† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Victim Blaming, Backlash, and Distractions
by nancy a heitzeg
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, first observed in 1987. The month will remind us of many horrific statistics ( high-lighted throughout), call us to Stop the Violence!, offer a few words of advice, and create some short-lived solidarity.
Frankly, I am tired of “months” that come and go decade after decade, with little sustained attention to real change. I am tired of “solutions” that focus on the criminalization of individual perpetrators and merely cosmetic law enforcement efforts that ultimately make matters worse. I am tired of the denial of the toxic structural and cultural forces that shape and sustain violence, including that perpetrated by the state. I am tired of the sensationalistic media focus on select cases, almost always with some eventual blaming and shaming of the victims themselves, as if they were responsible for their own assault and abuse.
What is required is this: an acknowledgement that we swim in a violent structural and cultural milieu which harms us all — women, men children. What is required is this: Transforming A Rape Culture .
As Lisa Factora-Borchers notes:
Rape culture is like smoke. Insidious, it hangs in the air, getting into everything, staining and deteriorating whatever it touches. It’s highly adaptive, cunning; clever in its ability to morph into whatever context it is placed. Rape culture prices and prioritizes human dignity, as if it’s something to earn and not inherent. Rape culture sets behavioral prescriptions and if one does not adhere to them, they deserve violence or, at the very least, are somehow responsible for it…
Rape culture .. is a deeply engrained and believable operating system in our collective conscience, whispering its influence into every aspect of life, at every stage of personal formation and development. Rape culture is not a separate culture from the one you and I are living in. They are one and the same.
And rape culture is more than just sexual violence against women; it is part and parcel of a system of oppression that metes out violence, both interpersonal and structural, across multiple lines of race class and gender difference. It is, at root, about power and raw domination.
Denial of Structure and Victim Blaming
In a society that denies structure and exalts individual efforts at every turn, it is not surprising that the blaming of victims is preferred to an acknowledgement of the larger sociocultural forces that shape violence. Women are unfortunately used to this – their rapes and assaults have long been attributed to what they were wearing, what they were drinking, where they were, what they did, what they didn’t do, what they said, what they didn’t say, and more. They “asked for it”; they “deserved” it. It is this climate that masks rape culture and leaves rape as the most under-reported of all violent crimes.
This illogic has deep roots. Certainly this has long been the case with ” culture of poverty” arguments that have attributed criminal behavior to the personal failings of the poor. While analysis is problematic when applied to those accused of law-breaking — it is even more disturbing when it is used to blame victims. And in culture wars over black men and “respectability politics”, they are now too blamed for the death of their children as well. Consider this:
A denial of the structural roots of violence fuels this. Rather than turning our attention to the systems that feed violence and our own complicity in letting them stand, we are asked to turn again, always, towards “individual responsibility”. If the victim is not older richer whiter or male — the normative unmarked marker in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy — then surely there is fault to be found in them. An old stale drill.
Susan Faludi’s old book, Backlash, still rings true. There is a War on Women – declared and undeclared- has been, still on-going. It is waged politically — in sexist representations of female political figures, in challenges to voting rights, in restrictive legislation that denies women control over their own bodies, and in debates about what constitutes rape or if it even exists.
And of course, pop culture is soaked in it. Advertisements, porn sites, television and movies. Everything. Everywhere. Endless. 10 trillion links worth of material, but here is just one.
Rape culture is unquestioned to the extent that a blurred line apologist song — no means yes yes yes! – was recently a #1 hit..
As Lisa Factora-Borchers again observes, this involves much more than violence directed towards cisgendered white women:
Rape is one of many violent forms of oppression – stalking, abuse, domestic violence, trafficking – but they come from the same culture. Rape culture thrives in any society that assigns and thwarts power according to prescribed traits, identifiers, and behaviors. It is intensified through lenses of race, class, physical and cognitive ability, and occupation among an endless list of factors. Some call this systematic assignment of privilege patriarchy. I prefer kyriarchy.
It even continues in the aftermath, in the determination of whose stories are deemed worthy and which ones are less significant. So before we throw stones at the ignorant teenager who claims he didn’t know what rape looks like, ask yourself if you know what it looks like. Not just for Jane Doe, and not just in cases of heterosexual aggression, do you know what sexual violence looks like for a queer or gay survivor? Or a trafficked person? Or an undocumented survivor? Or a transperson? Or a sex worker? What about what it looks like for an incarcerated survivor? Are you pleading innocent because you weren’t aware and couldn’t identify what it looked like?
The violence of rape culture subsumes us all. It flows from the same structure of power that fuels the war machine and the prison industrial complex, from the same root of domination that “inspires” the LSP Angola Rodeo, that killed Trayvon Martin.
It is difficult to imagine violence as structural or rape as a culture when media reports stories of victimization as individual events linked only by the presence of “bad people”. This is already a thick fog to cut through.
What is worse still are media portrayals of victims as blameworthy, especially when this tactic is used to hijack organized efforts at at systemic change. Manufactured outrage is a diversionary tactic extraordinaire.
Here is Exhibit A. I watched in horror as this damn fool diverted attention away from the Zimmerman verdict and nation-wide marches, as too many stopped to refute him:
No. Trayvon Martin isn’t dead because of what he was wearing. George Zimmerman wasn’t acquitted because of “litter” in certain neighborhoods. Women are not raped because of they had some drinks or because Miley Cyrus attempted to “twerk”. Adrian Peterson’s child was not murdered simply because he was not there.
All this has happened because of structured inequality, because of a supporting cultural climate that permits and encourages violence, and then, distracts us — even as i have been here – with individual stories, with shaming/blaming and fruitless debates with talking heads who are paid to make us stop, bicker, and eventually look away.
Again, Lisa Factora-Borchers :
For me, I don’t want to just end rape. I want to transform the mentalities that posit sexual violence as a sensible outcome of its logic. We must transform rape culture by wielding our own power in the spaces where we are most present: our workspaces, family, neighborhoods, businesses, relationships, religious or spiritual gathering places, and even our corners of the Internet. Think personal and local. Think relationship and specificity. Think human decency. Begin there. When we identify and name the spaces where we show up and are present, when we are charged with our own authority to claim and demand human dignity for ourselves, we begin to demand it for one another. We must choose our battles, yes, but we must respond knowing that no situation is too big or small for that charge. This is what it means to transform rape culture.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence may be the most notable example of an organization that addresses violence at the intersections of race class and gender, at the juncture of the structural and personal. Undaunted, undistracted, unbridled by the usual calls for more policing and punishment.
How can the rest of us do better? Can we turn off the TV? Ignore the profit-seeking pundits who gin up outrage for page clicks and views? Can we avoid the distractions, resist the tempting yet diversionary twitter storms?
Can we indict structures? Can we connect the personal and the political?
Can we call for transformative justice?
Can we render Domestic Violence Awareness Month and all those other too many “months” obsolete?