Six times when misogynistic bullshit was sold to us as ‘empowering women’

Six times when misogynistic bullshit was sold to us as ‘empowering women’

Written by Jessica Eaton

25/02/2019

It’s one of those blogs. And it’s been one of those days. Hold tight.

We have to call time on misogynistic, sexist bullshit being peddled to women as ‘empowerment’. More and more companies, activists, organisations and even governments are latching on to the concept of ‘empowering women’ and then using that concept to flog their wares. Even worse, we’ve seen a move towards misogynistic, sexist, hate-filled language as a way of ‘empowering’ each other as women.

We need to stop. Step back. Take stock – and start to wonder why lots of approaches to ‘empowering women’ actually continue to oppress, objectify and exploit us all.

So here’s six examples of misogyny and sexism being sold to us as ‘empowering women’.

1. Empowering women through boudoir or lingerie photoshoots

This one has throughly annoyed me this week, and inspired this entire blog. So let’s unpick it. A woman has grown, been through the trials and experiences of being a woman in the world, maybe had kids, maybe had traumas, maybe had loss in her life, illness, miscarriage, abuse or operations.

Maybe all of that has worn her down, made her feel tired, unhealthy, unattractive, unworthy.

And what’s the answer to how she’s feeling and everything she’s lived through? By empowering her again. By building her back up. By helping her feel worth something again. And how should we achieve that?

Why, by encouraging her to take her clothes off for a photographer of course!

What more could she possibly need than pictures of herself in awkward poses in lingerie with stupid props to help her feel ‘empowered’ as a woman?

And this is literally the central issue with the boudoir and lingerie shoots as a way of ‘empowering women’. Why is this approach not applied to men? Poor 40 year old Barry, having a midlife crisis, recently lost his Dad, struggling with diabetes. You know what he needs to do? Strip down to a thong and let some bloke take pictures of him on a fluffy blanket.

Yeah, sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it?

There is absolutely nothing empowering about the assumption that women will feel better and more powerful by being objectified and sexualised. This is literally the opposite of female empowerment.

2. Calling each other ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ is empowering

Oh, if I had a penny for every time I heard some woke youth saying ‘We call each other bitches, sluts and hoes, because we are taking back ownership of the words and it’s empowering us.’

Lemme tell you a little something about how language constructs reality:

If the oppressing class is still using those words to oppress you, you can’t take them back and use them to empower yourselves as the oppressed class. If men are using those words to construct you as less than them, as sex objects and dogs; you also using those words to describe yourself and your friends is COLLUDING with the oppression, not fighting it.

Women and girls being encouraged to call their friends ‘my bitches’ and ‘my hoes’ and telling each other ‘I’m a slut’ is not empowering at all. It’s constructing and describing your friends and yourself in the exact same way misogynistic men see you and perceive you. All we are doing by adopting this language is supporting and reinforcing our inferiority and objectification.

We are not ‘taking it back’ when the people using it against us are using it in exactly the same way we supposedly are. It’s one of the reasons you will never ever catch me using misogynistic slurs or female cuss words to talk to or to describe women. We’ve got enough shit on our plate without calling each other hoes and bitches. Don’t play into their hands.

As a bit of evidence that we have already played into the hands of the misogynists, there was a study in 2011 by McMahon and Farmer who asked undergraduate university students to help them to review a rape myth acceptance psychometric scale. One of the items, written in the 90s used to say:

Women who wear revealing clothing deserve to be raped

The undergraduate students told researchers that it wasn’t modern enough and that it needed to be changed to make it *more* socially acceptable in 2011. You know what they changed the item to?

Women who dress like sluts deserve to be raped

Because apparently, that language is *more* socially acceptable and recognisable than the original. Go figure.

3. Pole dancing and lap dancing for exercise and fitness empowers women

Ugh. Just no. It never manages to stop shocking me just how long the tentacles of the sex industry are. Women are looking to lose weight, get toned, feel good about themselves and build fitness.

So what should they do? Run? Swim? Cycle? Weight train?

Oh no, no, no. That’s man exercise. Of course, the way to ‘empower’ women during exercise is the make the exercise about sex. Then it’s super empowering and gets them fit at the same time. Bloody genius.

