Recent events on the College of Charleston campus have gotten me thinking once again about the problem of victim blaming, the strange and unsettling phenomenon that occurs after a sexual assault or rape when all attention, scrutiny, and critique is focused solely on the victim. We throw out questions like: "Why was she out so late?" "Wasn't she with friends?" "Why did she let him in?" And, perhaps most often of all, "How much did she have to drink?"
Two weeks ago, a community alert was sent to all CofC students, informing them of two sexual assaults that happened near campus. In this message, the alleged perpetrators of the assaults each got one sentence while the victims' drinking was mentioned six times — I repeat, six times.
Whether or not the people writing the email intended it, the focus of their message was on the behavior of the victims, not on the very people who had allegedly committed these crimes. Apparently, the women did something wrong, and that's why this happened.
Victim blaming isn't just a CofC problem or a Charleston one. It's incredibly pervasive in the culture at large. We warn women about the dangers of drinking. We tell them to travel in groups. We encourage them to keep their keys sticking out between their fingers when they walk so they can stab anyone who jumps out at them. We focus our rape prevention efforts solely on women.
Oftentimes, women themselves participate in victim blaming. In part, they do it as a self-defense measure. If women can figure out ways that someone else wasn't safe, then we have a sense — albeit a false one — that if we're careful enough, we can keep ourselves and our daughters safe. Because the alternative — a world in which women are often prey and frequently vulnerable — is too scary to imagine.
But this is the world we live in. The statistics prove it, as do the stories I regularly hear from students, and it should make us all feel sick.
Rapes are committed by people of all classes, races and ethnicities, and professions. The thing that almost all rapists have in common? Their gender: they are almost all men. And by "almost all" I mean 99 percent.
And here's another scary statistic: in a series of anonymous surveys conducted on college campuses nationwide, over the course of several decades, around 30 percent of men have said that if they knew they would get away with it, they would rape someone. Clearly our rape prevention efforts are focused on the wrong audience. To stop rape and sexual assault, we need to target potential perpetrators and that means men.
One of my students Corina Zimmerman made an incredibly funny, and effective, poster lampooning the signs that are common on many college campuses, posters which say things like "Always Walk in Groups!" Her posters were directed toward men, and they were headlined, "Protect Your Future: Avoid Rape Charges." She offered basic explanations of consent (if the woman is "too wasted or passed out, do not proceed!" and "Consent earlier, or last night, or at lunch is not consent now, it is rape!"). She also listed a step-by-step guide to determine if the partner is consenting. She helpfully suggested alternatives to avoid rape: "Masturbate, sleep, and repeat steps in the morning (a.m. sex!)."
I love this campaign. It's aimed at the potential perpetrators, not the victims. And it's a message that has to be repeated again and again because, sadly, far too many of us — men and women — still don't seem to get it.