2011 was a busy year for anti-rape activists. Bookended one side by a discussion about the gang rape of an 11-year–old girl in Cleveland, Texas and on the other with a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Boardad using the threat of rape to warn against excessive drinking with the text “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no,” there was plenty of outrage to go around.
A recurring them throughout the year in anti-rape activism was victim-blaming. It’s not just an attitude of “let’s wait until we have all the facts,” but a concerted effort to place the responsibility for rape on the shoulders of the one who has been violated. In the case of the 11-year-old who allegedly suffered a brutal gang rape at the hands of 18 men, the act being captured on cellphone cameras,thespinwas that the young Latina girl was known for being “fast” and dressing provocatively, which I gather is supposed to mean she invited the sexual attention of fully grown men.
Not more than a few months later, the sexual assault charges levied against then leader of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn by 33-year-old Guinean immigrant Nafissatou Diallo brought in a fresh round of victim-blaming. Diallo was serving as a housekeeper for the New York City hotel in which Strauss-Kahn was staying and alleges the French diplomat forced her to perform oral sex. From there, Diallo was baselessly “maligned as an HIV-positive prostitute and bribery candidate,” in the words of Akiba Solomon for Colorlines, and from there it was uphill battle to not only prove her rape, though there was convincing physical evidence, but to establish her character as someone who could be raped. The charges brought against Strauss-Kahn were eventually dropped.
The PA Liquor Board ads (which MSNBC analyst Keli Goff inexplicably attempted to defend as some sort of warning against binge drinking, rather than as the victim-blaming tool that they are) bring to mind the case of the New York City “rape cops,” Franklin Mataand Kenneth Moreno, two New York City police officers who were charged with the sexual assault of a woman they were called to help. They were acquitted, in part because the woman who accused them was drunk at the time of the alleged assault and was, in some people’s minds, either a willing participant in any sexual encounter that took place or was completing making it up.
It’s in this context that the largest anti-rape demonstration since Take Back the Night, the worldwide SlutWalks grabbed headlines. The marches were prompted by a Toronto police officer offering “advice” to women looking not to be raped by stating they “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” It was an egregious and blatant form of victim-blaming that became the impetus for organized SlutWalks in cities across the globe, featuring thousands upon thousands of women pushing back against the idea that what one wears could somehow cause rape. SlutWalks were not without their criticism and controversy, namely from communities of women of color who felt marginalized, or by those who took umbrage with the use of the word “slut,” but the message was clear: rapists rape. To place responsibility elsewhere is to defend rapists, and we can not be a society of rape apologists.
Victim-blaming supports and perpetuates rape culture. If the only people we believe to be true victims of rape are native born virgin white women teetotalers from affluent backgrounds wearing turtlenecks who have never told a lie, then we have effectively rendered every other existing body communal property to which anything and everything can be done. That’s a huge step back when the FBI has finally updated to a more comprehensive definition of rape that is reflective of the true nature and viciousness of this crime.
When you consider that nearly 1 in 5 women American women report having been raped or experiencing an attempted rape in their lifetime, or that men cannot tell the difference between the quotes that appear in men’s magazines and those of convicted rapists, or that more than half of black girls experience sexual abuse before they turn 18, there is little room for setbacks.
2012 has to be the year that we end victim-blaming. There is so much more work to be done in anti-rape activism to ensure that one day the threat of rape no longer exists. Rape needs to be understood as an act of violence and not a crime of passion or uncontrollable sexual desire. It must be safe for rape victims to come forward without shame and fear. Police need to accurately report incidents of rape and sexual assault. Rapists must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Having to push back against the idea that victims are some how at fault for having their body attacked and violated makes this work that much more difficult.