Years ago I used to work for a children’s charity, upstairs was a pole dancing fitness company that allowed children from the age of 8 years old to take part in pole dancing lessons. In the years I went to that office to go to work, I never forgot the misogyny, objectification and sexualisation of women (and girls’) fitness. Every day I walked up the steps to see the huge poster encouraging little girls and women to feel confident, sexy and empowered by learning to pole dance upstairs.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but can you imagine ANYONE advising poor 40 year old Barry (from before) to take up pole dancing or lap dancing as a way to empower him again after all he’s been through?

There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason men’s interventions and approaches are not based around their sex appeal. Have a think. Keep reading.

4. Rape self defence classes are empowering to women

No they’re not. They’re a way of pushing the responsibility of rape and sexual assault back on to women and girls because no one has yet figured out how to stop sex offenders from relentlessly attacking women in some sort of genocidal madness we’ve been witnessing for centuries.

Rape self defence classes are the opposite of ‘empowering women’. They are directly saying to women: ‘Let us teach you how to fight off the inevitable sex offender who will probably attack you multiple times in your life because we live in such a misogynistic world, you are better off prepared for rape than just hoping men won’t rape you.’

Women have a 1 in 3 chance in the lifespan of being raped or attempted to be raped. Rape defence classes are the ultimate admission of a society who are no longer interested in stopping male violence against women. It’s also in many cases, futile. As most women and girls will tell you, the shock and trauma they go into during an attack will prevent them from fighting back (Moller et al., 2017). Further, even women who are martial arts experts, MMA cage fighters and in the military report freezing during a sexual assault or rape. Even further than that, the majority of all rapes and sexual assaults of women occur in a relationship with someone they love, and they often don’t even know they are being raped (because they have been fed the myth that rape is from a stranger attacking you in an unfamiliar environment at night time). If you don’t know you are being raped because your partner has guilt-tripped you, coerced you or blackmailed you, you won’t fight back.

Rape self defence classes don’t empower women, they force women to shoulder the responsibility for a massive global issue so no one has to deal with it on a systemic level.

Instead of it remaining a societal problem of male violence towards women, now it’s your problem and you need to learn self defence. Clever, eh?

5. Make-up and contouring empowers women

Last week, I read a national news article about a school holding contouring and make-up classes for girls who needed a confidence boost or empowerment. My blood boiled. Whilst I can see that approaches like this are well intentioned (ugh, all the worst shit is, isn’t it?), this is not the way we should be helping our young girls build their self-esteem and feelings of power.

Further, Julie Bindel recently wrote an article about the way make-up has been oppressing women for so long – and she quoted a statistic that 15% of women wake up before their husbands to go and ‘put on their face’, meaning their husbands and boyfriends had never seen them without make up. I’m sure you know a woman or girl who even sleeps in make up, I know I do. We’ve created a world in which women are supposed to look flawless at all times, even when they wake up.

So what’s the issue with make-up, contouring and cosmetics being sold to us as empowering?

Well, it’s not exactly empowering to sell products to women and girls to make their faces look artificial, is it? Make-up to make our noses look smaller, skin look browner, eyes look bigger, lips look bigger and shinier, skin look smoother, cheekbones look more defined, eyebrows look darker and thicker.

How exactly is making ourselves look nothing like ourselves ‘empowering’ us?

*throws major side-eye at Snapchat and Insta flawless filters*

6. ‘For her’ products to empower women.

So finally, the ‘for her’ products invented (or usually just turned pink) for our ‘empowerment’. Like the pink toolkits that hardware stores sell. You know what I mean, the pink hammer and the pink screwdriver set meant to empower us to do our own DIY with our pretty new tools. Or the ‘for her’ Bic pens for the ‘feminine hand with a manicure’. That’s right, Bic invented pens ‘for her’. Fuck knows what we were using before they made these. Feather and ink, I think.

And what about the ‘for her’ laptop created by Toshiba. It’s a laptop with less power, less memory and less capability – but it does have special keys for long fingernails and it even comes with horoscope software! I mean. Wow.

What more could we possibly need? We’ve got laptops for her so now we can finally use the internet and our computers. We have pens for her so we can finally write things. We even have toolkits for her so we can finally tighten that loose dining table chair with our new pink screwdriver kit. We are literally so empowered now.

