All the media attention on the Steubenville rape case has made me think a lot about violence against women and rape in particular and more importantly about gendered norms surrounding the terms victim and offender.
First of all, before anybody gets confused, though: Yes, I absolutely think these boys should have been convicted and I think it is wrong and awful that people blame the girl for what happened to her.
Anyway, moving on. I think everyone can agree that the term victim and offender are highly gendered terms in two senses: In a descriptive sense as well as in a prescriptive sense. The former tells us what a victim is in a stereotypical, culturally sense. If I asked three random people on the streets who they imagine when they hear the term “victim”, descriptions are likely to differ, but more likely than not, all three will assume the victim to be female – especially if the crime is one of sexual assault or domestic violence. The offender, on the other hand, will probably be pictured as a guy. „Prescriptive“ on the other hand goes a step further and refers to what men and women should be like. While it is in some bizarre sense “okay” for a women to be the victim of domestic violence, men who suffer the same fate are seen as “pussies” “gay” or some other apparently undesirable name. For women, the prescriptive norms are less clear, but this is not the topic of this blog post.
The term “rape culture” has been widely used in the discussion of the Steubenville case in the sense that we live in a culture where it is in some sense acceptable to sexually objectify, assault and rape women. I think this term is too narrow. I think we live in a culture where it is in some sense acceptable for men to be violent – towards women as well as towards any other social group. Of course men and boys are not completely at the mercy of social norms. It is their responsibility to actively fight against or, better yet, change that norm. This might sound extreme and almost like I am assuming that “rapist” is the default for every man. I am not. I am simply saying that for men, compared to women, it socially more accepted and in some social groups even glorified to be violent. The Steubenville case is a prime example of this. To me it is obvious (and a lot of people disagree with me on this) that these guys were not aware of the fact that they were doing something wrong. If they had been aware of it, would they have posted videos and pictures of their crime on social networking sites? Would they have joked about it with their friends? No. Nobody boasts about things they know they will be lambasted for by relevant others (in fancy social psychology terms: by their relevant in-group). Does this mean that they could not have acted any differently, that it wasn’t their fault? No. But it does mean that we need to change our culture rather than solely blaming two teenage boys.
This is an important issue to discuss and it has been received quite some attention. The other, equally important side of the coin, however, has received much less coverage – the issue of women being victims – an in a sense accepting that. As you, the reader, are likely one of my friends and probably one who is generally interested in gender issues, I can already sense how this sentence infuriates you, so let me get this straight: I do not think that somehow women who get raped or beaten or are in any other way the victim of male violence “had it coming” or that in some twisted sense it is their fault because they were drunk or wearing a short skirt or being slutty or were walking home alone at night. I think every woman (and everyone else as well for that matter) has the right to be as slutty and drunk etc. as they want without fearing violence because of it. I am saying, however, that the fact that it is normatively accepted for women to be victims, contributes to the fact that they become victims if they cannot break free from that norm.
Most of sexual violence does not happen by strangers and most of it is on a surface level not even “violent”. Most rapes do not happen because men are stronger than women and can thus force themselves on them. On the one hand, as discussed in the media, they happen because men fail to understand that “no” means “no” but also “maybe tomorrow”, “I’m fucking drunk” or “I have a headache” means no. On the other hand they happen because women often do not articulate their “no”s clearly enough. This is harmful in two ways. First, it makes these crimes more likely to occur. Second, it additionally makes it more likely for the victim to blame herself rather than the offender. “I mean… I didn’t really try to fight him off”, “I think I kind of made him think that I agreed to it…” and so on. In my opinion we have the prescriptive nature of social norms to blame for that. Our culture tells us from a young age on that women are supposed to be warm, caring, polite, docile, compliant. Women who do not adhere to these norms quickly find themselves in the role of the “cold, pushy bitch”. However, adherence to these rules in situations of sexual assault or other violence lead directly into becoming and staying the victim.
What’s more – once one categorizes oneself as a victim, a whole new set of stereotypes are hauled on oneself, the most detrimental one probably being “helpless”. So as a victim, additional to being expected to be polite and compliant, women are now also expected to be helpless. How the hell is this going to help anyone to get out of any situation? I have read the term “rape survivor” in a number of articles recently and like it much better. It has a much more agentic quality to it, emphasizing in some way how, horrific as the event might have been, one has emerged from it stronger than before.
So what is my point? I cannot stress enough that the point is in no way to blame the women who have had to experience sexual assault (or any other kind of violence). My point is one of empowerment. Women are not helpless victims of male (sexual) violence just as men are not rapists by default. We shape the culture we live in as much as it shapes us. And this is exactly what we need to do. Rather than (once again) assigning a passive role to women who are apparently just supposed to wait around until the men have sorted out their rape culture problem, I’m saying that everyone can and should work on bringing down these gendered norms of offender- and victimhood. And we need to do that not only in violent situations but in everyday life which tells us and everyone around us what it means to be a man or a woman by displaying, rewarding and punishing gender normative and counter-normative behaviour.