Feminism: Why Your Well-Intentioned Advice Was Called 'Victim-Blaming'

Ana's Note: This post was initially written in response to the If I Were A Poor Black Kid article in Forbes, and then edited to be applied more broadly. Please feel free to circulate as appropriate.

[Content Note: Rape, Racism, Victim-Blaming]

Hi! Welcome.

I know why you're here. You wrote something, or said something, that was entirely well-intentioned and meant to be helpful, meaningful advice to a group that you fully realized and recognized as unfairly oppressed, and then someone told you that what you said or wrote was "victim-blaming". And now you're confused, and possibly a little hurt.

You're not a bad person, so it's perfectly natural for this to have hurt your feelings. You openly acknowledged that the people you were addressing with your advice were and are unfairly victimized. You weren't trying to blame them for being unfairly victimized; that's what "unfairly victimized" means, for goodness sake. You might even be a member of that group, but whether you are or aren't is immaterial: you weren't trying to blame, you were trying to help. And then you were told that all your effort to help was really a big ball of Victim-Blaming Fail. And then you got linked here.

I don't think you're a bad person -- I believe you when you say you were only trying to help. But if you'll give me a chance, come sit here next to me, and we'll go through why what you said or wrote unfortunately really is victim-blaming. It won't be fun for you, but if you'll stick with me through this and hear me out, you'll find a better way to help people in the process. And if you really want to help -- and I honestly believe that you do -- you'll want that: a way to actually help the unfairly victimized.

Variable Victims, Unalterable Abusers, Invisible Society

One reason your advice was called victim-blaming may have been because you treated society in general and abusers in particular as an invisible, unalterable force and then proceeded to advise the victim how to modify their behavior in light of this. In other words, you may have treated the victim as the only variable in an otherwise unchanging and unchangeable equation.

There's a tendency in a lot of well-intentioned advice to treat bad things like rape and racism and institutionalized inequality as something that just sort of happens, like moon phases and crappy weather. When feminists post Rape Prevention Tips (RPTs) that are targeted to modify the behavior of rapists instead of the behavior of rape victims, there's sometimes an immediate reaction of how-could-you-possibly-expect-that-to-be-effective?

After all, rapists rape. That's what they do. Telling a rapist not to rape is like telling the clouds not to rain or the tide not to come in. It's all very well and good as a social experiment, but it's not going to do any good. So in the meantime, given that we live in a world with rapists in it, shouldn't we post well-intentioned advice to help people avoid being raped by rapists?


By treating everything in a situation as constant and unalterable except the victim's behavior, you inadvertently normalize abusive people, situations, and cultures. By drawing a situation and then declaring the victim's behavior as the only variable in the equation, you help perpetuate (for example) rape culture. I use the word "culture" there deliberately because most rapists are a product of their culture. Rapists are not forces of nature. They're not automatically mentally ill or inherently broken simply because they rape.

(Indeed, the fantasy that rapists are fundamentally different from the rest of us makes it harder for us to confront rape in our society because it means that we assume that since everyone we know is "normal", then we do not know any rapists. This is false, and it preemptively damages victims because they now have to fight against a powerful cognitive dissonance that, no, their rapist couldn't possibly be a rapist because we would have known.)

So now that you know that rapists are a product of their culture and not automatic forces of nature, hopefully you can see why RPTs need to be directed at rapists instead of at victims. After all, only a rapist can truly prevent rape... by not committing it! And you can help by repeating, loudly and often, This Is What Rape Is, Don't Do It. Just to be sure everyone living in our rape culture gets the message.

But even if I'm wrong and rapists really are forces of nature, the answer still isn't to see the equation as nothing more than a constant abuser and a variable victim. There's so much more to the equation and, again, it hinges on how we -- as a society -- treat rapists and their potential victims. Consider these RPTs that (I'll bet) you've rarely seen disseminated in a rape discussion:

  1. If you see someone leave their drink unattended, watch their drink. If someone puts a foreign substance in the drink, notify the owner of the drink immediately. 
  2. If you see or hear someone casually making light of rape, bring that to the attention of anyone they might be in a position to rape. If you can safely do so, express public disapproval. 
  3. If you see someone heading home in an impaired state, arrange transportation for them with a non-rapist. If you can safely do so, arrange to take them home yourself or call a cab for them.
  4. If you see or hear a struggle, do not assume that the whole thing is a consensual quarrel. Notify the police immediately, and -- if you can safely do so -- record what you are seeing or hearing.
  5. If you see or hear a sexual assault in a public place, provide immediate aid to the victim. Notify the police immediately, and -- if you can safely do so -- record the abuser's identifying details.

...and so on.

We'll actually see later on in the post that these are not good RPTs, so don't rush off to post these as new well-intentioned advice. However, I bring them up here in context as unusual twists on classic tips. These tips vary from the usual tips because they take the focus off the victim and puts the focus on the greater society around the victim.

These tips represent a cultural narrative that we are all capable of preventing rapes as observers and participants in society in general, and not just by protecting ourselves directly. These tips treat both the abuser and the victim as a constant, and look at treating society's reaction to abuse as a variable capable of being changed. These tips encourage all people to actively identify, call-out, and shame abusers. These tips remind all people that rape does not occur in a vacuum and that it is within our power to create a culture that does not tolerate or condone abusive behavior. These tips provide ideas for protecting victims without creating the impression that victims must never drink or have fun or dance or party because whooooops! they'll be raped.

Treating a toxic culture as invisible and static does a serious disservice to victims. When you write a post that says, 'yeah, society is screwed up, but since we can't change that, here's what you should do', then you wrongly normalize a society that we can-and-should change. When you tell "poor black kids" how to get around a system that has been carefully stacked against them, one day at a time over hundreds of years, then you contribute to that toxic society by implying that there's just nothing anyone can or do to fix society. Your advice may be well-intentioned -- you may be trying to say, "look, I want to change society but that takes time and in the meantime..." -- but whether you want to or not, every time you say "let's pretend society can't be changed", you reinforce the cultural narrative that racism and institutionalized inequality just... happens. Like tides and stuff. 

There's a world of difference between advice that tells victims to change their behavior and advice that tells society to change our behavior. It's the difference between "you shouldn't leave your drink unattended" and "we should keep an eye on unattended drinks and holler if we see something hinky because ours is a society that from-here-on-out will not tolerate rape". It's the difference between "you should use whatever technology you can to bootstrap into a magnet school" and "we should be clamoring for higher taxes and better schools and empowered teachers so that all schools can do an equally good job educating our society".

That difference is the difference between putting the emphasis on the victim to model their life around an unchangeable 'reality' and putting the emphasis on society to model our culture to actively work to make a better reality. Is that new reality hard to implement? Sure! But if you're not willing to shift the burden away from victims and onto the larger society that supports their victimization, don't be surprised if your advice is labeled victim-blaming, because it is: you're essentially shifting the blame for the victimization off of society and onto victims. 

'Could' Implies 'Should'

Another reason your advice was called victim-blaming may have been because you laid out a series of coulds that shifted -- possibly against your original intention -- into a series of shoulds. Coulds are tricky that way, and you need to be aware of that for the future, because could tends to imply that victims should follow your advice, or else blame no one but themselves when things go awry.

Remember what we said above about the tendency for us to treat abusers and toxic societies like they're forces of nature? When you come from that framing, it's easy to slip into a narrative of "ten ways to avoid this uncontrollable thing". Like, let's say, "10 Ways To Avoid Getting Rained On When Going To Work In The Morning":

  1. You could own an umbrella.
  2. You could own a (water-proofed, non-leaking) car. 
  3. You could own a house with an attached garage. 
  4. You could work at an office with an attached garage. 
  5. You could work at an office that lets you telecommute on rainy days.

...and so on.

There are a lot of problems with this list. You might have already noticed some of them. And you may even have noticed some points of failure in your own well-intentioned advice. And you probably didn't start out your well-intentioned advice with the desire to say "and if you don't take my advice, it's your own fault when you get rained on." But the problem with the scenario we've created with this Rainy Tips list is that we've posited a universe where rain is an uncontrollable but to-be-avoided occurrence and then we laid out Easy! Simple! Guaranteed! tips for avoiding the rain.

