The Blame Game

Thursday, October 17, 2013

TRIGGER WARNING: This is a post about sexual assault. Please exercise self-care and skip past this entry if you need to.


It’s been a little over three months since I left Ottawa. Even though I’m not there physically, my emotional attachment to my old hometown in still very strong and I was terribly sad to hear recent news of yet another sexual assault near an OC Transpo bus station.

In an interview following the assault, city councilperson and Ottawa transit chair Diane Deans told the press that she takes several measures to protect her safety and that she thinks it’s good practice for women to take precautions, like walking in pairs. Now straight up, I don’t know Diane Deans, but I have no reason to believe that she’s not a nice person. Nor do I believe her advice was intended to be anything but helpful. However, I’m inclined to agree with my pal and anti-harrasment crusader, Julie Lalonde that the statement was problematic.  I said as much in a Facebook post a few days ago and a debate ensued. I went away to think about some of the points people raised and voila – blog post!

Disclaimer: A lot of what follows is based in generalities. Any individual experience may be different in any number of ways, because experiences are like that.

Some would call what Diane Deans said “victim blaming”. It’s a term that’s upsetting to some, because really? Only asshole would actually blame someone for being raped and concern for someone’s safety is the opposite of being an asshole.”Be careful” is a routine part of my parting litany when I say good-bye to my friends and I’m *pretty* sure I’m not an asshole. My mom is definitely not an asshole and she still calls to verify my safety status on a regular basis. (I’m fine, Mom!)

“Victim blaming” isn’t meant to be an indictment of teaching people street smarts, worrying about our loved ones, or taking whatever steps we feel are practical to reduce our risk of harm. It’s about the way people – especially people in positions of authority – respond when someone is assaulted. It’s about putting disproportionate responsibility on people to not be victims, while neglecting the perpetrators’ responsibility to not be rape-y douchebags. And perhaps, most importantly, it’s about the message these statements send to the victims/survivors of the assault itself.

Victims Of Assault Already Blame Themselves

One of the major challenges assault victims have to deal with is the internalized belief that what happened was somehow their fault.  It’s not true. But it’s a very typical reaction to that kind of trauma. It’s very likely that a person who’s been assaulted is already thinking “This happened because I was alone. This happened because I was on that street. This happened because I was careful enough.”  So when a police officer or politician on TV and says,  ”women should walk in pairs” or “avoid being out at night” or  it reinforces the victim’s self-blame. They are telling people not to do what I did.What I did was wrong and that’s why I got hurt. The survivor has been hurt the most. They’re the person who needs the support of their community and the need to know that their community does not hold them responsible for the terrible thing that was done to them.

Don’t Tell Me. Tell Them.

I cannot remember the last time I heard public official make a statement about stranger assault and explicitly blame the attacker. Maybe the thinking is that assault is so obviously wrong that no one has to say that out loud. But the “victim-blaming” effect takes hold, because the onus is put almost entirely on the people getting attacked. It reminds me of the way people talk about camping. Remember to store your food properly so you don’t attract bears and get your face clawed off. Also, remember not to be alone too much because rapist might rape you.  Yes, sadly rapists probably will always exist and pose a threat. But unlike bears, they aren’t wild animals governed by instinct. Unlike a bear,  a rapist is capable of hearing and processing the message “What you are doing is unacceptable. You are not allowed to rape people”  I’m not naive enough to think that will magically end all sexual assaults. But it seems unfair that the powers that be have almost nothing to say to those who are actually committing the crimes, but I’m given the same “be more careful” warning every time someone gets assaulted.

Vulnerability Doesn’t Equal Irresponsibility

Diane Deans said something to the effect that she makes all kinds of choices to protect her safety. She is taking responsibility for her personal safety and I totally support that. But we can’t infer that if someone is alone or in a “bad neighbourhood” or out at night when they are assaulted, that they weren’t behaving reponsibly or don’t take their safety just as seriously. We all have to go places alone. We all have to go places at night. Sometimes we have to take transit. Sometimes we have to walk. Sometimes everyone gets off the elevator except that one other person. Sometimes you can’t avoid the rough neighbourhood. Sometimes you live there. Maybe the parking garage wasn’t empty when you arrived, but no one was there when you left. I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from taking precautions when they can. I do. So do most people I know. But the truth is, avoiding assault has at least as much to do with luck as it has to do with street savvy. So good on Diane Deans for taking her safety seriously. But we can’t assume that a woman alone at a bus stop doesn’t take her safety just as seriously.

An Alternative Suggestion

First of all, on behalf of my agency/organization I would like to extend my sincerest sympathy to the survivor of this heinous crime. Please rest assured that you have the full support of your community and this office. To the perpetrator of the crime – you suck! What you did was wrong and we will do everything in our power to ensure that you are brought to justice. To the community – of you are feeling unsafe or have concerns about your own protection, here are some Internet/phone numbers/other resources type things that you can access if that is a thing you feel will help you.”

My mom will always worry when I’m out late at night. I’ll probably never stop reminding my friends to be careful. But rape is not a careless accident nor is it a threat that most of us take lightly. So I would encourage those who speak to the community about assault to remember that survivors need compassion and support more than they need a warning.

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