[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]
A couple of disclaimers, to start:
-First, this is not about me being angry at, or blaming, any particular individuals. This is also not about placing the responsibility for a society-wide problem on these particular individuals.
-Second, this entry is for everyone to read, even though I refer to a specific example in which only a few people were involved. The point of this entry is, again, not to pin the responsibility on anyone. The point is to raise awareness of a common, problematic pattern that we all engage in.
The other day I posted this rant to my journal concerning an incident at work. I was disturbed and angry about what seems to me an instance of sexual harassment (not because it was necessarily aimed at women, but because it was sexual and it was harassment). I was also aware of the ways in which sexism played into my reaction: my first instinct was to minimize my own discomfort and stay quiet about it, though in the end I realized what I was doing and spoke up.
Several people commented on that entry (though I have since screened the comments – again, so that attention or blame is not focused on one or two people). Here is the layout of the comments as of today, April 14:
-One short thread (one person’s comment and my reply) expressing sympathy about my experience.
-One long thread that begins with a person expressing sympathy, then suggesting an alternate explanation that would excuse the anonymous man’s actions as being something other than sexual harassment. The thread continues with two other people joining in to support the idea of an alternate explanation, and the topic of my distress leaves the conversation.
Why did the conversation end up like this?
Let me tell you a short anecdote, to provide a bit of perspective: About a year and a half ago, I hurt my back and walking was painful and difficult for a few months. During this time, while I was crossing a crowded crosswalk on campus, a man walking in the opposite direction bumped into me with enough force that, in my normal physical state, I would have stumbled backwards. As it was, I exerted effort to not fall over. The man said nothing, and as I turned around to glare at him I saw him walking blithely away, talking to someone next to him. When I found some friends I ranted about what had happened, in much the same state as I was in when I wrote the abovementioned entry. A guy had run into me, I told them, and didn’t care enough to apologize or see if I was all right.
Every single person I talked to asked if I was okay. Not a single person attempted to second-guess my account by asking, “But what if he didn’t notice? What if he said ‘sorry’ but you didn’t hear him?”
These are, of course, possible alternate explanations. Not hugely likely, but possible. And yet no one seemed to consider it important to bring them up.
I bring up this example not to say that we should never look for alternate explanations of harmful or harassing behavior, or to say that this reaction was Right and the one to my recent post was Wrong. I bring it up to show that the way the conversation that ensued on my post was not automatic or natural. My anecdote shows how it could have gone another way – how it did not have to end up with the majority of the emphasis on finding ways to excuse the anonymous man’s actions.
What’s the difference between these two cases? It certainly isn’t that the commenters on my blog are ruder or dumber than the people I talked to after I got bumped into. It isn’t that they intended to minimize my feelings and discredit me in favor of the anonymous man. It wasn’t even about any single person or comment turning a perfectly-good conversation into a perfectly-bad one. What bothers me was not the mere mention of an alternate explanation, but rather the way the conversation progressed; the cumulative effect was a prioritizing of the anonymous man’s need for a fair ‘trial’ at the expense of neglecting my distress. It was the replication of a pattern that occurs time and time again when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, particularly when perpetrated by men against women.
In cases of sexual violence against women, the conversation is not always about comforting and believing the victim. It should be, but unfortunately there are many, many places – the legal system, the media, the community, the victim’s peers or family – where the conversation is skewed into being about the perpetrator’s credibility instead of the victim’s need for justice. Excuses are given for the perpetrator. The victim’s reliability is questioned. The conversation is made up of statements such as, “But he’s such a nice guy,” “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you,” “He’s so attractive he wouldn’t need to rape a woman.” To complement these sentiments is the questioning of the woman, in ways such as, “She must have been mistaken,” “She’s just overreacting,” “She was flirting and sending the wrong messages,” “Did she make it clear she didn’t want to have sex?” And, of course, the old standard of, “She’s just making it up.”
Most of all, this isn’t recognized as an unfair or misogynistic in mainstream circles. It is seen as normal. The discursive shift, from treating the victim as credible and rational to manipulative/misinformed/deceitful, occurs seemlessly. It isn’t seen as remarkable. It certainly isn’t seen as being biased toward the perpetrator.
Obviously my experience was not nearly this severe. I wasn’t outright accused of being uncredible, or criticized as vindictive, or told I was somehow to blame for what happened. I didn’t experience a great trauma. I bring up my example because it represents the same pattern, though to a much smaller degree. I want people to see what happened here and understand how we can participate in this pattern without realizing it, and without intending to be unfair to women who experience sexual violence. Because these kinds of situations are a training ground for the more extreme and damaging variety, where victims of greater forms of violence are belittled and dismissed, letting those who commit violence off the hook and leaving them free to victimize again.
That lesser-degree discursive shift is the precursor to things like the current mistreatment of Kathy Sierra, whose account of being viciously harassed and stalked is being minimized and dismissed, while Sierra herself is accused of overreacting and being unreliable. Because, much as I hate to admit it, the people who are engaging in the discrediting of Sierra’s story are not excessively ignorant or hateful people. They simply fail to examine how they are buying into the same violence-excusing, victim-blaming discourse that allows for such rampant victimization of women to be disregarded, and their voices to be silenced. The ones who are crying foul over this treatment of Sierra are feminist bloggers, who are most familiar with this insidious discourse and its effects.
It is a seductive discourse, though, and not least because it’s so common. When regular, intelligent people engage in the same thought processes, it’s hard to recognize them as biased (though of course we could say that about privilege in general). There’s also a comfort gleaned from engaging in this discourse, because by denying the plausibility of sexual violence we can continue to deny how prevalent it is – especially for women who are assailed with terror tactics based on this issue all the time, and especially in cases of victims who are uncomfortably ‘just like us.’
The key, I think, to eliminating this discursive pattern is to ask ourselves, What are we assuming:
-About the victim’s credibility or motives? Do we start off believing that she must be mistaken, that her version of things is incorrect? Do we assume that she’s lying? Do we assume that she must have been ‘emotional’ or ‘overreacting’?
-About the perpetrator? Do we assume that he must not have intended to hurt anyone? Do we assume that he has an excuse? Do we assume that his past good behavior indicates that he is innocent now?
-About the likelihood of sexual violence? Do we assume that it ‘just doesn’t happen around here’? Do we assume that sexual violence is the least likely explanation?
-About what is most important? The victim’s comfort, or the possibility of proving her wrong, and making ourselves feel comforted?
It’s tough to question ourselves like this, and it can be discomfiting. There’s still the risk that we’ll mess up anyway and wrong a victim. But at the very least, we must remember that these questions can and should be asked, so that the discursive pattern that harms victims of sexual violence can be interrupted.