[Content Note: Rape, Racism, Victim-Blaming]
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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":
- You could own an umbrella.
- You could own a (water-proofed, non-leaking) car.
- You could own a house with an attached garage.
- You could work at an office with an attached garage.
- 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?
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.