The fight against rape culture feels like an uphill struggle. Our victories are largely incremental: tweaking the discourse a little here; changing a few hearts and minds there. Yet over the years we have achieved improvements, and I had thought that perhaps we were finally starting to see a shift in attitudes towards rape.
I was dismayed, then, when I saw an article published in Slate magazine which seems to undo much of the progress we had started to make. In her article, agony aunt Emily Yoffe argues that to prevent rape, young women need to stop getting drunk. I wondered at first whether this was an archive piece, run from the 1970s, but sadly it was not. Indeed, Yoffe seems to be under the impression that what she is saying in somehow novel rather than a trope so tired I had thought it almost dead.
Yoffe points to evidence that about 80 per cent of women at college who have been sexually assaulted had been drinking, and they are unlikely to report it to the police. The fact they had been drinking at the time was a source of guilt and shame. Yoffe concludes from this that young women ought to “take responsibility” and stop drinking in the hope that “their restraint trickles down to the men.” My interpretation is somewhat different: I think Yoffe might have got cause and effect the wrong way round.
Despite what Yoffe seems to think, she is not the first to suggest that women are somehow responsible for stopping themselves from getting raped. She says: “That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.” To me, this is still called victim-blaming. It shifts responsibility from the perpetrator to the survivor. It entails undue focus on the survivor’s behaviour or attire. Survivors are often reluctant to report rape because of the belief that they brought it on themselves. Such victim-blaming beliefs have also been found to differentiate between men who were sexually coercive or aggressive and those who were not in one study. In other words, lumping responsibility on the survivor helps rapists justify their actions to themselves, and helps them get away with it.
It is because of the evidence base, and the increasing vocalisation of feminist arguments against victim-blaming that suggesting that women might be able to stay safe has gone out of fashion somewhat. I am unsure how all of this could have possibly passed Yoffe by. It must be comforting to believe that everything is fair and just, that if we behave ourselves just right, then nothing bad will happen to us. It must be comforting to feel a sense of control, that if we dress modestly, and don’t go out and drink, and don’t walk down dark alleys alone, we’ll be fine.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is only one variable that really matters, and no matter how much we do things like we’re told, we have no control over it. That variable is a rapist being present. That might sound terrifying. It is. It might sound as if we are completely powerless. We are not.
Women can never be free when the threat of rape is held over us as a consequence if we do not behave like perfect virtuous citizens. Doing away with victim-blaming would make excellent progress on our path to liberation. The only ones who would be hard-done-by here would be rapists.