Imagine that someone read my Rainy Day Tips here and then saw someone wringing out their wet hair after being drenched in rain. Imagine that instead of immediately feeling sympathy, now thanks to my tips they are puzzled. Why is the wet person wet? Are they ignorant and failed to read the Rainy Day Tips? Are they stupid and failed to work out how to properly implement the Rainy Day Tips? Are they lazy and didn't properly attain the right umbrella, car, house, and workplace as the Rainy Day Tips suggested? Are they greedy and refused to follow the Rainy Day Tips because they wanted to squander their money on non-umbrellas, non-cars, and non-houses with attached garages?

You didn't say that. Nowhere in your advice did you say or even suggest that failure to follow your advice would indicate that a victim deserved their victimization. In fact, you may have even stated explicitly that the advice would be difficult for some to follow and that it wasn't their fault if they didn't or couldn't follow your advice. So it's not your fault if someone takes your coulds and turns them into shoulds to use against the victim, right?


Whether you mean for them to or not, your coulds are going to be taken as shoulds. Humans want and need to believe that the world we live in is one of predictable causes and effects, where doing the 'right' things will result in precisely the right outcomes and the wrong outcomes can be avoided.

By providing "Rape Prevention Tips" or "Advice For Poor Black Children", you are effectively saying that you have a list of 'right' things to do that could, no, should result in the right outcome and prevent the wrong one. The should is implied because the tips aren't random, right? They should work... if you do them right. And since everyone wants the right outcome and wants to avoid the wrong outcome, your system of could-should tips adds to the overall belief that the world we live in can be controlled through the actions of a single individual. And that, in turn, leads to the confirmation that those single individuals who got the wrong outcome in life didn't follow the could-should rules to the last letter. And that is victim blaming in its purest form.

In a simpler explanation: When you write out advice that people could follow to prevent something bad from happening, you contribute to a cultural narrative that people who had that same bad thing happen to them should have followed your advice more closely, if they really didn't want the bad thing to happen. Your innocent could becomes a retroactive should because that's how humans logically operate.

The other problem with could-should is that it once again takes the focus away from the abuser and the toxic society and puts the focus on the victim. Asking why the victim didn't follow the Easy! Simple! Guaranteed! advice is a distraction from asking why the abuser is abusing and the society is not actively preventing the abuse. Asking why a woman left her drink alone with her date immediately and effectively distracts from the real questions, like why date rape drugs are so common and easy to obtain, why they're fodder for jokes in our society rather than strong approbation, and why our society looks the other way when a drugged woman is carried out of a crowded establishment and through a parking lot without anyone thinking to notify the police. Asking why a poor black kid isn't devoting every waking moment to applying to magnet schools effectively distracts from asking the real questions, like why our society habitually under-funds the schools in poor black neighborhoods, and under-pays the working poor and limits their mobility so that they can't seek better schools elsewhere.

By ignoring those harder questions for quick could-should advice, you blame victims for their own victimization and obscure the larger society that victimizes them by distracting from the larger issues.

Intricate Problems, Ignorant Solutions

Another reason why your advice may have been seen as victim-blaming could have been because the advice was so out-of-touch with the realities of the problem that your advice seemed either unintentionally ignorant or deliberately trollish. Now, I'm willing to believe you were ignorant, because I don't see ignorance as a judgment. We've all been ignorant, and we all still are ignorant about a lot of things, and ignorance is a curable condition. But a lot of people are going to assume you're more educated than you actually are... and in giving you that beneficial assumption, they'll come to the unfortunate conclusion that you're a jerk.

I want you to imagine something for me. I want you to imagine that you and I are chatting away, and you bring up that your beverage of choice -- whether it be tap water or soda or lemonade or coffee or tea -- has been tasting a little... off, lately. You mention casually that you're thinking about calling to complain, or changing beverages, or something, but you'd feel better if someone else could taste your beverage to verify that it's not just your taste buds being funky lately. And I want you to imagine that I'm listening with obvious confusion and maybe a little irritated condescension like, really, the solution here is Very Obvious, and finally I blurt out:

"Well, why on earth haven't you asked your live-in butler what he thinks?"

Can you then imagine what an uphill climb it's going to be to explain to me that not everyone has a live-in butler, and why not, and why you personally do not have one, and why it's just a tiny bit rude for me to have not realized that and additionally to have been a little snerky with my question? Can you imagine the vast gulf of information and lifestyles that has just been outlined between us, simply by virtue of my live-in butler-having existence, and my accompanying assumption that everyone lives like me?

When you offer advice to women like "if you take your eye off your drink for even a moment, buy a new one" or "always take a cab straight to your door" or "always rent a hotel when out of town instead of staying with an old friend" or "always have your cell phone dialed to 911 when you walk through a parking lot at night", you are making a lot of assumptions about money and class and lifestyles that you don't even realize you are making. You don't realize it because you're safely ignorant in your own personal money-class-lifestyle bubble, but your ignorance isn't an excuse.

When you offer advice to poor black kids like "buy a cheap refurbished computer at TigerDirect!" or "use BackpackIt to share work with classmates!" or "use Skype to study with other students!" you are making a lot of assumptions about money and class and lifestyles that you don't even realize you are making. And when you link to TigerDirect and BackpackIt and Skype and yet fail to notice or realize that TigerDirect computers are still hundreds of dollars, or that BackpackIt costs a minimum of $24 dollars a month, or that Skype requires high-speed internet plus speakers plus headphones plus webcams in order to be maximally effective, then it's hard for you to continue to claim ignorance even though, be fair, you probably simply are.

But now that we've established that you've made out-of-touch advice out of ignorance instead of malice, does that mean that your advice wasn't victim-blaming? Can you go back now to whatever thread linked you here and proudly point out that you're not a victim-blamer, but rather you are merely ignorant of the intricacies of the problem for which you were recently offering out-of-touch advice?


Even if your advice was offered from a place of ignorance, it is still victim-blaming. When I say "why on earth don't you ask your butler" or when you say "why don't you just take a cab straight to your door" or "why don't you buy a several-hundred-dollar refurbished computer to lift yourself out of poverty", we are collectively blaming the victim for something they have limited control over: we are blaming them for not being us. Whether we are blaming the victim for not being the same race as us or not being the same gender as us or not being the same social class as us or not having the same financial situation as us doesn't matter; in the end, the advice being offered is, essentially, "Why aren't you privileged like me?" And that is victim-blaming.

Burdens Without Benefits

Remember when I posted those Rape Prevention Tips way back up-thread and I said not to run off and reuse them because they actually are not good tips at all? I'll tell you now why they aren't good tips: They don't work.

Now, the reason they don't work isn't because they're focused on society at large instead of victims in particular. The reason they don't work is basically the same reason that your advice won't work for preventing all or even most rapes, and it's because both sets of advice accept a rape narrative that doesn't fit reality.

Most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and usually by someone trusted by the victim. Many rapes are committed in the victim's own home, or in the home of a close relative, loved one, or friend. So whether you tell a woman to always take a cab home or I tell society to always hail a cab for a woman, we're both buying into a narrative where rapes don't take place in victim's homes, by victim's family-or-loved-ones, or (for that matter) where cab drivers don't rape people.

Do you see the problem here? The "take a cab home" advice may reduce the incidence of stranger-in-the-bushes rape, but it won't necessarily reduce the likelihood that the woman taking a cab home may be raped. And yet, by giving one more piece of advice for women to memorize and try to follow (assuming they can afford a cab, assuming they can find one to service their place of residence), you've increased the burden on potential victims without providing an actual benefit.

When your advice buys into a narrative that does not reflect reality, your advice always creates burdens without benefits. When you advise a poor black kid to work day and night to get their grades up, you buy into a cultural narrative that employers care more about grade point average than they do about whether or not the resume has a 'black name' at the top. By buying into this cultural narrative and packaging it with your well-intentioned advice, you actively cause harm by encouraging potential victims to focus their limited resources on fulfilling advice that -- since it hinges on a false cultural narrative -- most likely will not help them.

