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Viral Victim-Blaming

Last week, we posted a graphic on our Facebook page that quickly went viral — at the time of this writing, it had been viewed by over 840,000 people. With so many people seeing this picture, it was almost inevitable that we would get a wide range of opinions in the comments….and we did. Many were fantastic, and spot-on in their assessment of what this meme meant. Others completely missed the point, and did exactly what the photo was telling them not to do — blame the victims. As an organization dedicated to ending gender violence, we could not let any of the offensive comments stay on our page. While the comments have been deleted, they raise issues that we believe must be addressed in a better format than Facebook comments.

We thought that the graphic we posted was clear and straight-forward: the cause of rape is rapists. Judging by the response we got, the interpretation of the graphic veered far off that mark for some. Many of the comments we deleted contained variations of the message that women to should not “put themselves in bad situations” if they don’t want to be raped. This included saying that short skirts, walking home alone, and getting drunk were all “negligent” behaviors that could lead to rape, or that women should take self-defense classes so that they don’t “get raped.” Other commenters stated that rape victims have to accept responsibility for their choices, and not just put the blame onto others (this is the same maddening sentiment expressed by Bill Cosby’s attorney when trying to shift the blame from her client to his alleged victims). Some commenters focused on how the opinion that boys and men don’t need to be taught not to rape, because the people who rape are going to do it anyways, and they resent being lumped in with a few “bad eggs” (the #NotAllMen argument). Ironically, almost every one of these commenters specifically stated that he was not blaming the victim…and then proceeded to do exactly that. While nobody explicitly used this term, the overall tone of many of these comments was the equivalent of “she was asking for it.”

Our response to all of these comments is this: rape is NEVER, EVER the victim’s fault. If a woman chooses to wear a revealing outfit, that is not an invitation to be sexually assaulted. If a person decides to use drugs or drink to excess, the result should never be rape. Rape is not like a car accident: we do not look to see who was more at fault, or how to divvy up the blame. No matter if the victim is a nun or a prostitute or a grandmother or a college student, rape is never the fault of the victim. Rape is a crime, and the responsible party is the one who committed the crime — the rapist. The person to blame is the one who made the choice to sexually assault another person.

When a prosecutor takes a home invasion case to trial, there is never a question of what the home owner did to “provoke” the crime. Nobody argues that because there wasn’t a home security system, or potential thieves could see expensive electronics through the windows, or the doors were unlocked, it’s really the victim’s fault. In these cases, the responsibility for the crime lies exclusively with the person who committed it — the thief, not the victim. The same logic should hold true for rape cases; a person can no more provoke a rape than she can provoke a home invasion. Unfortunately, in our society, rape victims are far too often categorized based on how much responsibility they should bear for their own assaults:

  • Violently assaulted by a stranger while doing something innocuous, like getting groceries? You’re probably not at fault, unless, of course, you were wearing something revealing, or went to a bad neighborhood, or walked from the store to your car alone after dark, or had many previous sexual partners, or … (and the list goes on).

  • Raped by an acquaintance after having too much to drink and wearing a skimpy outfit? You’re probably to blame, because you were basically “asking for it” by doing those things. And so on…

In both of these instances, the responsibility for this crime is lost in the rush to judge – and condemn – the victim. This is the attitude that this graphic addressed, in a simple and concise form — no matter what a victim does, the ultimate responsibility for rape rests squarely on the rapist. Period.

The comments on this graphic raised many more issues that we will address in separate blog posts, such as how the vast majority of rapes (82%) are committed by someone known to the victim — not a stranger in a dark alley, or how education can and does reduce the incidence of sexual assault. These comments also revealed that we still have a long way to go in weeding out damaging attitudes about sexual assault. But far and away, the most critical takeaway from this post is this simple fact that the vast majority of those it reached seemed to understand: rape is never the victim’s fault. This is the message that must go viral — and we can all help to achieve that goal!

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