Thursday, June 6, 2013

Don't Blame the Victims; Change Ourselves

Although our national epidemic of rape and sexual assault has been getting more attention lately, we still live in a culture that seems dedicated to exonerating rapists and punishing victims. A sinister new form, or at least a degree of this lies cultural mythology in an academic paper titled “Psychopathy and Victim Section: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability,” and the media’s response to it.

It concluded psychopaths could accurately predict the victimization history of people they see walking in a video.

The more psychopathic they were, the better they performed this task and the more likely they were to be consciously looking for gait as a cue to vulnerability.

For context, the top three factors a psychopath considered when selecting a victim in the study were sex, size, and perceived threat. Several other academic criminology papers have concluded that gait, or the way you walk, is a valid predictor of past victimization.

Their results are facts, and carry no moral value, but when making recommendations the authors’ assigned responsibility for preventing assault on victims by writing “social predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability.”

Contrast their phrase with “social predators are excellent at perceiving and evaluating unconscious nonverbal cues.”

Say it my way and you might think, “Those are some scary predators. We’d better do something about them.”

Say it their way and you apparently conclude that since teaching women to alter their gait loses effectiveness over time, teaching them to think differently might be a more effective way to prepare them for the possibility of future assault.

The media’s reaction to this study is even more disturbing, typified by the title of this blog post on Psychology Today’s website: “Do Victims Deserve Some Blame?”

No. From the day I was born until the day I die or the ghosts of my mother and sister and lovers and friends stop haunting me. No.

The FBI gives psychopaths about 1 percent of population. Another common number, stemming from a 2011 report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is that nearly 1 in 5 women, or roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, has been victimized. That is only counting sexual assault and rape.

Why suggest that women must change either how they act or how they think to avoid being victimized?

And that’s just to deter the subset of potential assaulters who will study their gait and weigh it when deciding whether or not to victimize them.

Why can we dare tell women to do such invasive things in order to walk down the street safely?

This is one reason that we need to look at violence by men.

Does that phrase offend you? Men are overwhelmingly responsible for violent assaults, including rape, against both men and women. Calling this problem “violence against women” helps you believe that fault lies in the victim: Shouldn’t they have defended themselves better?

We cannot ask women to reduce assault by changing themselves; we need to change men to stop them from assaulting people. We need to change our culture so that assault and rape and harassment are unacceptable and we need to change our legal system so that these crimes have real, consistent consequences.

These victim blamers try to justify themselves by saying they are trying to prevent repeated victimization.

That is an admirable goal, but if it is used to distract from the fact that those women should not have been victimized in the first place, that it is unacceptable to live in a country that allows this to happen, that in America, women have to change who they are in order to avoid repeated assault, it becomes part of the problem.

Victims do not need to change; America does.

Jackson Katz is one of the best-known proponents of a possible solution called the bystander approach model.

This idea draws a parallel between sexism, homophobia and racism. We do not use ethnic slurs just because we find ourselves surrounded by members of our own race; in the same way that being surrounded by straight men would give me no excuse to use homophobic epithets.

If someone violated those social norms their friends would shut them down. This kind of social pressure makes it clear that prejudiced behavior and beliefs are unacceptable.

We need to give up the idea that the words used to oppress women are harmless when women are not around. Is there a proper way to act around women and a different, manly way to act around men?

That’s patriarchy, and that’s the foundation of our rape culture.

You may not think that rape culture is something that you have been a part of, or even a bystander to.
What we all need to understand is that this is not enough; passive denunciation and disgust is not enough; only through active resistance to rape culture in all circumstances from the routine to the horrific can we become the change our society needs.

We, men, collectively, have to do better if we are going to help our sisters, mothers, daughters, teachers, friends and colleagues create a world in which they do not have to live in fear.

This post was published in The Pioneer on Thursday, May 16th, 2013.

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