Take away message from this blog:

Not all that glitters is gold, my sisters.

Empowering women is about us taking back actual power in the world. Leadership. Research. Money. Property. Politics.

Empowering women is not about us being further objectified, sexualised and discriminated against.

Empowered women are not those who are duped into calling their best friends ‘bitches’, whilst they all go to their empowering pole dancing class to get fit, buying their pink toolkits for a spot of DIY whilst they google rape self defence classes on their new ‘laptop for her’.

Wake up. We are being manipulated.

This year for International Women’s Day 2019, be on the look out for these sneaky, disingenuous approach to ‘empowering women’ and call them out where you find them.

Written by Jessica Eaton

Dedicated to challenging victim blaming and misogyny

You can get books, resources and e-learning on these topics from: Www.victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet this: @JessicaE13Eaton

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Women: How to be the perfect victim of sexual violence

*content warning for discussion of sexual violence and victim blaming of women*

Written by Jessica Eaton

03/02/2019

Today, a friend sent me an article about a young woman who managed to fight off three men who had abducted her, robbed her and told her they were going to rape her. The article from Australia tells the story as if she did something small to escape the offenders and so I read on (with my ‘cynical’ face on, I might add). To my surprise, the article reports that the 20 year old threw herself out of a moving car to protect herself from being raped.

I mean. That’s no mean feat. Throwing yourself out of a moving car on a highway? Not exactly the small tip her mum told her, that the article described it to be. It’s also extremely dangerous and terrifying to throw yourself out of a moving car (been there, long story, couldn’t do it, ended up stuck in the situation).

So this blog is dedicated to the way the media drip feed us these stories of the ‘perfect rape victim’. You know. The ones who fight off the attacker. The ones who go straight to the police station with skin of the offender under her nails so they can test for DNA. The ones who never shower after the assault and walk straight to the clinic with the semen still in their underwear for testing.

The media like to hold these women and girls up as perfect victims, and lets be honest, their stories are rare, unrealistic, amazing and well… they are used to place us all in a hierarchy of ‘bad victim’ to ‘perfect victim’.

That’s right, we are in a victimhood hierarchy. I’ve built a new model of this in my PhD and it will be released in my new book, too. My research, and the research of countless others, backs up the concept that women and girls are placed into a hierarchy of victimhood in sexual violence in which only the ‘perfect’ victims are seen as traumatised, innocent and telling the truth.

So let’s look at another story from the media. In 2016, U.K. This Morning Programme featured an interview with a young woman who was a huge CSI fan.

One day, she was abducted near her own home as she was walking back into her house and raped by a man in a car. Because she had watched hundreds of episodes of crime dramas, she told This Morning that she suddenly remembered the importance of DNA. She pulled out her own hair during the rape and left it in his car. She dug her nails into his neck to get DNA under her finger nails. She spat on the floor of his car to leave her DNA in there too. The presenters hailed her as a genius and hero, and that her quick thinking has led to his conviction. They even asked her what advice she would give to others in her situation, suggesting of course, that other women and girls should do the same.

I remember watching this episode with interest. I remember thinking how many hundreds or thousands of cases of sexual assault and rape I have ever been involved in and that none of them had ever looked like this. I concluded that her behaviour during the rape was incredibly rare (albeit amazing) but that the millions of women in the U.K. watching or hearing this story would not recognise this as what happened when they were raped or abused.

In fact, the majority (71%) of victims of rape or sexual assault freeze and don’t move or make a noise at all (muller et al., 2017). Fighting back is actually relatively rare.

Not only that, but the majority of all rapes and sexual assaults occur at home, with a partner or ex partner, with no witnesses, with no proof, with someone you’ve had sex with before, with someone who is emotionally manipulative or threatening. It’s just not realistic to expect women and girls to be able to respond to sexual violence in these MacGyveresque ways.

And herein lies the problem. Both young women are being held up as perfect victims. They did all the things right. They fought them off. They risked their lives. They did ingenious and dangerous things to save themselves. They reported to police immediately. They had enough evidence to prosecute and prove their accounts.

