Discursive patterns regarding sexual violence [Women and Violence, Part 3]

[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.

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14 thoughts on “Discursive patterns regarding sexual violence [Women and Violence, Part 3]

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful post. You got me thinking (and blogging, although not nearly as articulately as you have!)

  2. 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.

    Well said.

  3. 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.

    That’s another point I’ve heard people make: “Well it’s not like x happened to you, and x is far, far worse, so really you got off easy and what are you complaining about?” It’s as though they can’t see the connection between the two acts, can’t possibly fathom that it’s their attitudes toward the little things that colour their attitudes toward the bigger things. It’s infuriating.

  4. Jo: Well, that’s a huge compliment. It’s great that you want to talk more about this topic on your own blog.

    tekanji: Thanks. 😀

    Sara: I should clarify, that was not something other people told me. I was saying this, so that I wouldn’t give readers the impression that the response I received was that extreme. Thankfully, no one actually gave me the ‘what do you have to complain about?’ dismissal – you’re right, it is infuriating.

  5. Sara: When I get that sort of response (on anything I’m upset about), my first thought is “Yes, x is far worse but that doesn’t stop this from hurting, and until you can look me dead in the eye and say ‘what happened to you happened to me too’ and still keep that opinion, then I’m not going to give much thought to what you have to say on this subject.”

    (Side note: sometimes a person’s inability to hear how bad things are for you stem from them being subject to those worse things, in which case I shut up and take my complaints to an ear that will hear. But that is completely and utterly beside the point.)

  6. I am a great believer in turning the tables. They dismiss our concerns, so I dismiss theirs. If that makes me evil, what are they?

    It’s hard to say the following without sounding as if I’m blaming the underdog, so perhaps in some ways I am. But I am reminded that we always have a choice in how we choose to respond to most situations (immediate threats to physical safety notwithstanding). And in that response lies some amount of power, it’s just that most women choose not to use the little power we do have – even if that power is merely the withholding of response.

    Most women will readily acknowledge that we live in a sexist society. And yet… they will still date teh cock, fuck teh cock, live with teh cock, and marry teh cock. WHY? My life is cockless, but amazingly enough, I have not died.

    You wouldn’t knowingly support a business which enabled the continuance of something you don’t like, so why do women continue to enable teh cock by associating with it? Make up any excuse you like, it’s still an excuse.

    If you need love, get a dog. If you need sex, get a vibrator. If you need shelter, get a roommate. If you need intellectual stimulation, take a class. If you need emotional support, get a friend. We don’t live in a country where women are forced to marry at gunpoint, so any associating you do is a CHOICE. A choice which enables him to go on believing that everything is just fine and he doesn’t need to change.

  7. A similar topic came up on another site not that long ago, and I found the discussion really disturbing. It took me a little while to figure out what was bothering me, but then I had sort of an “aha!” moment. What you’re describing doesn’t just happen in regular discourse- it happens in the official discourse of sexual crimes.

    If someone robbed me, and I filed a police report, and they did an investigation and took it to trial, the assumption in the court is that I’ve actually been the victim of a crime, but that I may have accused the wrong person by mistake. The assumption is not, generally, that I’m a liar or making the whole thing up.
    When a woman is raped and goes to the police, there’s a major assumption that it’s possible she’s lying or mistaken. This happens all the way through the process, and through the trial. In any other crime, if it makes it to trial, we assume the victim is a victim, but with sexual assaults, for some reason, women are treated like they’re not really victims. It’s not usually “maybe this is just the wrong guy” it’s “maybe you weren’t really raped… maybe you misunderstood what happened? Maybe you didn’t actually say no?”

    I don’t know… that’s the impression I get from people, at least.

  8. Roy: You raise a good point – after all, the official discourse must be performed by individual people, and so this pattern affects that discourse too. The same sort of doubt and attempts at counter-explanations show up all over the legal system. (Which is then portrayed as fair and objective.)

  9. evil incarnate:

    You wouldn’t knowingly support a business which enabled the continuance of something you don’t like, so why do women continue to enable teh cock by associating with it?

    Your analogy doesn’t hold up for me. Even if I didn’t support a business, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the individuals who worked in it. I would speak out about their complicity, to be sure, but I wouldn’t hold them responsible for the institution itself.

    Similarly, sexism isn’t the “fault” of any particular (male) individuals. If it were, we could eliminate them and be done with it. Men are more like the employees in the business – involved and complicit for the ways in which they benefit, but ultimately not the cause of the institution itself. And certainly not powerful enough that I could force them to end sexism by witholding sex from the handful of men who cross my path.

    My life is cockless, but amazingly enough, I have not died.

    And even when my life was cockless, I didn’t escape sexism. Avoiding sex with individual men hardly protects me from the institution of misogyny.

    That’s the other part that bothers me about your argument: you are reducing women’s power to how they sexually influence men. If we “enable” men by associating with them, that means the only way we could disable them would be by not associating – which overlooks the vast body of feminist activism that goes beyond simple separatism.

    Women’s power is not merely reactive; we can also carve out spaces for ourselves in which we take positive, powerful actions.

    You are correct in noting that your comment involves blaming the underdog – you blame women for being sexually involved with men, without acknowledging if or how they are taking feminist action that doesn’t involve their personal sexual choices. Victim blaming of this sort is not allowed here, so consider this a warning. You are welcome to comment, but you must abide by the discussion rules.

  10. Somehow, the argument that I should avoid “teh cock” in order to not support misogyny sounds a little bit like the “she was asking for it!” rape defense. Like, maybe if women weren’t “sluts” all the time, men would respect them? :p Or maybe, the idea is that I will never be interacted with by someone I’m not sexually involved with? ‘Cause if not sleeping with someone made them leave me alone, I’d be set. I’d get fewer telemarketers, too!

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