Victim Blaming: The Past and The Present

Trigger warning: This article will contain discussion of murder, rape and sexual assault.

For a lot of people, the concept of ‘victim blaming’ may be a relatively new one. With the rise of social media and the online trolls commenting on every news article, individuals who have suffered any form of injustice are subjected to every sort of scrutiny available. This scrutiny more often than not takes the form of ‘victim blaming’ where the individual who has suffered is blamed for that suffering; the insinuation being that they brought it upon themselves.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in discussions surrounding violence against women, and, sadly, victim blaming is not a new concept but is something that women have been experiencing for thousands of years.

Throughout historical narratives we can see clearly how male authorship perverts the reality of an experience to exonerate his own gender from wrongdoing, landing the blame squarely on the shoulders of women. For example, when Augustine (Christian theologian, philosopher and bishop) discusses the rape of Roman women and girls in 410 C.E. at the hands of the Goths, he states that “some woman of depraved mind…is on the way to her seducer to be violated,” (Augustine City of God 1.18) and that this act could not have taken place without some “carnal pleasure” in her mind. In this instance, Augustine is blaming the woman for being raped, refusing to acknowledge the fact that it is the male here who is the aggressor and his carnal desire that has led to this rape taking place. Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (a Christian text detailing Thecla’s conversion to Christianity), Thecla is nearly raped outside Antioch, but once again we see the blame placed on her shoulders – in this case, for being too beautiful. Her assailant receives no punishment, no admonition for his behaviour; instead the male author highlights how her would-be rapist didn’t have a choice, and that because of Thecla’s beauty he was compelled to violent sexual actions. In both these instances we see male authors distancing themselves from admitting that men are complicit in (and responsible for) sexual violence against women by victim blaming and dangerously asserting that she was “asking for it.” But if you think this is an archaic view or a thing of the past then newsflash:

 This ideology is still prevalent today.

Because when you think about it, how many times as women in the 21st Century have we heard that old chestnut? The old “she was asking for it” line, or the “she shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt if she didn’t want negative attention” crap.  But when you analyse these idiotic comments directly alongside the comments of one of the most prominent Christian authors (and, may I add, a saint) is it any wonder that these ideals have permeated into the way that violence against women is viewed today? The very idea that Augustine is exploring – the female desire to be raped – is echoed in discussions that men have with women today, with “have you ever fantasied about being raped” asked on dating apps as a casual question. The fact that men believe that women have fantasised about a brutal violation of their bodies is not only disgusting, but indicative of whole host of issues regarding the way men view violence against women.

But how are we to avoid this violence? Well, historically the answer was to keep ourselves sequestered, with John Chrysostom (Christian author, early Church Father, Archbishop of Constantinople), for example, believing that women should be walled in on all sides, leaving the house rarely. However, he did not say that women should do this to be kept safe, but so that women couldn’t tempt men to act out their sexual/violent fantasies on these women. This author echoes the sentiments of the two discussed above: a woman should expect these advances if she ventures out into the greater world, and surely she is encouraging these advances by her flagrant disrespect of the boundaries created for her by men and their inability to behave. But as well as victim blaming, Chrysostom’s idea that women should stay inside, hide away, wear clothing and act in ways that won’t attract men is all evidence of how women have had to alter their behaviour to avoid violence for years and indicative of a culture of fear that women live under.

Guess what?!?! This is still happening today.

Women all around the world alter their behaviour daily to avoid violence from men. We are taught from a young age to avoid walking around at night, and, if you have to walk at night, to take well-lit routes, to always text friends when you leave home and arrive home safely. Signs in women’s bathrooms provide us with code names to give bar staff if we feel uncomfortable with our date, we message friends when meeting new people making sure they have all the information: who, what, why, where, when. We do all this and more to ensure that we can exist in safety but sometimes even this isn’t enough and that was made evident today following the tragic news surrounding the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard and the public’s reaction.

Sarah did everything right – everything she, like myself, had been told to do as a woman from an early age. She took a different route home, she called her partner on her way home, she wore bright clothing, she walked well-lit streets in an outfit that couldn’t be construed as ‘provocative’ and made sure she was seen on CCTV. Sarah did everything right and more and yet she was still murdered.

However, when the story broke over social media what I noticed first was not the tragic headline, but a comment underneath the article which asked “why was she walking home at night though?” as if by walking at night she had deliberately put herself in harm’s way. What followed this comment can only be described as a deluge of the most abhorrent victim blaming I have seen in a while. Comments like “she shouldn’t have been out at night if she didn’t want to get killed” and “what was she wearing, she could have been asking for it” were at the top of the pile. I wish I could say I was making these comments up to be sensational or to exaggerate but I am not. They exist and they are blaming a young woman for being murdered because she was walking home at night.

She was just walking home.

Following the news of her murder, a statistic was then released which said that 97% of women aged 16-24 in the U.K have been sexually harassed. Underneath this article guess what I found? Yet more comments about how women are asking for it, how we shouldn’t wear certain clothes, how we shouldn’t be on dating apps if we don’t want to be harassed etc etc.  All the comments revolved around how WE should act as women, how WE should change ourselves and how WE act because men (and not all men I know) can’t acknowledge their complicity in this statistic and so of course, fall back onto victim blaming. Once again, inexplicably and unfathomably, it appears that to some men that women are the problem, our “inherent sexuality” the reason that men (and yes not all men) are led to commit violence against us. It is an archaic, historic view point that should remain just that: outdated.

But the questions that this tragic incident has unearthed remain.

Why are women expected to live daily with the threat of violence and then blamed for violence that is done to them? Why should we have to exist in a society where brandishing your house keys as a potential weapon is the norm? Where changing your route home every day becomes habit? Where footsteps behind you on a path make your hairs stand on edge and your pace quicken? Why can’t we walk home and expect to get home safe?

Tell me, why should our world be afflicted by a sinister glow as soon as the sun sets?

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised above I have attached some helplines/advice centres below xx

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