And now their stories are used to encourage women to ‘do more’ or ‘do better’ during rape or sexual assault.

And frankly, that narrative sickens me.

The victimhood hierarchy looks a little like this (although in much more detail in my research and books):

The perfect sexual violence victim:

⁃ Young, single, innocent female

⁃ Not from particular backgrounds

⁃ White

⁃ No criminal record

⁃ Not intoxicated

⁃ Doesn’t know the offender

⁃ Not wearing provocative clothing

⁃ Not sexually active

⁃ Never reported rape before

⁃ Tried to fight off the offender

⁃ Reported straight away to police

⁃ Had DNA evidence to provide

⁃ Had physical injuries from attack

⁃ Offender used extreme violence

⁃ Offender used a weapon

⁃ Offender is male or in a group

⁃ Situation was unfamiliar

All of the above factors are supported by almost 30 years of research and the trends are not going anywhere. My own PhD work has also confirmed these to be correct in UK populations between 2016-2018.

Without this turning into a chapter of my work, you can guess what happens when the victim doesn’t hit this strict criteria.

The same thing also happens when the offender doesn’t hit the strict criteria (maybe the offender is a rich, popular, successful business man with a loving family, so he doesn’t fit the stereotype). Victims are also perceived as less credible in familiar environments with no witnesses (at home, in bed, in bathrooms etc.)

So why is all of this so important?

Well, because for most women and girls, they will never ever be the ‘perfect victim’ stereotype that they are expected to be by society, by their families and by police.

In 2016, I interviewed Sasha*.

Sasha was raped by a stranger on her way home from a works do in broad daylight on a busy street. She told me the offender literally came out of nowhere near a bush and attacked her near a bus stop. She said he didn’t speak a word of English and that she thought he was an immigrant.

After he attacked her, Sasha called 999 and asked for help. They sent a police car and she got in, shaken but confident the police would support her. She told me that she was adding it all up in her head. She was thinking ‘I was attacked by a stranger, in broad daylight, there were witnesses – they’ll definitely believe me.’

And that’s when she said something to me that has impacted my career and my work with women ever since:

“So you know, as a victim that’s as good as you’re gonna get isn’t it? It’s like a best case scenario rape.”

I knew exactly what she meant. She meant that she knew all the hierarchies she was in. She knew the stereotypes and she knew what she was going to be judged against and she had mapped it out in her head to check whether she would be believed.

However, her story took a turn for the worse once she was being interviewed. She told me they asked her why she smelled of alcohol and she told them she had just come from a works do with colleagues up the road. They asked her why she didn’t fight him off. They asked her about a rape she reported and retracted a year earlier. They asked her about her mental health record and some records they had about her being in crisis a few years ago.

She said to me:

“I sat there and suddenly realised that I wasn’t the perfect victim. I wasn’t going to be believed. The rape had all the right bits but I wasn’t credible.”

The police dropped her case and nothing happened. She told me she often wonders about trying to reopen it, but she now knows she has two reports of rape on her police file in which nothing was done.

The reality for many women and girls, is that from the moment they realise they are raped or abused, they are already adding up the factors in their head that they know will go against them. And research has shown, that not being perceived as the ‘perfect victim’ leads women and girls to make the decision not to report at all. However, this is actually a wise move, because research has also shown that police hold the same stereotypes and victim blaming attitudes about sexual violence victims as the general public and that their beliefs influence how they remember accounts of sexual violence and whether they believe the woman (Dawtry et al. 2019).

The expectation on women and girls to be the perfect victim of rape and sexual violence is destroying the justice system and until we address it, women and girls will always measure themselves against the societal stereotype of how they ‘should’ have acted or how they ‘should’ have reported sooner.

Written by Jessica Eaton

Www.victimfocus.org.uk

Email: Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Buy Jessica’s Victim Blaming and Self Blame Education Flashcards here:

https://victimfocus-resources.com/search?q=Flashcards

‘Take Responsibility’ – The New, Improved & More Socially Acceptable Way to Victim Blame

By Jessica Eaton

Twitter @JessicaE13Eaton

It’s not okay to victim blame – but it’s more than okay to force women and girls to take responsibility for their rape or sexual assault. This article examines recent evidence and possible reasons for why this is happening. 


