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The #MeToo movement has not only unraveled the prevalence of sexual assault, it’s also uncovered deeply ingrained problematic and disturbing victim-shaming myths in our culture. The most prevailing myth being the one of ‘The Perfect Victim.’
Society has damaging expectations of what a ‘perfect’ victim should act like prior to, during and after an assault, feeding into this victim-blaming notion that had the survivor done all the ‘right’ things, he or she would have been able to somehow ‘prevent’ the assault. Underlying these expectations is the idea that a less than perfect victim is somehow culpable for the crime committed against him or her.
Perfect victims are depicted as people who always say no assertively (and is always magically respected by the predator in this decision, apparently). They never go home with strangers, never drink alcohol, always report the crime right away to the police (despite the fact that there is an incredible amount of victim-blaming in law enforcement, possibility of retraumatization if the case goes to trial and numerous factors that go into whether or not someone chooses to report).
Perfect victims never wear short skirts or revealing clothing. They never feel ambivalence towards their rapists. They do not post provocative selfies or engage in sexual behavior. They never walk home at night, never party until dawn, never flirt with the perpetrator prior to the rape and so on.
The images of what a ‘perfect’ victim are are lauded as the standard and always seem to be brought up in victim-blaming tirades as examples. Examples for why victims, specifically female victims, should ‘behave’ better in order to avoid being assaulted, despite the fact that rape has little to do with clothing or sexual desire, despite the fact that anyone could be a predator and many rapes are committed by people who we know and trust. Despite the fact that the blame of a rape should be attributed to the rapist, not the victim, we continue to focus on the victim’s behavior and actions rather than how we can hold the perpetrator responsible.
Here’s the thing about perfect victims: they don’t exist, and they shouldn’t have to in order for rape to be taken seriously.
Every victim of assault or rape has acted in ways that do not align with the image of the “perfect victim.” Yet this is often irrelevant when it comes to rape – a crime in which the focus of interrogation should be the perpetrator, but is usually the victim. You could dress in a certain way, act in a certain way, behave in the way society has told “good girls” to act – and still be a target. Rape is never the fault of the victim.
For a long time, society has dismissed the effects of trauma and cultural conditioning on how victims of rape come forth with their stories. It has minimized the ways in which our institutions have perpetuated rape culture and created a damaging system of victim-blaming for those who choose to come forward with their rape.
The Complexity of Consent
This is a system which creates self-doubt and enormous ambivalence in victims about what they experienced, what they “should” have done, and an intense sense of self-blame.
For victim-blamers who claim that women should just learn how to say ‘no’ in the face of an attack, here is a simple reminder: there are many ways women say no but that doesn’t mean the perpetrator won’t continue.
Flirting or even going home with someone does not mean you agree to have sex with them. Nor does the mere act of speaking out about sexual coercion infantilize women or make them ‘play the role’ of a victim. Victimhood is not an act – it is a lived experience that takes a legitimate toll on someone’s physical and emotional well-being.
Yet in the backlash against the #MeToo movement, there have been several disturbing pieces written to suggest that victimhood is simply a manipulation tactic female victims are using to stage some sort of massive “witch hunt.” There have also been many incidents of victim-blaming in responses to sexual assault or sexual misconduct cases. In the recent allegations against Aziz Ansari, for example, there was an outpour of condemning statements that claimed that the woman in question had full agency and should’ve simply ‘walked out’ when she felt uncomfortable. This is despite the fact that the victim in question had expressed several times she was uncomfortable, had physically pushed her date away, and had expressed that she had felt ‘forced’ – yet he still continued, with multiple attempts.
The Agency of Female Victims Is Already Compromised
When people constantly decry the lack of focus on a woman’s agency and what she could’ve done to ‘prevent’ herself from being a victim in rape cases, they forget that a woman’s agency and her ability to consent is already compromised by the way she has been shaped and constrained by her society and culture, not to mention the effects of trauma.
Let’s remember we live in a society where a woman’s agency has already been severely eroded by the following:
1. A culture which socializes her to be people-pleasing and appeasing, even at the expense of her own safety. This is why when female victims speak out about engaging in behaviors that don’t seem to align with the myth of the ‘perfect victim,’ it’s because her behavior is usually driven by a need to placate her abuser. Add society’s emphasis on prioritizing male pleasure without regard to female safety and you’ve got yourself interactions charged with inherent inequality. When a victim of assault stops fighting back or complies with her assailant’s demands, it doesn’t mean that she ‘wanted’ it.
Submission to coercion isn’t evidence of consent – it’s evidence of how women have been trained to mollify predators in order to survive.
2. There is appalling evidence of violence against women who say ‘no,’ as well as professional and personal consequences for the victim who speaks out. This effect of people-pleasing is compounded by the evidence of cases where women are actually physically harmed for the act of rejecting men. If you are so afraid of being murdered or violently assaulted just for saying no, is it any wonder there is some hesitation in being assertive? And who is to say that a vocal no will always result in someone complying with your wishes? People also forget that if your assailant is someone in power, there is always potential for professional or personal retaliation. Given all of the potential consequences for victims who speak out, why is it so surprising to people that victims may be unable to do so – especially when the assault is occurring?
3. Victim-shaming and blaming which cause her to incessantly doubt her own instincts and experiences. Many survivors of rape and assault choose not to report these crimes to the police – usually because they know the amount of victim-shaming that is already present in society. Law enforcement has a history of blaming the victim and considering how rapists are rarely held accountable for their crimes, it’s no wonder that some victims would prefer to avoid the potentially re-traumatizing experience of a trial that may not result in justice.
4. A ‘freeze’ trauma response which can cause her to ‘shut down’ during an assault. This is VERY common (and applies to any gender). Research has shown that in response to the trauma of an assault or rape, victims tend to ‘freeze’ rather than fight or flee. It’s called “tonic immobility.” So telling victims to simply “get out” of the situation is not helpful nor is it realistic. There are many circumstances where the body is immobilized from leaving the situation and the victim doesn’t feel safe enough to leave. There is also another type of response to this type of trauma called “fawn” – in which the victim seeks to gain the favor of her assailant by complying with his demands or acting in a servile way; this is done to survive. When we place the onus of the rape on the victim, we completely dismiss the effects of trauma and mitigating circumstances where leaving is simply not a possibility and in some cases, may actually place the victim in more danger.
5. Victims are routinely gaslighted about their experiences, so they usually hold back on sharing their story for years – and it’s not because they’re being duplicitous or opportunistic.
There are many people who wonder why survivors are only now beginning to speak out about their rape or assault. It’s not because they’re lying or exaggerating. It’s because they’ve been gaslighted for decades about what actually constitutes rape; it’s because they’ve been taught they are to blame for failing to protect themselves; it’s because they’ve been fed myths about how rape is only committed by strangers, not people we trust; it’s because they’ve been told that rape always has to be aggressive and violent to count as rape.
That is why when they finally do speak out, it’s after they have a sliver of recognition, usually from reading the stories of other survivors, that what they went through was valid, or that it may be safer for them to finally speak now that others are also sharing their experiences. Or at least, it should. Is it any wonder that the #MeToo movement has revealed so many stories? These are the stories that have been buried for what seem like a lifetime. The space to speak about them has only recently been created.
Be gentle with survivors. They are not your enemy. Your enemy is the culture that dismisses the way a woman’s agency has been eroded for years and blames her for her own rape. Remember that consent is a far more complex issue, especially for women, than just saying “no.” There is no such thing as a “perfect victim.” There are just victims – and we need their voices now more than ever.