But is advice that is wrong and potentially harmful necessarily victim-blaming advice? Can you rest easy in the knowledge that your advice may have been ignorant and wrong and potentially harmful but at least it didn't blame victims for being victims?

Unfortunately, no.

When your advice bought into a false cultural narrative, it helped to reinforce that cultural narrative. Victims who realized that your advice was harmful and choose not to follow it will be blamed if they become victims. After all, they didn't follow the advice, did they? The fact that the advice was harmful will not be a defense, because the advice will be believed by people who want the false cultural narrative to be true.

When DeShawn and Shanice don't invest all their food and gas money into TigerDirect refurbished computers, and then don't get selected for a job interview callback, no one will look closer to see if they weren't selected because of their 'black' names. People will instead nod their heads sagely and tsk that if only DeShawn and Shanice had bought a refurbished computer back in the day, well, then things would have turned out differently. Even though we know that to be false, still your advice is and will be used to blame victims for their own victimization.

Good Advice, Without Blaming Victims

So now you know why your well-intentioned advice was actually victim-blaming. And knowing is half the battle! But what's the other half, so that you can -- in the future -- give good advice without falling into the trap of blaming victims?

Don't advise people on how not to be victims. Instead, advise people on how not to victimize.

Seriously. You thought I was being facetious up-thread when I posted "Rape Prevention Tips" saying "don't rape people". I wasn't. Drop the narrative in your head that victimizers are forces of nature that cannot be reasoned with, and advise them.

Don't have sex with someone who is drunk, drugged, unconscious, or not otherwise competent to make major life decisions at that moment. Don't lobby to have taxes cut when you know the local inner city school hasn't had new computers since the 1980s. Do ask an administrative assistant to cover the names on the resumes you look at so that you can't be unconsciously influenced by racial and social prejudices.

It's not always fun to address potential victimizers in a newspaper column or internet forum. Victimizers tend to have privilege, and tend to defend it loudly. But if you're only willing to give advice when it's easy, and when it's against groups unlikely or unable to fight back, then what are you really in the advice-giving business for? Do you really want to help people or do you just want to lecture to them?

I'm going to assume you want to help people. So here's your chance, and now you know how. Good luck -- I'm rooting for you.


mmy said...

Don't advise people on how not to be victims. Instead, advise people on how not to victimize.

Quoted for truth and then some.

Piece(s) of advice for people who are grading (because the issue of "black names" comes up a lot in academic grading as does the issue of female names).

Grade "blind". Have everything come in with a cover sheet that only identifies the student with a number. Have that number on each page. If necessary have those numbers changed for each test.

If the test has more than one question grade all answers to question 1 (so you can see each in context) and then reshuffle the tests before you grade question 2 (so impressions from grading one question don't spill over to the next). Have the tests, if impossible, be turned in typed not hand-written so that one doesn't come to associate a particular hand-writing with a particular student. One professor I had actually made the effort to have someone in the office retype all the tests so that he didn't come to associate certain fonts with certain students.

Every once in a while (but regularly) have another qualified person grade a sample of the tests -- someone who has never been in the class and doesn't even know which students are taking it. They are actually grading YOU as rather than the students.

Have to go off to physio now so will post more later but a great piece Ana and one which made me think a lot about issues that SHOULD come up for everyone who grades (or serves as a gatekeeper to anything)

Izzy said...

Yes, this.

The other thing is, I personally don't think most rapists or bigots or Objectivists *can* be reasoned with, because I am more willing to write people off than you are by a factor of something like a thousand. (I *do* think Victim-Blaming Guy is a bad person, and I'm not going to believe he's only trying to help unless I see a lot of evidence otherwise.) *However*, I think it's still worth addressing them, for two reasons:

1) If actually decent people are on the fence at all, having someone publicly and loudly say "Hey, what the hell? You don't fuck unconscious people! What's *wrong* with you, dickhead?" or "...so, you want to lower taxes on the wealthiest one percent when X% of classrooms don't have enough textbooks for their students? Are you evil or just stupid?" will maybe get the message across that those people's side of the fence is not a morally okay place to be, that sex with someone who can't consent is not "harmless fun" or "just a mistake", that the Tea Party's economic policies are not a strange little quirk, and so forth.

Shame works. Shame is a great tool.

2) As you say, it gets the message across that they are the ones to blame, not the victims. Like, the choice is not between "blame the victim" or "accept the wanton cruelty of the world", here; if you want to be angry at someone, there are plenty of people who deserve that anger.

Ana Mardoll said...

@mmy, those are beautiful tips, and a good example of why that kind of advice is NECESSARY. I've had Very Official Teaching Training (not very much of it, but I was an education major for a while) and I've never heard of any of those. I love them! Obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily something I'd immediately think of on my own. Beautiful. :)

@Izzy, yes! It's sort of a two-fold -- even if you don't get through to the victimizers, you at least get it through to society that VICTIMS ARE NOT TO BLAME. And then the comments on random online articles won't make us all ragey once a day. Win-win.

hapax said...

Well, here's a thing.

I have teenaged children, a son and a daughter. And of course I take every effort to teach them not to become victimizers: don't rape, don't be That Guy, don't cheat, don't lie, don't take advantage, etc.

But they do live in a society where not every parent does the same. And of course that's a problem with society, and each victimizer individually; it should change. It is changing. It will change more, please God with my and my children's help.

But it isn't changing fast enough.

And my daughter is still going to parties at her college. My son is still going to start driving soon. Both of them are applying for jobs. And so on.

So what am I supposed to do? I warn my daughter about drinking anything she hasn't opened herself. I caution her to take a buddy and watch each other's backs. And so on. I tell my son to wait when the light turns green for the red-light runners to clear the intersection. I urge him, if he's ever pulled over by the police, to immediately comply with the officer's instructions, even if the police are clearly in the wrong and out of line. I tell them to always print their essays and job applications, and wear nice clothes for the interview.

Yes, I tell them that it is WRONG WRONG WRONG that they should have to do these things. That doing everything "right" is no guarantee, because the ways that people come up with to screw each other over is infinite, and we should all be working for a world in which everyone is safe and treated fairly. But meanwhile, lock your freaking door, and look both ways before crossing the street.

Is this "victim-blaming"? I suppose by the lights of this essay, it is. And you know what? I'm okay with that.

Because honestly, I'd rather have children who felt the unfair burden of protecting themselves from those who should have been treating them better, than be pulling those same children from the wreckage of smashed cars and hospital beds, because I had raised them to believe that because this OUGHT to be a world where rapists don't rape, employers aren't prejudiced, police don't shoot innocent drivers, and everybody stops at the red light, then that's the world they actually live in.


JMH said...

The biggest reason to address the attacker is because "rapists" and "bigots" is not a binary proposition. I never realized the depths of my own privilege until someone told me privilege existed and that I had it. A lot of people end up sexually assaulting people, not because they're assholes, but because nobody's taught them what consent is. It's important to build rules like (as I read in a different article somewhere, and I apologize for the lack of reference) "only yes means yes" instead of "no means no", because that leaves confused sex partners who really don't understand that they did anything wrong "because they didn't say no, so it must've been okay, right?"
Most people are not bad people, but they do bad things until they know better. Only sociopaths can't be educated.

hapax said...

I'm sorry. That should have been a reply to the essay as a whole, not just to Izzy.

Ana Mardoll said...

@hapax, well, that's a really good point.

I think context probably changes things. I wrote this in terms of people throwing "advice" out onto the internet, where the audience is the whole world. I think private advice between a parent and a child is probably an entirely different thing. :)

I'm very much against parent-shaming, so I fully support you (and anyone else) advising their children in the way that seems best to you (or them). Because you know what your children need to hear better than I, random internet stranger, do. :)

hapax said...

I think context probably changes things. I wrote this in terms of people throwing "advice" out onto the internet, where the audience is the whole world.

Well, yes. There's that.

But in a way, those columnists you're talking about are the ones confusing context -- they are thinking that the same advice they'd give a close acquaintance is appropriate for universal dissemination. In general, I have a very low opinion of people who try to "parent" strangers, whether it is over the internet or the woman in the grocery store who scolded me about the way I dressed my infant son.

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive right now, since I've spent most of the last week being the Meanest Mother In The Universe.