In my doctoral research in forensic psychology, in my job as a writer, researcher and speaker in CSE and sexual violence and in my general experience of being a woman in the world (an observant, highly critical woman at that) I am becoming acutely aware of a societal shift away from ‘victim blame’ towards ‘victim responsibility’ – and this is something I have designed a new psychometric measure in, which will be tested on thousands of people in the UK this Autumn. (Update: This was completed in 2017)
When I say acutely aware, what I mean is a feeling that every time I look at the news, see an advert or campaign, hear a broadcast, teach at an event or get into a conversation – I find myself listening to people who are victim blaming whilst denouncing victim blaming.

What do I mean by this? Well, I can already tell as I am writing this that it sounds like waffle so I will give some examples I have seen or heard recently and then I will move on to more structured arguments:

“I’m not saying she’s to blame for being raped, but she shouldn’t have got into that car.”

“It’s always the perpetrator’s fault but if he hadn’t gone on the app in the first place, none of this would have happened to him, would it?”

“She’s not to blame for what happened to her, but she does need to take more responsibility for her choices that evening.”

“We advise all festival goers to stay aware. Please do not get so drunk that you end up a victim of crime.”

“Women need to take more responsibility. They need to know that if they dress like that, they are bound to get inappropriate comments!”

“The child needs help to make better decisions and to reduce their risk of child sexual exploitation.”

“She’s received 47 death threats from the perp so we have advised her to take the initiative to move out of the area and to change her number so he won’t be able to continue harassing her. She refuses to move so the abuse continues.”

What we have here are more intelligent, more socially acceptable and more subtle examples of victim blaming. However, whilst the principle remains the same (the shift of focus from the perp to the victim), the wording is slightly softened and changed to ‘responsibility’ or ‘decision making’. Some of these comments actually contradict themselves by claiming to understand that the perpetrator is always to blame, but then use ‘responsibility’ to equally blame the victim without sounding like they are blaming the victim.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have the rise of the socially desirable response.

This interests me so much because my research focus is victim blaming and the way women and girls learn to absorb these victim blaming messages from an early age which then leads to them blaming themselves when they experience sexual violence. I believe that as a general society, victim blaming is not reducing at all, it is merely becoming more insidious and cameoflaged by adapting the language used. People know that they shouldn’t victim blame, but they still feel the need to do it, so what do they do? They adapt.

Examples of the shift from blame to responsibility:

Anti-rape wear by Defendables (and others)


Anti-rape wear is the ultimate shift from blame to responsibility. The slogan of Defendables on all of their marketing materials is:

“DEFENDABLES -DON’T BE A VICTIM

Anti-rape wear is generally marketed as underwear or other garments that are designed to lock (you’re thinking chastity belt aren’t you? Yeah, you’re not far off) so you don’t get raped. Genius, eh? All those millions of women who have experienced rape and sexual violence and all that was really needed was a pair of knickers that can’t be tugged, unlocked, cut off or ripped.

AR Wear advise women that they can wear the knickers when they go running, travelling or on a first date. Excellent.


However, there are a few problems with anti-rape wear.

1. To prevent rape, you would have to wear these 24/7, 365 days a year 

The fact that these items are marketed for running at night, travelling alone and going on first dates just confirms that the designers and founders of these companies have no idea what they are talking about. With the large majority of rapes happening within the home of the victim and perpetrated by someone they knew well (family member, partner, friend or ex partner) – women would have to wear these for the rest of their lives in order to get protection from them.

2. These knickers completely ignore wider sexual violence acts

So you’ve got your anti-rape knickers on, you’re safe, you’re confident. You are now protected from rape. Really?

The sexual offences act 2003 defines rape as including oral sexual assault. What are we going to wear to prevent that? A Bane mask? (Sorry, Batman fans.)

But seriously, what about women being forced into sexual acts that do not require the penetration of their vagina? What about being touched? What about being coerced or threatened into taking the knickers off and unlocking them? What about being sweet-talked and groomed into not wearing them?

This garment is designed based on the myth that all rapes and sexual assaults are random acts of severe violence perpetrated in unfamiliar environments by a stranger. Every other form of sexual act is ignored. The concept of grooming, threat and charm is ignored.

