I am 74. The victimization of women, and blaming them for it, was known to me when I was 14. Looking back at my photos, I can see I was pretty. Not then. Like so many girls, I believed everything was wrong: my hair, my skin, my body.
So when grown men, driving me home from a night of baby-sitting, stared and commented on my looks, my outfit and my bubbly personality, I was flattered. At first I thought that gave me agency over men and boys. Inverted, it was a truth I would learn the hard way. That false estimation began to teach me that if my way of being attracted to men, it was my doing: my looks, my clothes, my personality that caused the attention. My fault.
As a young girl, I identified each of the five felonious assaults I endured, starting at 14 and ending at 20, to be in some far-fetched way my defect, my mistake. I never felt like a victim. A by-product of blaming myself, at the least, helped me get up, dust myself off and move on. Not entirely. I have sometimes been triggered, and the depth of hurt that is in me is still astounding.
The attitude: women were responsible for what happened to them literally at the hands of men, was prevalent among men, women, the law and society at large. That belief has prevailed to varying degrees until last week. It was only recently, in 1971, that psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase, “Blaming the Victim” in his book by the same name.
Ryan described victim blaming as an ideology used historically to justify racism against Black people in the United States as well as during the European Holocaust when Jews, gays, the disabled, dissidents and other “undesirables” were blamed for their demise.
In 1947, Theodor W. Adorno, the German philosopher, defined what would be later called “blaming the victim,” as “one of the most sinister features of Fascism.”
Here was the fascistic victim-blaming used against women and girls. She was asking for it, “no” really means “yes.” She’s lying. She’s exaggerating. She’s wearing provocative clothing to purposefully seduce a potential sexual partner. She is at fault for not resisting enough. She was drinking. She’s a slut. What did she think would happen if she went into his apartment, car, hotel, office? Maybe she thought she would be treated with respect. Maybe she thought she would find love.
If a woman was raped, then several days later consented to have sex with her rapist, no possible conviction could have resulted. Little distinction was made between criminality on the man’s part and behavior on the woman’s part. In the area of sexual politics, this is an anomaly. We don’t blame murder victims for being killed even when an unsafe choice might be a contributing circumstance. In that case, the crime is a crime, without justification. We are not systemically prejudged against murder victims.
Misogyny, racism, homophobia and anti-semitism are so deeply rooted in the human psyche, almost undetectable logic can be unconscious and illogic can reign.
Harvey Weinstein was convicted by a predominantly white male jury. That’s news I haven’t heard reported. Kudos to white men for a change. Well deserved in this case. Both of the accusers admitted they had consensual sex with him days after the assault. It didn’t matter, finally. The crime stood alone, as it always should have.
It was only in the 1970’s that the raping of a wife by her husband became illegal. Before that, marrying the guy, I suppose, made it the wife’s fault.
I have three daughters who often disagreed with me when I cautioned them to make choices which would reduce the danger of their being assaulted. I was never “victim blaming,” just remembering what happened to me and fearful for them.
But after the Weinstein verdict, I did see how I internalized the notion it would be up to my daughters to somehow prevent male violence; hopelessly old-fashioned now after last week’s monumental cultural shift.
When I get in my car to drive to an unknown location, the On Star facilitator giving directions always says at the beginning of my journey, “Be safe out there.” I never interpret this to mean if I have an accident I am to blame.
To all girls and women I say, “Be safe out there.” After the Weinstein conviction, it is said in the same spirit as at the beginning of any journey. It is a wish and a hope that the ride will go well for you. You deserve it.