The Problem with ‘Blaming the Victim’

In 2013, journalist Emily Yoffe explained the relationship between sexual assault and drunkenness on college campuses in a column titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” Yoffe stated that “we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them.” Four years later, amid a surge of sexual misconduct scandals, neuroscientist and actress Mayim Bialik wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times titled “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” Bialik wrote: “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise.” Even though Bialik and Yoffe both acknowledged that perpetrators are responsible for their crimes, many felt they were blaming the victims of sexual assault.

Interestingly, advocating precautionary measures and wise decisions seems acceptable in other situations. For instance, due to car break-ins in my area, the local Sheriff’s Office announced a “Lock it or Lose it” campaign urging the public to make sure that they lock their vehicles so that they will not be an “easy target” for thieves. Protective behavior admits that threats exist, and it is worthwhile to employ whatever power we have over our fate to keep ourselves safe. Shouldn’t that same logic apply to sexual assault? I have received advice intended to protect me from harm throughout my life ranging from refusing rides from strangers to wearing a condom during sex. None of it was meant to hold me responsible for someone else’s actions. On the contrary, it was meant to empower me.

The criticism Yoffe and Bialik faced raises a few questions. When is it acceptable to explore steps that individuals can take to try to reduce their odds of being victimized during conversations about sexual assault? Where is the boundary that separates victim-blaming from practical advice?

It is indisputable that the cause of sexual assault is the perpetrator, and not every sexual assault is preventable. But choices are not insignificant. In 2015, a Stanford University student named Brock Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman after she passed out behind a dumpster following a fraternity house party. According to a written statement published by BuzzFeed, the victim said, “I made silly faces, let my guard down, and drank liquor too fast not factoring in that my tolerance had significantly lowered since college. The next thing I remember I was [on] a gurney in a hallway.” If drinking to the point of unconsciousness is unwise, then saying so is not blaming the victim. It is the truth, which might be easier to acknowledge if the victim passed out behind the wheel of a moving vehicle instead of a dumpster.

I realize that the idea that women can make choices that will completely shield them from sexual assault is a dangerous fantasy. The idea that women’s choices do not matter at all or that sexual predators will vanish tomorrow could be even more dangerous. Perhaps reducing sexual assaults will require some combination of harsher penalties for offenders, lowering barriers to reporting attacks, stressing the importance of consent and restraint, and changing the way people (mainly men) view sex and sexuality. I am not sure. But I am convinced that criticizing individuals that are attempting to offer women strategies to protect themselves possibly is a step the wrong direction. I fear that when we refuse to examine the actions of any victim leading up to sexual assault, we are sending a message that people are powerless to discourage abuse and their safety rests solely in the hands of others. That is not a message I want to send to my daughters. The cost is far too high.

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