3. “She should have been wearing her anti-rape knickers!”

In more direct and overt examples, victim blaming will most certainly increase if these garments ever became a serious trend. Imagine the ridiculous arguments in court, by police, from friends and family and the wider public when a woman gets raped and she wasn’t wearing her trusty anti-rape underwear. It’s just more pathetic excuses added to the arsenal of rape-deniers and victim-blamers everywhere.

In more subtle blaming, the focus will shift to a woman’s responsibility to ensure she is prioritising her personal safety by wearing these knickers. It will be her duty to ensure she is taking adequate steps to reduce her risk of rape. Don’t drink. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t live one hour of your life without your anti-rape knickers on. You fool.

This is not a route we need to go down, ever. Anti-rape wear is not the answer to rape. It never has been and it never will be. Forcing women to take more precautions and more responsibility to prevent their own rape is ridiculous. What about women who have been with their partners for 12 years and then they begin to show abusive behaviours and start manipulating them, eventually leading to their partner raping or sexually assaulting them? What would be said to them? That they should have worn their anti-rape knickers for their whole relationship just on the off-chance? That she ‘should have seen the signs of abuse’ and bought anti-rape wear to protect herself?

The fact that a lot of money, innovation and resource has been pumped into designing prototypes of knickers that imply that the burden of responsibility to prevent rape sits with the woman feels like a massive step backwards.

Public safety campaigns aimed at potential victims 

Some excellent examples below contain messages that place an incredible amount of responsibility on the victim and even her friends – to ensure she is not raped. It feels as though our government and our public services have just resigned themselves to the fact that women and girls will continue to get raped so they have decided to target all of their messages and resources at women and girls rather than perpetrators. It’s a sorry state of affairs that teaches women that they are responsible for their rape, if they break any of the rules in the campaigns.


I doubt that you will be surprised to see this one. The U.K. and USA especially have created solid links between alcohol and rape in recent years. Their reasoning is so frequent and confident that they make it sound as though it’s the alcohol that rapes women. It’s incredible really.

This poster is implying that if you drink alcohol, you might get raped. More than that, it positions your choice to have a drink over the choice of the perpetrator to target you and rape you.

This poster sends the message that if you were drunk when you got raped, you will have broken the golden rule and you will not be afforded any sympathy. Case in point: The Sun headline about India, who was raped and murdered. #2The coverage of the Brock Turner case in which the fact that the woman had been drinking was a massive focus.

You had a responsibility not to drink and you did not uphold that responsibility – you will therefore come under heavy scrutiny from both men and women about why you were drinking in the first place.


Again, another example of subtle victim blaming in which the shift is based on the responsibility for personal safety and ‘looking after yourself’ and ‘making good decisions’.

This poster by Essex Police clearly instructs women not to walk home alone. Well, what happens if they do walk home alone? Are they less deserving of justice? The answer to that, sadly, is yes. There is a high chance that people around them will question why they decided to walk home alone and why they didn’t reasonably predict that they would be raped or sexually assaulted. The focus will shift back to the ‘everyone is responsible for their own safety’ message, which is what this poster is based on.

This is not crime prevention, this is victim blaming. However you dress it up.


I really do not like this one. The poster depicts a woman with her knickers around her ankles with a bit of text aimed at her friends saying that she might get so drunk that she will make bad decisions. However, the large text overriding the poster says ‘she didn’t want to, but she couldn’t say no’.

Well, in my opinion, she didn’t make a bad decision. Her decision was that she didn’t want to have sex. However, she was unable to communicate her decision due to being drunk. And when you are too drunk to convey your decision about sex…

(Say it all together now)

That is rape.

So why exactly has this police force reframed a very clear example of rape due to the person not having capacity to consent or communicate – as a ‘bad decision’ and then placed the responsibility on the friends? It’s astounding.

There are hundreds of examples of these types of campaigns, resources and anti-rape wear garments and judging by the quick and critical response to most of them on social media, I would hope that a lot of these messages are being rejected – however, a critical look at academic research and professional practice in sexual violence has a slightly different story to tell. A story that ultimately suggests that the ‘take responsibility’ message is alive and well and unfortunately, increasing.