Ana Mardoll said...

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive right now, since I've spent most of the last week being the Meanest Mother In The Universe.

I'm very sorry to hear that. I think parent/mom-shaming is a bastion of prejudice and privilege in our society. I think we also saw that in the recent holiday/NASCAR blow-up over breast-feeding. Parents should not be subjected to that, in my opinion, and "think of the children" should not be an excuse for social rudeness.

hapax said...

Hah! I should clarify: it's my CHILDREN who think I'm being unforgivably mean.

Friends in whom I've confided are of the opinion that I should be beating them. (Not really, but...)

Ana Mardoll said...

LOL. If it's any consolation, Mom and I were at each other's throats when I was a teenager and now we're the bestest, closest friends ever. So it's possible that they may come to have a different opinion with a few years and some distance. :)

mmy said...

hmmmm......I find myself in the entirely weird position of both agreeing with Ana and agreeing with hapax's caveats........

So, as those who know me on the web might remember, I taught classes about minority images/issues in the US. I also taught classes on the First Amendment and on copyright and issues like that so I had a lot of students who were, in American parlance, pre-law (although according to the ABA at the time there was no such thing.)


One student who took all those classes was white, male and he felt "not privileged" because by his lights he didn't have a lot of money (not having a lot of money meant that his parents couldn't foot all his costs for doing a law degree at a prestigious law school and for non-Americans that is a lot, lot, lot of money). One student who took all those classes was African-American, female, and at the time I knew her the sole support of the grandmother who had raised her since her older siblings weren't willing to pitch in "cause they had their own lives" and her parents were both out of the picture. Picture the sort of "poor child" that Newt Gingrich likes to demonize.

They both wanted to go to law school. He wanted to graduate, set up shop and become wealthy. She wanted to go to law school and become the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court (she presumed that it was highly unlikely that any other African-American woman would get confirmed in the interim.)

His parents were only willing to pay his way through undergraduate and she had managed to earn herself a full ride scholarship to a private college. He felt that she was getting things easier than him.

In an old movie she would be described as feisty. She and I would fight up hill and down dale about whether or not something was racist and whether I was unknowingly perpetuating racism and whether or not she was unknowingly perpetuating the victimization of the system and while I taught her a lot she taught me a lot too and that is how things like that are supposed to work.

[bear with me, I am getting to the point here, but all the context is necessary]

One day in a class we were discussing the existence / implications of laws that can be applied at the discretion of individual police officers -- using the fact that if you live in a "drug-corridor" (which parts of Michigan are) the police are allowed to remove you from your car, remove all the contents of your car and search you, your possessions (including your computer and phone) as well as the persons and possessions of anyone else in the car --- if you are pulled over for speeding. The decision to do so is generally left up to the discretion of the officer in question.

Well, say the white guy, just refuse and the worst that will happen is that they will take you and your car down to station and you call your family lawyer and he comes to the station and you pay him a hundred bucks.

The white guy said THAT to an African-American woman whose car had been pulled over for "speeding" that weekend, who had a large male African-American in the car (her boyfriend), whose boyfriend was handcuffed while they rifled through the car and called in the drug sniffing dogs. And who spent that entire time terrified that her boyfriend would open his mouth, protest about his rights (he was in law school at the time) and would get beaten and tasered if he did so.

Because she was so often argumentative with her professors I pulled her over after class and said "promise me please that you never, ever use anything you learn in class to ever argue with a police officer." She smiled, hugged me and whispered in my ear "you sound just like my grandmother."

So, do I think that massive structural changes need to be made. Yes. A thousand times yes. But I also am afraid that that young woman is going to lose her temper one day and get brutalized by the police for simply "acting white" while being African-American.

sarah said...

@hapax: A couple of years ago, I emailed my mom to say happy mother's day and added at the bottom, "Thank you for not killing me when I was a teenager." I was an insufferable brat from the ages of 11 to 15. So I salute you and throw good thoughts and things your way. I am sure you are not actually the Meanest Mother In The Universe.

Ana Mardoll said...

[tw: personal discussion of rape]

There is a difference, in my mind, between a conversation between two people in a close relationship (friend-friend, parent-child), and advice given from one stranger to another. In the case of a conversation occurring with the confines of a close relationship, the advised party has (presumably) a platform in which to speak up if they disagree. In the case of stranger-on-stranger advice, if the person being advise is a Marginalized Person, they have little recourse to voice their dissent and they will rarely be supported by the privileged society that agrees with the advice-giver.

Having said that, I will say -- as a rape victim -- that one reason why I didn't tell my parents for so long was that had I taken their advice my rape wouldn't have happened in the time and place that it did, because I was alone with a boy that my parents had warned me was dangerous. They were right, and I was wrong. It was many years before I could discuss this with my parents, because I felt like since the rape was my "fault", I (a) had no standing to complain and (b) would only be confirming that I was/had been wrong about someone that I had defended to my parents.

I wasn't uncomfortable with being wrong, I was uncomfortable with burdening them with something (my rape) that they had tried to prevent and I had "caused" by ignoring their advice.

I don't know how to avoid this. Obviously, it's ridiculous to say "don't warn your daughter that you're getting skeezy vibes from her boyfriend because then she can't tell you about her rape". That would be ridiculous. Possible hapax has the best solution: she combines her warnings with the continued message that victimizer is STILL the one 100% at fault and that she DOES want to know if her children are hurt.

(I think my parents didn't emphasize this because they thought it was obvious, but to be honest I can't remember. They may have said all those things and I just didn't register them. I'm certainly not the poster child for 'reacting well to being raped' since I actually tried to marry my rapist thinking that would make everything better. Long story, probably best told in another thread.)

mmy said...

Ana -- I agree wholeheartedly that the existing relationship between the people makes all the difference in the world. In the case of the student she had known me long enough that what she heard was "the bastards are going to look for every excuse to grind you down and sometimes they will do so even if you haven't given them an excuseto do so but not doing X and doing Y somewhat, marginally, lowers the odds that on that day and in that place they will victimize you.

And wow, what does that say about society that I have to say that to anyone?

TW: rape discussion

Oh lord rape. How do can one give the same advice "doing this doesn't mean that you won't get raped but it marginally lowers the odds that you will so" without making the person you advise feel "it is your fault?" I don't know. I only once, ever, had a student tell me that they were raped that they didn't feel that they were somehow "at fault" in some way. (That student was attacked in her apartment, the door of which had been locked, by a serial rapist armed with a weapon. And yup, I know there are people who would still blame her for the sin of surviving rather than making him kill her.)

I do not know how to say "this slightly lowers the odds" without the other person hearing "therefore you are complicit/at blame." And one of the reasons why that is what they hear when I say it is that is what society in general is saying to them all the time in a thousand ways.

How many times does it have to be said that it is always wrong to rape and never wrong to be raped? I don't know. I wish I lived in a world where that wasn't a question that needed to be asked.

Ana Mardoll said...

No doubt. I would guess that in my parents' case, their job would have been much easier if we weren't completely immersed in a rape culture where people DO blame rape victims for their rape. I suspect I picked up those social signals from a very early age -- how could I not?

[tw: victim-blaming]

I had an interesting conversation at work the other day. We were talking like this: Alien Prequel Movie --> Noomi Rapace --> Sherlock Holmes actress --> Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo actress. I knew that the person I was speaking to doesn't read a lot of books, so I mentioned that TGWTDT movie should NOT be entered "cold" (i.e., without knowing the plot) because there's a very graphic rape scene. The other person confirmed that they didn't like rape scenes in movies, and I nodded.

Then they said something interesting. They mentioned that they don't like innocent victims at all in movies and that they're more comfortable if someone (a woman in a specific movie was used as an example) is established as a "bad person" first before the murderer gets to them. The example brought up was "cheating on her boyfriend". I nodded, because (a) I understand the 20 Minutes With Jerks trope, and (b) this was a casual conversation, not a Privilege 101 thing, and I make casual conversation Fails ALL THE TIME, so I try not to speak up if the timing feels 'off'.

