Who’s responsible for sexual assault? The answer, obviously, is “the perpetrator” – and this should be the beginning and end of the argument.
But many still continue to blame victims for the sexual violence that is perpetrated against them. This time: Pamela Anderson, who has argued that women assaulted by Harvey Weinstein could have “prevented it” by using their “common sense”. In an interview with Megyn Kelly, Anderson went on to say that she had “learned to never put myself into those situations”.
“When I came to Hollywood, I, of course, had a lot of offers to do private auditions and things that made absolutely no sense,” she said. “Common sense ― don’t go into a hotel room alone, if someone answers the door in a bathrobe, you know, leave.”
A failure to talk about this, she claims, is an example of “victim feminism” – a feminism that she says reinforces an idea of women as weak or needing protection. Those who oppose “victim feminism” say that it removes women’s agency – an idea that has particularly picked up speed in America, where the ongoing debate on campus sexual assault continues. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and leading proponent of the concept, has stated that so-called ‘victim feminism’ “exaggerates the sexual assault problem”.
“On today’s campus, equity feminism has been eclipsed by what I call ‘fainting couch feminism’, which views women as fragile and easily traumatised,” she told the New York Times. “It calls for special protections for women in sexual assault cases because it views women as an oppressed and silenced class.”
What this ignores, however, is the unavoidable fact that women are an oppressed class. #MeToo, which prompted Anderson’s comments, was just a scratch on the surface of women’s experiences of harassment, assault and rape – and even with many stories left unsaid, it was an overwhelming and long overdue acknowledgement of the ways our daily lives are impacted by assault.
It’s not like we only have anecdotal evidence for sexual violence either, with report after report demonstrating how prevalent it really is. According to Rape Crisis, an estimated 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year – a figure that amounts to around 11 rapes every hour. One in five women aged between 16 and 59 has experienced “some form of sexual violence”. Transgender women, disabled women and BAME women are particularly vulnerable both to abuse and to the increased risk that they simply won’t be believed when they speak out.
But despite this, a report from Amnesty International found that a third of people believe that “women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped”, a statement that has much in common with Anderson’s dismissal reference to “victims”. According to this logic, those who experience sexual violence are partly responsible for it – something that amplifies self-blame and allows perpetrators to avoid consequences and continue offending.
As for the idea that women are not a “silenced class”, one only has to look at how few women are believed to realise that that simply isn’t the case. From Anderson’s subtle victim-blaming to more outright declarations of disbelief and the horrifically low conviction rates – far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported cases ending up in a conviction – victims are consistently treated as if their lives or experiences don’t matter.
Even the term “victim feminism” is telling – it really does say a lot about the status of victims of sexual violence that the term itself is used in such a denigrating way. To be a victim is to be subject to far more social shame than to be a perpetrator.
This is wrong. To acknowledge that women are part of a victimised class is not to call them weak or to suggest that they have no agency: it is simply to recognise that we are impacted on a daily basis by systemic forces that often are beyond our control. If we have no sexual agency, it’s not because we’re “fragile”: it’s because it’s been taken from us by force. If we are traumatised, it isn’t because we’re delicate snowflakes: it’s because we have been subject to deeply traumatic experiences. In this sense, assault is not simply an individual experience: it is a collective one.
Many victims of sexual violence – Anderson included – feel a sense of shame and responsibility about their assault: “if I’d worn/done/said this differently…” But this is a trap we must strive to never fall into. It is never a woman’s fault if she’s assaulted: the blame should purely and squarely sit with the perpetrator. Only through the unequivocal acceptance of this can we ever make progress.
Images: Rex Features / iStock