Academic Research 

There are a string of studies into victim blaming that sparked my interest into whether victim blaming was becoming more intelligent and more subtle. Having recently conducted a very large literature review in victim blaming and self blame in sexual violence which led to me designing a new measure of victim blaming, I noticed something really important that I hope to test.

In the 1980s, Martha Burt found that around half of all people surveyed blamed women for their rape, usually using reasoning like ‘they were asking for it’ or ‘they deserved it’ or ‘they brought it upon themselves by the way they were… (Insert reason here)’. As you can imagine, half is a pretty big claim. However, as someone who works in this field, I accepted that to be fairly accurate. However, in 2005 Amnesty International performed a very large survey or victim blaming and rape myth acceptance and found that the proportion of people who blamed women for their rape had dropped to a third. Many researchers hailed this as a true reduction in victim blaming and put it down to better education, rape prevention programmes and good campaigns around sexual violence. I was sceptical.

My observations and criticisms were based around the survey items used to test people. They were so direct and so overtly sexist that I doubted whether even the most confident sexists would admit to agreeing to the items. Examples include items such as ‘if a woman acts like slut, she deserves to get raped’ and ‘rape is a common weapon that women use against men’. I argued that it was much more likely that people were just responding in a socially desirable manner and were therefore disagreeing with the most overt examples of victim blaming and were only agreeing to the items that were more subtly worded such as the items that talked about responsibility and casual factors that ‘led’ to the rape. I also had issues with language and wording of a lot of items due to the scales being written some decades ago and the way the general public speak having changed.

I was delighted to find that McMahon (2010) had the exact same criticisms as I did and had done an excellent piece of research that asked university students to look at the IRMAS scale and to be honest about whether they thought people of their age group (18-25) would answer them honestly. The findings were really useful to researchers like me. They confirmed that many people would not like to be seen as agreeing to overt victim blaming but would be more likely to agree to the more subtle forms of victim blaming, which usually involve responsibility or cause rather than blame.  One item about women who deserve to be raped was completely dropped from the updated version of the scale because so many participants said that even if they believed that some women deserved to be raped, they knew that it was not socially acceptable to say it like that so they would not answer that question or would lie about their views.

Once McMahon had amended the scale using updated language and the ideas from the participants, it was found that the proportion of people who blame women for their rape went back up to half. For me, this was good evidence of my argument that victim blaming was not reducing, it was evolving.

The second issue I have been looking at is language around blame, responsibility, fault and cause. In every day language, we use them interchangeably. However, when it comes to sexual violence, it appears to me that people think they mean different things. This results in people saying ‘they are not to blame for being raped but they need to take more responsibility for their actions that caused it’. Most people would say ‘that’s still victim blaming’, but in the mind of the speaker, they are reasoning that blame, responsibility and cause are different concepts that do not lead to the same level of culpability. They are saying that you could be at fault, but not to blame. They are saying that you should be held responsible, but that it wasn’t your fault. They are saying that your actions caused it, but that the perpetrator is equally to blame. What!?

At the moment, other than the fact that people have started to realise that research in this area has seriously muddled up these terms, not much else has been achieved to unpick this web. I have built this into my new measure and will be excited to see how language plays a role. I will also be conducting interviews across the UK on this topic to see what we can learn about this mixed up set of concepts. One thing is fairly clear though, ‘blame’ seems to carry much more negative weight than ‘responsibility’ which means that professional practice has already started to adopt this approach (either consciously or unconsciously) and I can already see the effects.

Professional Practice Example: Child Sexual Exploitation

I am going to use a fictitious but typical case study of a child who is being sexually exploited in the UK and then unpick some of the ways the ‘take responsibility’ message is harming professional practice with victims of sexual violence.

  • The child is 14 years old
  • They have a Facebook account through which they have been groomed repeatedly
  • They have been sexually exploited by a number of peers and adults
  • They are taken to hotels and pubs by perpetrators in nice cars
  • They are in love with their main perpetrator and have no idea why everyone thinks they are being abused
  • They are being given drugs and alcohol regularly

This case would be classed as ‘high risk’ in the UK using the CSE risk assessment toolkits (I don’t have time to go into the serious flaws in those here but the fact that a child who is already being raped is classed as ‘high risk’ probably gives you a good idea of my main criticism).

