Thoughts Provoked by Victim-Blaming and the Notion of Female Responsibility

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

—Margaret Atwood, “Half-Hanged Mary”

Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.

—Kate Manne, Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University

___

I recently found myself in an unwanted debate with a woman in her late forties who said, in relation to victims of sexual violence, that women needed “to start taking more responsibility for themselves.”

Up until this point, I thought we had been having a relatively friendly, thought-provoking, conversation. The statement, to me, was so out of line with all the opinions and values she’d expressed prior (being anti-trump; against and constantly shocked by the overwhelming entitlement many Americans possess; grossed out by our country’s racism, and its avid denial of the history that has allowed racism to evolve past slavery and segregation, etc.) that it threw me for a loop.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve gotten myself into some situations, and I can’t sit here and cry rape and deny that I put myself in those situations.”

This led to my asking a surplus of questions, like: Are women supposed to just not, like, live or do anything? What about men? How much responsibility are they expected to take? All of which, ultimately, kept being answered with the cryptic reiteration that she had “put herself in some situations” and that she “had to take responsibility” for those “situations.”

Which, yeah, okay, fine. That’s her prerogative, and right, as a freethinking individual.

However, all that being said, I still couldn’t stop myself from saying, “That makes me feel so sad, for you, though.” (I didn’t say this from a place of condescension. I said it from a place of: clearly something not-so-great happened to her, and she felt, on some level, that whatever happened to her was her fault; that it was her responsibility to blame herself and hold other women to the same standard. That she couldn’t view the situation—whatever it was—as a mistake to move on from, free of blame for both sides, and completely irrelevant to the sexual violence experienced by other women.)

Long story short: She didn’t like me saying that. She didn’t like me, period. (She made it very, very, clear.) And, not going to lie, I wasn’t exactly charmed by her either.

Days following the conversation, I felt increasingly less and less sympathetic, and more and more pissed off. Not at her, exactly, but at all the internalized misogyny it takes for a fellow woman to say something as vague and victim blaming as “women should take more responsibility for themselves,” just because she, apparently, had “bad sex” (a term used to describe the grey area, between sexual assault and consensual sex, with one example being the encounter between “Grace” and Aziz Ansari) once, and is so limited to her own experience that she assumes “bad sex” is what every woman means when she claims sexual violence. (Every time I’m about to see what people mean when they say #MeToo has gone to far, or that “women need to take more responsibility,” or that being too discerning as a woman—AKA, attempting to call certain men out on their bullshit, or not wanting all that much to do with men beyond the necessary interactions—is a problem, I stop and ask myself: When have women ever not taken responsibility for themselves, generally speaking? Like, the people who think this shit, have they ever seen an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? Because, if you’ve ever seen The Handmaid’s Tale, you already know, every female character is forced to take responsibility for herself, on some level, and in spite of all victimization—even the most privileged, and complicit, among them. While all the men are heralded, excused, and—essentially—allowed to do whatever they want, so long as they contribute to, or remain complicit in, an oppressive system. This is, 110%, intended to serve as a magnifying glass for the real world.)

It made me consider, all the ways women do take responsibility, and how we fail to understand these ways as very telling of our surrounding culture’s beliefs about where the blame—in instances of sexual assault, rape, and abuse—truly lies: pepper spray among car keys, the firearm’s trainer who told me more women than ever are signing up for his classes, a co-worker who advised me to get a license to carry, due to my late and lonely work hours, “just in case…”

Eventually, all this consideration bled into other relating thoughts, and memories. Like how—due to recent law and policy changes—I had to sit through a sexual harassment training and listen to other women say things like, If you work in a male dominated environment, then you should expect to be harassed and discriminated against. Or, Women are only coming forward now because they want fame and money. And, Men aren’t allowed to say anything anymore.

And, I realized, it never fails to shock me—as if every time is the first time I’m realizing it—just how far American women are willing to distance themselves from the experiences of other American women, and just how much—through this distancing—they must hate themselves, in some deep-seeded way, for not being born men.

Like, okay—let’s say you’re a woman, and you believe women should expect to be harassed and discriminated against in male dominated environments. Now, ask yourself: Why the fuck do you want to believe that? (Ditto to the idea that women should take more responsibility for being assaulted, abused, raped, or even for running into “bad sex.”) I hear so many women say such flippant and self-eradicating things, and I don’t understand. Why—the constant denial, of one’s right to her own wholeness, and interests?

As a result of all this thinking, and in an attempt to understand, I eventually decided to read more about the general psychology behind victim-blaming. And I learned that, to some degree, victim blaming is a natural response to our own fear surrounding a victim’s experience. (For example, thinking a person who gets pick pocketed should’ve held onto his wallet, rather than keeping it in his back pocket, is a mild form of victim-blaming. It’s a means for us, as unaffected individuals, to restore our belief in the world as a safe and fair place, under the pretense that bad things only happen to those who—on some level—deserve them. AKA, getting pick pocketed would never happen to us because we’d be more responsible.)

I understand this psychological reflex is a form of self-preservation; that—yeah—it’s human instinct to deny vulnerability, or to want to distinguish oneself from it. I get that: we all want to look tough in the face of, or exempt from, the world’s hardships. And, therefore, we all victim-blame, to a certain extent. None of us are innocent. However, the older I get, and the more I learn, the more difficult it is for me to relate with people who don’t sympathize with the small, normalized and continuous, traumas that women endure, in everyday life, and how these small traumas condition many women, overtime, to hate themselves, and often, eventually, leads them into complacency, painful and chronic confusion, or even an active role in their own dehumanization—in spite of the choices modern living has offered them.

In America, we live in a free world, where we, as women, can want what we want; can be what we want. But, I think, the surrounding culture and society has given us so many conflicting messages about how women should and should not act; what we can and cannot be—is still so hyper-critical of feminine complexity—that many women have been robbed of the proper tools to figure out what the fuck “what we want” even, truly, is. (I don’t mean this in the short-term, like with things such as consent, or being able to answer confidently—yes or no—to a date. I mean in matters of responding to coercion and manipulation; to sex and power dynamics in professional settings; to long term relationships that gradually turn isolating and abusive; whether to defend a female colleague, or to keep your reputation, status, academic standing—what have you… How can women be expected to always respond to these experiences “correctly” when a good portion of the population still tells us these experiences aren’t even that complicated, or traumatizing?)

And I know: I’ve read articles that argue how what I’ve just described is infantilizing to women. But—based on my own humble and limited experience—I don’t see it that way. I see it as being honest, and fair—for once. (Growing up, I wasn’t deprived of options. I was taught to fight for myself. I was told that I could be whatever I wanted; that I had the choice to pursue my dreams; to wear what I wanted, date who I wanted, go where I wanted; to define my own experiences and identity, for myself. However, I wish someone would have told me that, pursuing and doing all of these things, without apology, or self-doubt—with intelligence, and confidence—would feel so lonely, and costly. Especially as a woman.) Because: I get it. This is the world women live in—a misogynistic one, where men often do, and get away with, things they know they shouldn’t—and it’s each woman’s individual responsibility to figure that out; to decide, how much she’s willing to fight for her whole self, or how much she’s willing to sacrifice and overlook—in exchange for some semblance of our patriarchal society’s acceptance. Knowing that, regardless of what she chooses to prioritize, it will never be enough to someone.

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