However. I wonder how much of that attitude is human nature and how much is TRAINED into us via the media and repeated signals? I think there was a time in my life where "bad behavior" didn't immediately equal "deserves death" in my mind. (Well, I mean, it still doesn't. Bear with me.) I wonder if we're not primed to that in, say, movies because SOMEONE has to die, so the least little "not-an-innocent" characterization makes it 'easier' for the audience to stomach. Having said THAT, I wonder if this understandable impulse isn't something we should consciously train OUT of society.

Wow, that ramble got away from me there. What was I saying?

mmy said...

Oh, and then we can get OT discussing whether or not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo book and/or movies are examinations of anti-woman behaviour or whether they are stealth methods of doing the thing condemned while holding oneself as above condemnation.

Rather like all the people who serve on censorship boards who are apparently above all the negative effects they argue the censored material would have on the general population.

Seriously, there is a level of lascivious enjoyment in TGWTDT of describing in detail just precisely how horrible this horrible treatment of women was because you when you do THIS (got a clear picture in your mind) it hurts women and when you do THAT (wow, another clear picture) it hurts women.

TW: Discussion of details.

Most people who flay, dismember and burn people to death do so rather specifically because they want the people they flay, dismember and burn to HURT!

Izzy said...

I totally disagree with the second-to-last part of your sentence: to me, doing bad things, for sufficient badness, makes you a bad person. Especially repeatedly. You can stop doing them, and become a not-bad person, but I'm not really caring about whether or not you know better until you do. There are resources out there. Go use them. If you can fuck, you can Google.

And on the one hand, yeah, it's important to provide information about what consent is and is not, how economics work, etc. On the other hand, if you really think "passed-out drunk=fair game" or "poor people just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" or whatever, then sweet and low probably ain't getting through to you.

If people do change, great. But I'm not spending a lot of time holding my breath.

Ana Mardoll said...

I actually really like TGWTDT and I think the author was trying to be a feminist ally. I've got a post coming up on 1/26 bragging on the series and then another follow-up post the week after (and a planned one after that that is not yet written) on where and how the series fails to meet the feminist goals I think it set for itself.

However, the book is NOT well-received by all of the feminist community (with good reason), so I expect it to be a very active thread. :)

Izzy said...

Ah, man, I can't count the number of times I told my parents I hated 'em, growing up. Or words to that effect. Surprised they didn't drown me and/or my sister in a boot somewhere along the line, honestly. Like Ana, I get along very well with them now.

JarredH said...


I do not know how to say "this slightly lowers the odds" without the other person hearing "therefore you are complicit/at blame."

I think this is especially true in a culture where "being too friendly" is an invitation to rape.

mmy said...

At the risk of sounding like I am doing shameless self-promotion I put a review of TGWTDT up on my blog what outlines by concerns with the book....http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/2011/09/book-review-girl-with-dragon-tattoo.html

Ana Mardoll said...

Good post! My scheduled 2/2 post ("The Problem with Bjurman") says many of the same things but less eloquently. I would be jealous of your writing skill, but I'm alright with being second-best. ;)

(Or third- or fourth- or eight-thousandth-best. *grins*)

(Have you finished the trilogy? I felt like Book 3 kind-of sort-of got better on that front, but then couldn't follow it through and cheaped out at the last minute. But this is a very nebulous feeling.)

Bayley G said...

Another major part of it is dispelling the myth that if you do everything "right" things will go well in general. I think if OWS manages to permanently change that dialogue it'll spill over into victim-blaming and help with that as well. For example, I was told as a child that I was "brilliant" and therefore the only reason to get less than perfect grades was that I was lazy and not trying hard enough.

TW: dark thoughts, self-abuse

I started flunking classes due to depression stemming from (I hesitate to use the word, so take this with heavy caveats) abuse at home and being unable to handle it any longer. It made things all the worse that my father was disappointed in my lack of academic performance, and worse, I felt like I should have been able to handle it, that if I hadn't "broken" I would have had a 3.8-4.0 when I graduated instead of a 2.7, I would have been able to go to an Ivy league school and graduated summa cum laude and been so perfect and smart and pretty that everyone in the world would just shower money at my feet but instead I was going to flunk out of college and end up homeless in a ditch someplace because I crumpled under a teeny tiny bit of pressure and didn't pull it off. Obviously, that didn't happen, but it didn't help matters one bit. Having the narrative out there that "even if you do everything right, sometimes life deals you a curveball and it's not your fault" will, I think, allow people to advise their loved ones without victim-blaming; just as "staying in school" and "getting good grades" are considered "the right way to do things", so, too, can "be aware of your surroundings" and "keep an eye on your drink" be considered "right" so long as failing to do so is considered "perfectly fine, too". The person who drops out of high school to help out when their family is going through rough times and the non-neurotypical student who struggles to bring home Cs are no less worthy than the valedictorian, and neither should the person who was raped by a stranger because they didn't watch their drink any more at fault than the person who was raped by a friend they trusted in their own home.

That came out kind of muddled, but I hope I managed to communicate the gist of my point.

Ana Mardoll said...

That absolutely makes sense. The cycle of victim-blaming is a horrible one that can especially push someone from depression into a deeper depression.

Laiima said...

This is such an awesome post, Ana - so much good food for thought!

TW: rape

(I am emboldened since you, Ana, mentioned your own experience.) As Slacktivites know, I was raped and terrorized by my cousin when we were both teenagers. I only told my parents 5 years later because I thought I was going crazy (it was undiagnosed PTSD), and wanted their help. They refused to help, and my mother told me that I was a liar and none of it could have happened, but if somehow it did happen, it was because I was a slut and a bad person. And that she loved him more than me.

As a result of the experiences with my cousin, I had trouble being around any guys. My father. My brothers. Random coworkers who were not violent or scary. To go out with a mixed group of friends, or to date, getting drunk meant I didn't jump out of my skin, or throw up, when a guy talked to me or sat next to me.

So, a year or so after the conversation with my parents, I went on a date with a coworker. He helped me get so drunk I was almost unconscious, and then he 'had sex' with me. At the time it was happening, I couldn't figure out why it was happening. I didn't consent, because he never asked; but I would NOT have consented. When I woke up the next day, I knew my parents would say I was a slut and a horrible person because I had had sex on a first date. So, to counteract *that*, I pursued the guy, and we dated for several months. Well, had sex. He never took me out again. It was another 18 years before I realized that he had raped me that first night. Which therefore could not possibly mean I was a slut and a bad person, no matter what my parents would have said.

In the Bad Old Days of Slacktivist, guy commenters told me I was lying about my own experiences, because they *could not* have happened that way. I only wish that were true. I'm willing to take on faith that other people have parents that they really love and trust and can count on, but it's not something I've experienced myself. And I really can't even imagine it. I've tried really hard, but it just doesn't match up with the reality I've lived.

Ana Mardoll said...

Laiima, thank you for sharing that. That must have been so painful to experience. :(

I'm sending you so many hugs over the internet.

For me, I sometimes think that the hardest part of sharing experiences of rape is the overhanging threat that someone will pop up with a victim-blaming accusation, or say that it "couldn't" happen, or that it wasn't "really" rape. But despite all those attempts at gaslighting, we know what happened in our lives and it's up to us to provide the support that society too often won't. *hugs*

Laiima said...

Hugs back to you. (I wanted you to know you weren't the only person to pursue a relationship with a rapist. Things are complicated.)

mmy said...

Laima and Ana, The Slacktiverse is putting up a piece relevant to that topic tomorrow. I'll look forward to getting your thoughts and feedback.

Ana Mardoll said...

@mmy, hey, thank you for the heads-up. A rape survivor piece?

Ana Mardoll said...

I appreciate that. I saw someone on a feminist board once say she dated her rapist because then it wasn't "really" rape, that that was the only way she could cope with it. So I guess that makes 3 of us. I wonder how common it is. I'm guessing: very.

mmy said...

That and more. I cannot sum it up in a few words except, well, it takes a standard trope about women and rape and re-examines what growing up in a rape culture really means.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, now I wish it was tomorrow already. :)

Makabit said...

I started to read the second TGWTDT book, and conked out after about three hundred pages. Perhaps it would have gone better if I'd read them in sequence. But I simply wasn't up for it. I could tell it was beautifully plotted, but I didn't much care what happened to anyone, and I couldn't be bothered.

