the number of severe rape cases India has witnessed, they will be taking serious measures to prevent such occurrence, by getting rid of the stimulus that leads to such impulsive behavior.

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The Municipal Council passed a resolution last month banning the display of lingerie mannequins in the city of Mumbai. These scantily clad mannequins act as ‘turn-ons’ for men who see them, making them inclined to sexually abuse women, said the Council.

City Council member Ritu Tawde said she proposed the ban of mannequins because such displays instigate men to sexually abuse women and are degrading to the image of women.

She expressed a need to revert to the traditional Indian lifestyle, one that restrained self-expression for women, confining them to the acceptable.

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“Mannequins do not suit Indian culture,” said Tawde, adding that a mannequin is a replica of a woman’s body and therefore, should be dressed conservatively.

Positively speaking, I’m happy for Tawde that she thinks this way. What’s better than being restricted to wear certain kinds of clothing yourself and enforcing your fortune, or the lack of it, on the generations of women in India who might have to suffer because of your inability to adapt to change?

Tawde, and the rest of the Council believes, that the ban will effectively reduce the number of rape cases in the city of Mumbai, since men will not be ‘turned-on’ by looking at these “skimpily” clad plastic beings.

Really, I had no idea that a plastic body had the ability to sexually provoke people, but it seems like the Council has discovered a new scientific development.

Mannequins on display don’t give people the power of ‘choice’, Tawde said. “If someone wants to watch pornography on the net, it is a conscious choice they are making. In this case mannequins are everywhere and they do not have a choice.”Image

Tawde claims those lingerie mannequins, or any mannequin that sports a two-piece revealing outfit, displays women in an “indecent” manner.

“As per the provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, women cannot be depicted in an indecent or derogatory manner that is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals” she explained herself to a news channel.

Mannequins serve as more than just instigators—they harm ‘public morality’—or beliefs that question the morality of women being emulated by the mannequins on display, and subsequently, making the men lose their morals. In other words, mannequins provoke sex-drives in men making them rape women. They outdo the porn industry. They’re the sex symbols of India. Wow.

Certainly, Tawde has no faith in the mental faculties possessed by men. I would like to bring to her attention that sexual drives originate in the mind, and essentially are subject to control. What takes a man to be turned on is irrelevant and not the question to be discussed here.

My major problem is with the fact that the Council feels the need to curb the sexual drives of men by banning the objects that drive them. Their measures seek to set a measure to the amount of clothing that is morally right to be sported by a woman. Today, they ban the display of mannequins. Tomorrow, they might start preventing women to dress in a certain way, or to walk on the roads, if we serve as a sexual stimulus.

Honestly, we can’t control who and what instigates a man. We can’t control what choices they make within their head and what makes them rape. But we certainly can control what they do.

It is up to us to put an end to the reactor, not the stimulus. We need to educate our men on rape culture. We need to kill the very existence of rapes. That won’t happen by banning the display of a mannequin, or by curbing the expression of a woman.

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What are your views on the issue?