“Victim blamer”: A term used by rape reform and women’s rights advocates to refer to those seeking to place any amount of blame for rape and other sexual crimes on victims. To be sure, this has been a valuable label and response in the effort to address these crimes and society’s view of those who suffer them. But, unfortunately, this term has lost some of its luster and now often serves to hinder the movement it was meant to help through its overzealous use against those legitimately attempting to raise awareness of risk factors for sexual crimes.
Recently, Emily Yoffe (author of Slate.com’s Dear Prudence column) wrote an article noting the link between America’s drinking culture and rape. In a well-written piece, she outlined the connection between copious alcohol consumption and women falling prey to sexual crimes. Almost immediately, responses poured in claiming Yoffe was blaming victims for drinking too much and getting raped. Even normally reputable sources like The Atlantic and The New Republic took part in this. Yoffe was labeled a victim blamer.
All too often this is the fate of those who seek to understand, explain, and bring attention to the high levels of rape and sexual crime in this country and the factors surrounding them. In most cases, as with Yoffe, the author never blames victims for being victims and makes it clear that the perpetrators of these acts should be the sole targets of condemnation. They do, however, note circumstances that seem to increase the likelihood of sexual crimes taking place and recommend means by which risk can be lowered. Ideally, Yoffe could have chosen a less inflammatory title for her article than, “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” But observing that women can reduce their risk of being sexually taken advantage of by not drinking to the point that they lose control of their faculties is not the same thing as saying women who choose to do so are at fault should they be victimized.
Yoffe’s article and the response it has received serve to highlight the dysfunctional state of rape-prevention discourse. The victim blamer label has become an indiscriminate weapon to be hurled against anyone who suggests that there are factors involved in the risk of sexual victimization other than predatory individuals. It is true that at the heart of the problem are those who impose their sexual will and desires on others, and they are the only ones deserving of blame when they do so. But knowing that one is not to blame for their having been raped is of limited consolation for victims. They have still been supremely violated. Should we not welcome analyses pointing out ways people can decrease their chances of having to endure such heinous experiences?
Risk analysis for sexual crimes should be similar to that of other crimes. For example, in cases of muggings, victims of these acts are never to blame. Ideally, people should be able to walk around whatever neighborhood they wish brandishing as many valuables as they want in open view. But it is well understood that walking in a bad neighborhood wearing a flashy Rolex watch and prominently holding a large roll of hundred dollar bills increases the likelihood that a person will be mugged. Similarly, getting blackout drunk at a college party where it is highly likely that there are individuals present looking to prey on inebriated women will increase the risk of being sexually taken advantage of. Ideally, women should be able to drink as they please without being targeted, but this is not the case. In both situations it is clear that people are free to act as they wish and that it is the fault of predators should crimes take place. But it is also clear that individuals can lower the risk of being victims by choosing to adjust their behavior in certain ways. In terms of muggings, such observations are hardly ever labeled as victim blaming. It should be the same with regard to sexual crimes.
Another way to view this is how one would approach this issue with someone they love. No one wants those close to them to be the victims of rape or any other sexual violation. Therefore, along with making efforts to reduce the number of individuals seeking to take advantage of others and holding them accountable, one would also want to inform loved ones of factors that can increase or reduce their risk of having to endure these types of acts and having to live with such experiences for the rest of their lives.
The victim blamer label was once a very important response to those who claimed victims of sexual crimes deserved some degree of blame, whether because of how they dressed, behaved, or some other element. But it has now been corrupted as overzealous, but well-intentioned, advocates against rape throw this moniker at anyone who suggests that there are risk factors involved in sexual victimization other than the over-abundance of individuals seeking to take advantage of others. If the unacceptable annual number of sexual crimes in America is to be reduced, a comprehensive approach and analysis of the problem must be allowed and undertaken. If those who haphazardly toss around the victim blamer label actually want to legitimately confront the issue and see that fewer and fewer people are made to suffer these horrible acts, they should take a moment to think about their positions and those of people like Yoffe who truly have the interests of others in mind when they approach this sensitive topic.