I have to say, a lot of it seemed terribly, terribly cliched to me. Nothing much wrong with that, either, except that it was being hailed as incredibly incredibly fresh, and it didn't really feel much different from the average airport thriller to me.

Ana Mardoll said...

LOL. So here is how I experienced the series.

1. Watch movie cold. OMGWTFBBQ TRIGGER. Seriously. Then, admiration.

2. Get book. Read 50 pages. Give up in disgust. Worst writing ever.

3. Get audio book because movie was so lovely. In awe of narrator's incredible reading. Love.

4. Listen to books 2 and 3. Fan girl over voice.

5. Read all three books. So deep! Acceptable writing style!

6. Watch movies 2 and 3. Fume righteously about plot changes to make Berger annoying in movie 3.

I think that was about it. Mind you, this was earlier last year. :D

hapax said...

Let me repeat again, Laiima, how sorry I am that you had to suffer these experiences.

But how brave you are, to be able to share them. I hope that it brings you some small measure of healing, and to those who read it as well.

Nick said...

I realise that this is tangential to the main point of the post, but I do have a question about your list of five Rape Prevention Tips which you later say are NOT useful because they don't reflect reality -- what are the flaws with #1 and #5 (the one about watching the person's unattended drink and telling them if someone spikes it, and the one about calling the police right away if you witness a sexual assault)? I can't think of what they are.

Saito said...

Well, I can tell you the problem with #5: No situation is improved by adding a bunch of polyester-wearing machine-gun-toting adrenaline-junkies. Seriously, on what planet is it ever safe to call the cops? They don't like you. They don't want to help you. They can arrest you or take your stuff or hurt you and then what will you do? The attacker probably looks more like them than you. Who are they going to believe?

Veekhr said...

As I read it, and please correct me if I'm wrong, somebody, is that tips #1-#5 might work in very specific circumstances, but they still promote the cultural narrative that only stranger rape happens or needs to be watched out for. Most victims know their rapists and there are many types of sexual assault that don't appear violent, so these society-directed rape prevention tips won't help them.

#1 and #5 might work but only as a larger piece that acknowledges that victims know their abusers more often than not. That being said, I would prefer rapist-directed RPTs more.

Kit Whitfield said...

Many, many hugs to Laiima, if you want them.


Oh lord rape. How can one give the same advice "doing this doesn't mean that you won't get raped but it marginally lowers the odds that you will" without making the person you advise feel "it is your fault?" I don't know.

TW: I'm about to answer this by referring to an experience that was not rape. I do not mean to trivialise rape by so doing, and hope I manage not to.

I don't think you can give advice like that to someone who has suffered assault without them feeling it's their fault somehow, or it coming back to haunt them if they're unlucky enough to be raped. The thing is, rape is traumatic and trauma is humiliating. Trauma involves helplessness, and helplessness makes us feel bad about ourselves because our confidence depends on feeling like we have some control. A survivor may take control of his and her reactions and get confidence back that way, and learn to live with the fact that not having control is not something to be ashamed of ... but I think we're wired to feel humiliated if we're rendered helplessness.

I'm basing this on the experience of a bad birth. One of the hardest things to get over was that I felt humiliated for having such a bad experience - and any advice on how to make things go better next time was, for a time, impossible to hear except as 'It was your fault.' Because if I'd done something different, it might have gone different, so obviously it was my fault, right? It's easy to judge one's decisions in crisis brutally if one's judging from a position of safety; it's easy to be wise after the event - and if we've had a shaming experience, it's easy to use that wisdom to beat ourselves up.

So to some extent, I think 'You can lower the odds by doing X' is always going to be heard as blame in some circumstances. Which, again, I'd blame on the rapist. This doesn't mean we should stop giving advice that might be useful; just that we need to be aware of how humiliation and helplessness interact and try not to feed it any more than we can avoid.


Oh, and then we can get OT discussing whether or not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo book and/or movies are examinations of anti-woman behaviour or whether they are stealth methods of doing the thing condemned while holding oneself as above condemnation.

I vote for the latter. I've only seen the first two movies, but I really got fed up with all the rape. Up to a certain point, yes, it's an indictment of rape culture, but past that point you're just short of ideas for what to do with your heroine and possibly making a fetish out of her.

Plus - is there ever any point in that series where two women work together? Not just talk or have sex, but actually combine their efforts to achieve something? I get the strong impression that for all its purported feminism, women need a man to accomplish anything non-rape-related.

Ana Mardoll said...


Veekhr hit what I was going for: it's not that these tips won't help reduce rape, but rather that they will only be effective for a certain *kind* of rape that -- for the most part -- doesn't include the majority of rapes. Most rapes, for example, don't occur in outside places where strangers can overhear and alert the police.*

* Who, as Saito and mmy have noted, may or may not actually help the situation. Unfortunately. :(

So it's not that the tips are bad, it's that they aren't necessary and sufficient to address the majority of rapes. Which would not in itself be terribly bad (not all advice has to be necessary and sufficient), except that they're occurring in this HUGE cultural narrative that Rape = Jumped Outside By A Stranger In The Bushes and that narrative needs to slink off and die rather than be continually reinforced.

As an alternative, I would tweak the #1-5 tips to not be "RAPE Prevention Tips" and call them, oh, ways to help protect other strangers when you're out and about because we're all in this together. Which I think is the idea behind the people who say "fine, let's have some 'Binge Drinking' education tips, but let's DECOUPLE the tips from 'Rape' because otherwise we're getting into victim-blaming territory".

Ana Mardoll said...

Kit, I agree with your post, and am offering much hugs. I still get a little twitchy when I hear about your birth experience; that sounds like it must have been so dreadful.

Because I have nothing to add to your awesome points, I will instead talk about TDWTDT. :)

Plus - is there ever any point in that series where two women work together?

All examples from Book 3: Salander and her lawyer make a very good team in Book 3 after a bit of wrangling (the lawyer represents "by the book" mentality and Salandar and Blomkvist do not, and the two women have to meet in the middle and then the lawyer + Salander completely DECIMATE the opposition in court in a long scene carefully choreographed between the two women that makes me want to stand on my desk and cheer every time), there's a good deal of cooperation between a woman in the Swedish government service and a woman in the police force, and Berger and a woman at the private security agency team up to stop Berger's stalker in a very effective, but "extra-legal" manner.

All of this is cut from the movie, though, because it's a lot of talky-talky in an already extremely long book. And my biggest complaint with the Swedish movies is that Book 3 is a leisurely, cathartic stroll to the long-overdue victory, and Movie 3 jettisoned all that to make it more EXCITING and TENSE.

IMO, the books seem to go for mixed-gender pairings in terms of getting work done, but with the woman being the more competent member of the team. The reasoning behind the pairings seems to be so that Larsson can first establish the woman as "more competent" but then show the man being the one to whom everyone else defers to. I believe he was trying to highlight social prejudices against women , but I could be entirely wrong.

I think the Swedish movies did the best they could with the source material, but a major limitation is that the books are VERY "tell-y" because the main character, Salander, avoids talking to people as much as possible and doesn't leave her apartment for days on end. And 90% of the Telling The Reader About Salander is completely lost in the movies because there's no voice-over narrator saying, "Salander thought X about this because her childhood was Y and in response she's always wondered Z..."

Makabit said...

I taught at a local Catholic high school for a couple of years, and there was a gang rape at the public high school next door to us, at their homecoming dance. We were having a dance the same night, which I chaperoned, so I felt rather personal about it.

The degree of victim-blaming among our students had to be seen to be believed. It was a pretty bad little bit.

Silver Adept said...

This is a wonderful post. Applicable to my life right now are the parts about how even doing everything to the best of your ability and "right" by the advice-givers doesn't always mean things turn out well. After all, sometimes the people victimizing you are in positions of power that prevent you from asserting yourself the way you want to, because you have to stay employed / a student / something else.

And that's without things like court cases demanding that a cheerleader cheer for the athlete that sexually assaulted her, because her cheerleader status trumps her status as a victim.

Nick said...

