Friday, February 24, 2012

Vulnerabilty, Danger, and Blame

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.

A widely known child protection and anti-violence against women advocate, legal expert, author and public speaker, Roger Canaff has devoted his legal career to the eradication of violence against women and children.

Roger Canaff: Anti-Violence Advocate, Child Protection Specialist, Legal Expert Blog: WCSV (Women, Children, Sex, Violence: Outcry, Analysis, Discussion)


  1. Excellent article! I hope and pray that any woman who has endured the horror of rape will not fear being victimized again...and come forward. It is NOT their fault. On another note, my own mother had an attempted rapist who pushed her apartment door open as she was entering and she fought back. My mom was smart as she remembered to yell "FIRE" because "HELP" was not working. The moment she yelled...the other doors opened in the halls and the attempted rapist fled and was caught by another resident of her building. My mom was 53 years old at the time. Nobody is free from potential harm.

  2. Greetings Roger! Thoughtful post..... I believe that the media ALWAYS focuses on the dangerous perpetrator (human ) and not enough on the dangerous (situation) ...while the victim (human) gets a mere mention, if that in most news accounts!

    I respectfully disagree that vulnerability exists ONLY when danger is present. As a homicide survivor of 30 years, I still encounter situations in which I PERCEIVE there is danger... actual or not... and still feel vulnerable. We also have to take context and the background of the person/victim/survivor into consideration when speaking of vulnerability.
    For those of you who may have interest, please read MY former blog concerning vulnerability...and it's various manifestations...


  3. Excellent article.

    Same applies to child rapists.

    I read the case where the perpetrator used the excuse it was the medication he was on for parkinsons. Really.

    Then why is this drug on the market.

    When the victims family hit the criminal outside court as he walked free, everyone looked at the women, thus deflecting attention away from the real criminal who had escaped justice.

    it is no different to the men of god blaming little children for tempting them.

    It goes all the way back to Adam- poor Adam could not be expected to accept responsibility for anything he did.

    It was all Eve ill Eve's fault and all her children are still being blamed.

    It is the same in domestic violence cases. 82% of perpetrators manage to convinve learned judges that they are the victims and then the children are placed with these crimminals.

    There is a pattern worldwide of blaming the victims.

    When court expert witnesses like Dr Sturge blame the victims for being weak and give lectures to judges on this matter and indoctrinate them to believe this untruth, what hope is there of change?

    It is articles like the above which bring change.


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