By Roger Canaff
“There is no vulnerability without danger.” Veronique Nicole Valliere, Psy.D.
It’s a simple and brilliant truth, introduced to me at a sex assault prosecution training in 2009. The doc was discussing how we blame women (and men) who are sexually assaulted, particularly when their choices leading up to the attack make them, in most minds, “more vulnerable.” Like when they drink too much, or when they go home with a man they don’t know well. And so on.
When I heard it, I nodded sagely. Sure, I believed in what I called “rape prevention,” and felt that everyone needed to take some responsibility for their own personal safety. But that’s all. I wasn’t anywhere near victim blaming. Because I was too smart for that. Too enlightened. Too smugly ensconced as one of the more influential sex assault prosecution experts nationwide. So naturally, I understood her perfectly.
Except that I didn’t. Because I was victim blaming, even though I told myself I wasn’t. And in buying into the kind of “rape prevention” I believed in, I was a part of the problem. Many of us, most with the best of intentions, still are.
The ad above from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (now pulled) sparked a debate in feminist circles. The ad itself wasn’t the issue; most agreed it was offensive. Visually it sexualized violence, right down to the blue underwear around the seductively placed ankles matching the tile on the floor. That’s not a representation of the aftermath of a felony. It’s wanna-be pornography. And of course, it callously blamed both the curled up, naughty-girl and her irresponsible friends for not preventing the rape she apparently endured. No mention of the rapist.
But while the attempt was botched, the underlying message begged a question: Shouldn’t we warn girls and women about the dangers of losing control, and thus “becoming vulnerable?” Isn’t it simply a dangerous world, like it or not? Of course it is and of course we should, went the argument. It was a bold one apparently, expectant of a backlash from uber-feminist PC police who would label it victim blaming even though the goal was simply to “reduce vulnerability.” When the backlash came, I initially sided against it. I had seen a career’s worth of victimization- how could I not encourage safe behavior myself, in the name of reducing vulnerability? Because vulnerability invites danger. Right?
Go back to the statement at the top of the page. Vulnerability does not exist unless danger is present. Choices, however reckless they appear, do not create danger anymore than liquor creates rape in a man who is not a rapist. Danger exists because of the choices dangerous people- rapists, in this case- make. From this reality, two others flow: First, encouraging young people (the most at-risk population, male or female) to avoid victimization through more responsible behavior will not prevent a single rape, as author Jaclyn Friedman points out in her piece on the subject. Rape is never an accident, and it’s almost always a planned attack. The rapist who cannot target the “better-behaved” woman will find one who isn’t. So there won’t be less rape, just rape of perhaps different people. Of course, the predictable rejoinder is “well my daughter won’t be the targeted person, then.” Game, set, match. Admonish away.
Except that she might be regardless, which is the second reality that results from Dr. Valliere’s observation. The woman who believes she is safer because she’s avoiding something like heavy drinking might well be safer to a particular kind of attack. But there are many others, and being lulled into a false sense of security because of the avoidance of one behavior will likely blind her to the danger that can exist under the most responsible appearing of circumstances. Women are raped by trusted friends. They’re raped during the daytime while studying or just listening to music with known, clean-cut, well-regarded men in their communities, on their campuses, from their churches. Alcohol is extremely helpful to acquaintance rapists. But it is hardly their only tool.
Youth involves blind spots, but regardless of age, risk-taking is at bottom the essence of life. There is no elimination of it short of solitary confinement. What we must do is grasp that vulnerability exists only when danger is present, and turn the focus rightly on the dangerous and away from the endangered.
Because when we create rules, particularly ones laced with moral superiority in order to somehow deliver us from evil, we then distance ourselves from those who break them. When those people are victimized, we rest easy, believing that our wisdom and temperance saved us. But there are always more rules, both to make and to break. In the end, all that rule making accomplishes is the encouragement of an insidious urge to will to life something other than luck separating us from the unlucky. So we’ll draw attention to the choices the rule breakers made that we wouldn’t make. And we’ll blame them for theirs.
Roger Canaff: Anti-Violence Advocate, Child Protection Specialist, Legal Expert Blog: WCSV (Women, Children, Sex, Violence: Outcry, Analysis, Discussion) www.rogercanaff.com