@Ana -- Thanks for answering. I see what you mean.

Asha said...

I have tried to explain to a friend of mine why using the word 'rape' to describe winning in a video game is bad, as well as why his ableist comments are bad, too. It bothers me that he starts wanting to me to spout statistics, and I finally just called him immature. *twitch*

Randomosity said...

That was spot on.

Not only are rape prevention tips full of fail, they come wrapped up in a steaming package of This World Is Not A Vaccuum and Not All Things Are Equal.

I grew up in a world (as did many women) in which women were supposed to be nice, never hurt people's feelings, and smooth the way and put others first. We were to be the diplomats of the family. Forcefully saying anything was grounds for parental displeasure. As an eight-year-old, I was scolded for being too agressive when I, the smallest kid on my softball team, spoke up and said, "I take a small" when the coach was handing out T-shirts and asked who was a size small. That is an example of "too agressive". Now imagine if I hadn't been a roiling mass of feminism bursting out as a teenager and I didn't rebel against that. How would I convince anyone to do anything or stop doing something? I assume many women were taught the same things I was. Thankfully, the world is changing, but not fast enough.

Makabit said...

I'm going to take a really deep breath here, and say that I also think a 'do not call the police' blanket approach is not a good one. There are people and situations for whom this is not a good option, however, I think those people know who they are. In my community, in my situation, I'm pretty sure that I would not hesitate to call the cops and report a rape, and I would consider doing so something of an obligation, since I would feel safe doing so, and would be comfortable working with law enforcement.

This is something I feel strongly about, since an acquaintance was the victim of a 'classic' stranger rape near our college campus, and when she reported it, was told by the college that since some time had passed, she 'shouldn't bother' to report it to the local police, since they 'wouldn't be able to do anything' anyway. The situation had all the markings of a serial attacker, but the college's biggest concern, as far as I could tell, was preventing the rape from being allowed to damage their reputation. I can only guess the number of women who were similarly 'counseled' by campus 'security' who I never heard about.

In campus discussions about this, I heard an overwhelming lot of ignorance going around about California's rape shield laws--basically, people seemed unaware of them, and talked as though the law was what it had been the year we were born.

I can't tell anyone else what their situation is, or what to do. However, I think that to say that, if we're battling rape culture, one major leg of it which we want to follow in the footsteps of the second wave in kicking out is the assumption that law enforcement will not be called. Everyone's mileage obviously does vary.

Makabit said...

I'm going to take a really deep breath here, and say that I also think a 'do not call the police' blanket approach is not a good one. There are people and situations for whom this is not a good option, however, I think those people know who they are. In my community, in my situation, I'm pretty sure that I would not hesitate to call the cops and report a rape, and I would consider doing so something of an obligation, since I would feel safe doing so, and would be comfortable working with law enforcement.

This is something I feel strongly about, since an acquaintance was the victim of a 'classic' stranger rape near our college campus, and when she reported it, was told by the college that since some time had passed, she 'shouldn't bother' to report it to the local police, since they 'wouldn't be able to do anything' anyway. The situation had all the markings of a serial attacker, but the college's biggest concern, as far as I could tell, was preventing the rape from being allowed to damage their reputation. I can only guess the number of women who were similarly 'counseled' by campus 'security' who I never heard about.

In campus discussions about this, I heard an overwhelming lot of ignorance going around about California's rape shield laws--basically, people seemed unaware of them, and talked as though the law was what it had been the year we were born.

I can't tell anyone else what their situation is, or what to do. However, I think that to say that, if we're battling rape culture, one major leg of it which we want to follow in the footsteps of the second wave in kicking out is the assumption that law enforcement will not be called. Everyone's mileage obviously does vary.

Makabit said...

Sorry: Didn't think this went through. Second posting edited out.

Patrick said...

Maybe part of the reason this sort of post never goes over well with the target audience is because you aren't being fully honest in it?

I suspect that you don't actually mean that no one, anywhere, ever, should say to women, "don't leave your drink unattended." After all, you suggest this as good advice: "If you see someone leave their drink unattended, watch their drink. If someone puts a foreign substance in the drink, notify the owner of the drink immediately." You clearly think that drinks left alone are a cause for concern, and I doubt you mean that everyone should watch everyone else's drink but not their own.

You probably think that it should be said by specific people in specific contexts, and that the person you're talking to wasn't the right person and wasn't operating in the right context.

So just SAY that.

Ana Mardoll said...

I always enjoy getting up in the morning to an accusation of dishonesty. I mean, I would have thought I know more about my thoughts than other people, but I guess not. Huh.

This piece was written for an audience who had been told their advice was victim-blaming. I explained why their advice was called that, why it essentially is that, and how to avoid that in the future. And I have also given for personal discussion in the comments a very personal example where "good advice" not only failed to keep me from being raped, but it also prevented me from telling anyone about it afterward.

So it's just shy of possible, in my opinion, that maybe I am being honest and perhaps you don't understand what I'm saying. Or maybe you disagree with what I'm saying, in which case I heartily recommend you make your own blog post. More opinions available for everyone! *thumbs up*

Persephone said...

Very much bookmarked. I have encountered a lot of folks on the interwebs who seem to truly not understand why their "helpful advice" so upsets people, and this is a very clear and incisive explanation.

[tw for rape discussion]

Way up in the comment thread, someone mentioned that it's important to educate potential rapists because a lot of people just don't know what consent is, or understand that "only yes means yes." Super creepily, from what I understand that is actually mostly not true. Studies have shown that most rapists might not refer to what they're doing as "rape," but they know that they're taking advantage of someone against their will. They just think they can get away with it. I think the most important message that can be sent to potential rapists (which, I suppose, is everyone) is that they *won't* get away with it, and that they will be called out on and punished for their behavior.

Branewurms said...

What if some of us WANT advice on how to keep ourselves safer? I mean, I get everything you're saying here, I've heard it before, and I agree with it. Nevertheless, I am in fact interested in ideas about how to keep myself safer (from both strangers AND people I know), and I know a lot of other women are, too.

How do we deal with this without crossing over into victim-blaming territory? I'm seriously asking here, this has been bothering me for a while and I'm sure there must be a way but I haven't been able to fathom one.

Branewurms said...

I'm not thinking along the lines of friend-to-friend advice, though - I'm thinking along the lines of searching for advice on the internet or by other impersonal means. I mean, my friends are not exactly experts on things like self-defense and the like - who am I going to ask? You know, I want to google for advice as to how to, say, reduce the likelihood of being attacked in a dark parking lot and how to defend myself if I am in fact attacked in a dark parking lot, that sort of thing. How is it possible to give out advice on this sort of thing in a very general way without implying, either intentionally or unintentionally, that it is a victim's fault for being victimized if they don't follow these precautions?

Ana Mardoll said...

@Branewurms, I don't really understand the context of your question. Are you talking about a hypothetical girl who grew up without hearing Rape Prevention Tips all her life, yet has free access to the internet? I can't... imagine what that would look like.

I heard a teacher tell a story once. She said to her students, "You are in a mall parking lot after closing and walking to your car. Describe the steps you take to be safe." The girls scribbled furiously, writing down things like 'don't wear a ponytail', 'keep your key in your hand as a weapon', 'dial 911 on your phone and hold it there', 'check the backseat'. The boys sat there confused. The exercise was to highlight that girls are inundated with these messages in our society.

At the risk of saying something ignorant, if you are a woman in USAmerica, you have already seen and heard tips to protect yourself in a dark parking lot. Heck, you see them in security alarm commercials and AAA commercials and the like every single night. (Assuming you watch television nightly.) So when you say "how do I find out how to protect myself in a dark parking lot?" I don't... understand that question.

Ana Mardoll said...

But to answer your actual question, I would say you already have all the means you need. If you really want to learn "self-protection", take a self-protection course. I don't think they're hard to find via google. Take something that specializes in escaping holds and fleeing attackers. This will also have value in the coming Zombie Apocalypse.

Just be aware that there is no self-protection course that can cover all or even most incidents of rape in USAmerica. So if you do take a course, take it because you want to, not because you think it will help prevent rape.

Branewurms said...

