Australians march in a Slutwalk rally in Sydney, June 13, 2011. (Reuters/Tim Wimborne)
Americans are very confused about rape. In the last few months—in the midst of high-profile cases and bumbling politicians’ gaffes—the national conversation about sexual assault is front-and-center. But instead of inspiring a proactive discourse on how to stop rape culture, much of the response has been centered around trying to “understand” rapists, or explain away why rape happens with such disconcerting frequency in the United States. We dismiss it as the actions of sociopaths, or insist that it’s just the result of miscommunication in an oversexed world.
Rape is a standard result of a culture mired in misogyny, but for whatever reason—denial, self-preservation, sexism—Americans bend over backwards to make excuses for male violence. This refusal to place responsibility with the perpetrator means we need to place it somewhere else—most often, with the victim. And while victim-blaming is nothing new, its pervasiveness serves as a stark reminder of women’s second class status—where we’re not actual people, just catalysts for men’s actions.
For example, while the public response to the widely covered Steubenville case has largely been supportive of the victim—thanks in part to pictures distributed online by partygoers that show the girl clearly unconscious—there has also been the standard victim-blaming. Accusations that the girl was known to be sexual (the horror!) have come out—as have comments that she shouldn’t have gotten so intoxicated, or that we shouldn’t “rush to judgement” against the accused.
Similarly, when hundreds of anti-rape marches called SlutWalks were launched after a Toronto police officer commented that if women want to avoid rape they shouldn’t “dress like sluts,” hostile responses to the protests were commonplace. (Some sample comments from CNN: “I mean we prosecute thieves but we also tell people to lock their doors when they go out.” “Yes you can blame the man who cannot control himself but if he is found guilty you should also be found guilty of being so inviting.”)
But putting the onus on women to mitigate men’s sexual “desire” doesn’t just happen in rape cases. In Iowa, a dental assistant who was sexually harassed by her boss and eventually fired lost her discrimination case when the all-male state Supreme Court ruled that an employer can fire a woman for being “irresistible.” And a controversy around the dress code in NYC’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School was similarly motivated. Principal Stanley Teitel told a reporter, “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go.… The bottom line is, some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.”