The child and family would have a number of different agencies involved in an effort to keep them safe and to reduce their risk.

The ‘take responsibility’ victim blaming message really takes hold here, and this is how:

“Parents need to take more responsibility for the safety of this child”

Whilst this seems fairly reasonable, because as parents, we are all legally responsible for the safety and wellbeing of our children; this is not quite what that statement means to parents of exploited children. This statement is used with parents even when they are trying absolutely everything in their power to keep their child safe but the perpetrators are just too powerful. The child climbs out of the bedroom window whilst they sleep. The perp pulls them out of school at dinner time. The perp threatens the child to ensure they run away and come back to the perp or the residence where the perpetrator are. In these situations, the power of the parents is limited. And yet, if the child continues to be exploited the child will inevitably be removed from the parents on the basis that they are failing in their responsibility to protect the child from harm. The local authority will seek to put the child in care which generally solves nothing, creates further trauma and vulnerabilities for the perp to exploit and ultimately, punishes the parents.

This is victim blaming.

Instead of focussing on the perp and the power of the perp, professionals are being taught and forced to focus on the responsibility of the parents. Rather than working with them, they eventually decide that the parenting is the source of the problem, in line with the traditional child protection model.

Even the CPS have banned the criticism of the responsibility of parents in CSE cases in court – but it still happens regularly in frontline practice. The shift in language from ‘blame’ to ‘responsibility’ has meant that parents continue to be blamed, but in a more subtle manner.
The ‘take responsibility’ message to parents results in parents and carers feeling helpless, disengaged and blamed by professionals who are using standards of ‘responsibility’ unfairly against parents who cannot override the power of the perpetrator. Nor can the professionals, and yet there is no punishment or blame for that. It is common in this country to see children who are removed from parents under the explanation that they were failing to protect their children from external perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation – but then the children are put in care homes and foster placements who also struggle to protect them and in most cases, the risk actually increases. Yet there is no such equivalent process for the professionals who are now also failing to protect the child. Surely, when the child is removed from the parents and the CSE continues to worsen, isn’t that just evidence that the risk was never coming from the parenting or the lack of ‘responsibility’ of the parents themselves? Is it so hard to see that the risk comes from the perpetrators?
“We need to help the child to make better decisions and to reduce their own risk

Nope, the children are not safe from the ‘take responsibility for your own abuse’ message either. The child in this case study would be told to complete work on ‘staying safe online’, ‘drug and alcohol awareness’ and ‘healthy and unhealthy relationships’ – in an attempt to engage the child in taking responsibility for their own safety and ultimately, for the actions of their perpetrators. The thought process behind this baffles me.

We have a child in serious trauma, being sexually exploited, going missing and already deeply groomed by the perpetrators and the national response to that is to help the children take more responsibility for their own safety? That horse has bolted, my friends. Why are we even doing these pieces of work whilst they are in active exploitation and active complex trauma/crisis? We have perpetrators sexually abusing children and we get them to sit down and watch a DVD about sexting and tell them that they need to take more responsibility for their online behaviours – completely ignoring the actions and grooming methods of the perpetrator, whom is the true catalyst behind these risks.

We can do all the ‘take responsibility’ work we like, but if the perp is still in the picture, we are actively and consistently perpetuating victim blaming by focussing on the responsibility of a child rather than putting all of our resources into the disruption of the perpetrator.

Which brings my to my final point. You will notice that throughout this post, there has been no mention by the anti-rape wear companies, the police, the home office, the NHS or the professionals about the responsibility and decision making of the perpetrator. I get the distinct feeling that professionals and larger structures feel that it is just too hard to target perpetrators so they target victims. This in itself, could be construed as victim blaming. Moving to the ‘take responsibility for your own safety’ message might look more socially desirable than victim blaming and it might cost organisations less money than chasing perps but this approach will not reduce sexual violence and it will not empower people who have experienced rape and sexual assault. The focus MUST shift back to the perpetrator and their responsibility.

Rather than ‘don’t get raped’ messages, we need ‘don’t rape’ messages.

Take responsibility = blaming the victim.

For more information about this article or my research, get in touch

Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

@JessicaE13Eaton