Sunday, August 24, 2014

Blame, Shame, Responsibility, and Empowerment

After the Steubenville rape story broke a few years ago, I found myself in a discussion about how to prevent sexual assault. The male friend I was talking to has, like me, a teenage daughter, so this type of violence is something we worry about. He is fairly traditional. I am a feminist. We fell into predictable camps: he was thinking mostly about how girls can protect themselves from rape: don't take a drink from a stranger, don't leave your drink, don't drink at all. Walk to your car with a buddy, avoid fraternities, don't be out late. Don't wear provocative clothing, don't flirt, do carry pepper spray. In contrast, I was thinking of how we need to teach boys not to rape. We need to teach our sons that nonconsensual sex is rape: if she can't or won't consent, it's rape. It's not funny, it's not masculine, it's not part of a good evening out; sex is not something to which boys are entitled. As the two of us discussed it, I found myself thinking that my friend's approach, telling girls how not to get raped, was essentially victim-blaming.

Victim-blaming: we all know the phrase by now, and know it's a bad thing. When someone experiences something sucky, it's natural for that person and the people around her to construct a story about avoidance. Yet the very act of constructing such a story seems to implicate the victim: if only you had done X, you would not have been hurt by Y. How-to-avoid morphs quickly into it's-all-your-fault.

This NHS anti-rape campaign drew sharp criticism for victim blaming
This is a slippery slope indeed, and we need to figure out a better way to cope with these discussions, because avoidance tactics are not just about victim-blaming. As my friend would argue, they are also very much about the opposite: empowerment.

Power comes with two edges: blame and control. If my friend and I arm our daughters with protocols for avoiding assault, is that a subtle way of telling them it's their job not to get assaulted, and their fault if they do? But if we don't give them such protocols, aren't we being neglectful? Aren't we indicating that they are utterly passive, that assault will happen or not happen because of things outside their control, and there's nothing they can do about it?

This issue goes far beyond sexual assault. It comes up everywhere, just look for the keywords "shame," "blame," and "responsibility." Victim-blaming includes body shaming: heavy people are too often told that their body is a problem, and that it's their own fault for getting that way. Unfortunately, well-meaning people try to reverse this by telling the overweight they are helpless: You can't do anything about your body: it's entirely determined by your genes. While it is certainly true that many aspects of our health are beyond our control, it's totally untrue that we have no control over our bodies. I'm reminded of the classic Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. If all that exists are "things you cannot change," then you really are a victim. What is meant to be protective and kind becomes mantra of passivity and hopelessness.

The obvious middle ground is to do both: arm ourselves with strategies and acknowledge we can't control everything. We also must firmly place blame where it belongs: in the case of sexual assault or any other crime, it's on the perpetrator. Our avoidance stories should always be bookended with "the criminal is solely responsible for the crime." The store owner could have had a better alarm system, the assault victim could have walked a different route; you can always play a what-if game. When we talk to people, or about people, who are in the midst of something unfortunate, we need to be extra careful to protect those individuals from our avoidance stories. We can't help generating those, it's part of being human, but nobody who has survived a disaster or who is fighting a chronic disease or suffering through some other shitstorm needs to hear about how they could have, should have avoided it.

Social media makes this difficult. On Facebook and Twitter, the theoretical is so easily interpreted as personal. If I post a story about how one can protect one's body from disease through diet and exercise, someone who is struggling with weight-related disease might interpret that as a personal attack. They might feel angered by the implication that with power to change how you look and feel comes responsibility to take those steps. I may be seen as participating in "fat shaming" by detailing my own weight-loss journey or posting someone else's. The minefield that is the human body is especially difficult to discuss: blame and shame crash into aesthetics which is mixed up with health. Disease and beauty are entangled: a long history of people being awful to other people because of their shape makes it extremely difficult to talk about what we can do to find and maintain health.

An anti-obesity ad campaign in Georgia, also sharply criticized
A response to the Georgia campaign
Perhaps another helpful shift would be to view responsibility and power as a group dynamic, not merely an individual one. It's simply unkind to tell a poor, sick person that it's entirely up to them to get better. It's unfair to tell women that avoiding rape is all on them. It's also irresponsible to tell either group that they are powerless to do anything about rape or disease. Individuals need to be empowered with strategies they can use and society needs to take collective responsibility for its own shortcomings. Sexual assault and metabolic syndrome, the two examples I'm focusing on here, are not merely individual problems. They are ills created and supported by the whole society, its laws and memes and mores. Somehow we have to find a way to talk about responsibility in ways that don't shame and blame individuals, but don't strip them of their own power over their lives, either.


  1. As the father of three, two adult daughters and one adult son, I agree totally. Blame does not reside in the victim, in any form. Yes we sould counsel our kids on how to avoid things like this, but to couch it in terms of avoidence of personal violence is to say our culture is so out of whack to be beyond belief. I hope we're not at this point. Because if we were, I'd buy them each a weapon, and tell them if a man looks at them cross-eyed, use it.
    I'm almost 70, and have seen this long enough.

    1. "Blame does not reside in the victim, in any form." I think just the fact that most people now accept this, at least nominally, is a huge change for the better. Hopefully we'll continue to chip away at the cultural institutions that support sexual violence ... until they are gone.

  2. I watched a documentary about the sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military. One of the responses by the military is to create a series of posters and announcements that blame the victims.


    1. Was that The Invisible War, Janie? I saw that, too. Very powerful. Along with The House I Live In, one of the best documentaries I've ever watched.

    2. Yes, it was The Invisible War. I think I have The House I Live In on my Netflix list.


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