No, I'm not asking about a hypothetical woman who hasn't heard the usual sets of tips a million times. This information is out there abundantly on the internet, and most of us are inundated with these messages from an early age, as you point out. But you are saying - and I agree with what you're saying - that in most cases these tips and whatnot are a form of victim-blaming, however unintentional. So if we are currently doin' it rong, how *do* we continue to advise girls and women on how they can protect themselves, while also trying to shift the responsibility for the problem onto the attackers, where it belongs?

(I just realized this might be coming off rather demand-y, like YOU CAN'T SAY THESE THINGS UNLESS YOU CAN ANSWER MY QUESTION. I don't mean it to be, and sorry if it did sound that way. I'm just wondering if you do have any ideas.)

Ana Mardoll said...

OK, I think I'm on the same page now, thanks for the clarification. :)

So if we are currently doin' it rong, how *do* we continue to advise girls and women on how they can protect themselves...?

So I can only speak for myself here, but I'm not sure that we CAN. There's actually very little that I personally can do to protect myself from rape. If I were in a public place drinking, I would try to keep an eye on my drink but I don't think it's humanly possible to never take one's eye off it. (And even if it were, the person supplying the drink -- waiter, bartender, what-have-you -- still represents a point of failure.) If I were able-bodied, I might take a self-defense class for fun, but that does no good against multiple attackers or someone with a gun. If I owned a gun, statistically it would be more likely to be used against me than to be used to protect me.

Then there's the trust factor. Ultimately, nothing is stopping my father or my husband or my brother or my best friend Bob from raping me if they decide to do so. There's very little I can do to preemptively protect myself from the people who are STATISTICALLY* most likely to rape me because I can't live a life constantly on guard against the people I emotionally depend on for a quality of life. I wouldn't have a quality of life if I did so. This is a personal statement, by the way -- other people's mileage will vary.

So when someone says "how do we teach girls to defend themselves", well, there's plenty of resources out there where they can try to "up" their chances in terms of avoiding and/or escaping rape. But the best way to 'defend' girls in the long term is to teach men not to rape, and transform society where rape victims are believed and rapist are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anything else in the interim places an undue burden on women with very little real benefit -- which was what I was trying to get to in the post.

* Not that I think my father, husband, brother, and/or friend Bob are likely to rape me. But then, that's kind of the point, isn't it.

Anonymous said...

I tried watching my drink 100% of the time once in a social situation. I was bowling with some coworkers that I didn't know well and I had a coke. It was socially awkward. It was also obvious what I was doing even though I was trying to be inconspicuous about it. And difficult to throw the bowling ball.

So, another problem with these advices is that they're actually impossible to follow through on.

Ana Mardoll said...

Yes, this.

Catherine Prickett said...

On the topic of buying a computer: something else the Forbes guy hasn't taken into account is that computers require upkeep, and that can be expensive. Even a brand-new computer can have something go wrong, and the chances are higher on a refurbished one. And if you can't afford to get it fixed, that computer you scrimped and saved for months (or years) to buy has just turned into an expensive paperweight.

We're privileged enough that not only could we afford to get computers, but we also have lots of tech-savvy friends, so there have been times when we were able to have one of them fix something. But other things (like a major hard drive crash that happened last year) have required professional help.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little said...

TW: Rape

I wish to all the Gods that I had had this post to link to when, last year, a trusted friend out of the blue emailed me that she was frustrated with certain feminist messages, and she thought that even though women were NEVER "to blame" for being raped, didn't I agree that they had certain responsibilities to stay safe, e.g. don't go there alone that late or wear excessively provocative clothing?

I'm not sure linking to this would have helped any more than what I actually did (apparently, linking her to Melissa McEwan's Rape Culture 101 article was insulting, because how dare I suppose she needed a 101 lesson when she'd been a feminist since like before I was born? and telling her "What do I think? I think what you're saying is depressingly mainstream and contributes to rape culture" was tantamount to accusing her of supporting rapists and I should be ashamed of myself; oh, and, also, that I felt less safe around her because of the opinions she expressed made her feel less safe expressing her opinions around me and also made me a bad friend) ...

...but maybe had I read it I could have made a more coherent argument. Once I got over the "OMG WTF is in my inbox" reaction. Which I sort of still haven't.

But I think a relevant difference between what my friend said and what, say, hapax would say to her kids is, my friend used the term "responsibility." As in, "Don't you think women have a responsibility to keep themselves safe, too?" That word immediately opens up an exceedingly blamey thought space. Because if you have a
responsibility that you don't live up to, you're irresponsible. Because if someone else is talking about my responsibilities, they are putting me on notice that they are holding me responsible. Suddenly it's "You're responsible to me for acting appropriately, and if you don't live up to those responsibilities, you're letting the side down."

I can't imagine hapax would say to her kids, "You have a responsibility to monitor your drink at all times to make sure no one doses it with rophynol." Because that puts the kids in a place where, if they then, heavens forfend, are victimized via drugged drinks, it means they failed their responsibilities. That's a horrible way to frame the discussion.

At the most, I think we can say "every woman is responsible to herself for her own safety -- and that means evaluating the possible risks of a situation and deciding if they are worth running in order to maintain their chosen quality of life." The way my friend put it made it sound like every woman should always make the same decisions vis-a-vis clothing and the rest, but the truth is, where one woman might refuse to ever be by herself in public after dark, another might consider it her Goddess-given right to go to a bar by herself, drink beer, enjoy herself, and then walk home alone at 1 AM. Me, I weight the miniscule chance the Rape Prevention Rules have of actually preventing rape against the 100% chance that following them will radically diminish my quality of life, plus I weigh in that "don't wear provocative clothing" actually means "accept responsibility for controlling men's decisions via your clothing choices, oh, and, by the way you have to be able to read every man's mind and know what he finds sexy and avoid doing it," and I end up saying fuck the rules. And that's my right.

The sick thing is the way so many of these victim-oriented rape-prevention tips turn into ways of enforcing a pre-suffrage level of social restriction on women. "Sure, sure, it's the 21st century and you have equality now -- but if you act like that's the case, you'll get raped."

Ken said...

I think the problem with advice is simply that it presents advice for potential victims and ONLY for them, thus creating the effect that only the victims are responsible. There is scarcely any advice on how to prevent other from being victimized - the example with the drink is really glaring here. Surely if we watch each others back many crimes (including rape ) could be averted. As for advice for potential rapists however, I disagree - people who spike the other's drink can not be reasoned with. Surely "only yes means yes" is important to teach (btw. Hapax, did You also talk to your SON about this? Did you teach him that a woman too drunk to walk is also too drunk to consent to sex?) , but most of them simply won't listen to any advice - they know that what they do is wrong, and still do it. And it cannot be prevented with some easy measures - sleep agents are bought daily by millions for innocent purposes while many other drug ARE combated by police fiercely, with zero effects (you can inject heroin yourself OR use it to drug the girl. OR you can get her hooked and she will sleep with you "willingly"). Remember that you and other POTENTIAL victims are the only one who want change, and nobody is less able to change that the one who doesn't want to. So Society is important (especially as "saving each other" - variety), but perpetrators won't listen, period.
What I also miss are realistic scenarios. "Don't shy from reporting what your Father/Brother/best friend did to you, they do not deserve special treatment " is told surprisingly rarely, and as a result, everybody knows such rapes are save game. This is of course again directed at victims, but this one COULD be game-breaking - if such rapes (which statistically make a majority) would get prosecuted (which is of course ALSO a thing for society but also for potential victims) , they woukd become more rare.

hapax said...

Hapax, did You also talk to your SON about this? Did you teach him that a woman too drunk to walk is also too drunk to consent to sex?

Uh, yes? With both children? And also cautioned son about victimization -- it's not only women who get raped.

Also, the importance of consent has been a HUGE part of their education since, I don't know, they were two? "No, daughter, I don't care how cute your brother is, if he says he doesn't want to be cuddled, you
may not cuddle him." "I don't care if she's laughing from being tickled, she said stop, and that means STOP."

Really, this isn't a "women's issue", and not just because "the menz have sisters, daughters, mothers."

EVERYBODY knows what it means to have boundaries violated. It's isn't that esoteric a concept.

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