The Fem Spot

Why blame the victim?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays by femspotter on May 21, 2011

May 21, 2011

Ahh…Saturday! No work. No church. It’s a day reserved for thinking about ourselves, our daughter and our dogs. Just because the world is ending today, doesn’t mean we have to pout. (There really is a need for a sarcasm font.)

I had an epiphany about blaming rape victims for their rapes today…at the dog park of all places. Let’s see…

We decided to take our dogs to the nice dog park in the nice town, and then swing by the nice grocery store on our way home. It should have been a pleasant family outing. And it was…until a 50-lb dog attacked and bit our 14-lb Tootie.

Our Charlotte (60-lb pit bull mix) and Tootie (Boston terrier) love the park. They’re leash-less there, and they frolic. They bark at but don’t aggress other dogs, except for the occasional stare-down between Charlotte and an alpha female. We don’t tolerate that at all and remove Charlotte immediately from quarrelsome groups. Tootie has never had a problem getting along with other dogs of any size.

Sometimes, dog parks are divided: a pen for “small” dogs apart from the larger area for “big” dogs. But – as Tootie and Charlotte are generally inseparable elsewhere – at the park, they want to play together. Tootie doesn’t know what to make of small dogs and doesn’t play with them. In fact, I’ve never thought of her as a “small” dog…like chihauhaus or Yorkshire terriers or toy poodles. She cavorts with Charlotte and her equals regularly. In fact, Boston terriers can often be found with big dogs because they have “big dog” attitude.

I observed a woman with an aggressive 100-lb dog telling other dog owners to “watch out” for her dog as he has a tendency “to harm other dogs when he plays.” WTF? Why bring him here? I thought as I eyed Charlotte to make sure she kept a wide berth. And there was also an anxious man with a leashed “boxer” (red flag there: leashed dog in a fenced in area – why?) bragging about how his dog was a rescued animal and how he’d spent thousands of dollars on vet bills to get the dog in tip-top shape. Periodically, he would turn to the dog and say, “Oh no, you can’t come off the leash yet. You’re too excited.”

When he did finally release his dog, it made a beeline for Tootie, 30 yards away. As she always does, she turned and faced the dog and told it what to do with that aggressive stance…but she was soon overpowered and it grabbed her by the throat and swung her around as if she were a squirrel or a rabbit. She screamed. I screamed. Ellie, my 9 month-old, screamed. I will never forget the sound of Tootie scared and screaming. As tough as she is, there was no way she could have saved herself.

My husband restrained Charlotte in anticipation of her intent to rescue her best friend, and several dogs ran into the fray responding to the frightened cry of a lesser creature, as instinct would dictate. After seconds that seemed like minutes, the attack dog’s owner nervously commanded his dog to cease. He reached for his dog as J*** reached for the Toot and the squabble was over just as abruptly as it had begun. When I lifted Tootie, she was shaken and nursing a large gash above her left shoulder.

What do you do in this situation: a dog bites yours at the park? Do you call police? Animal control? Do you just swear at the other dog’s owner until you’re blue in the face? When you’re shaken and angry, door number three seems like the best option. So, I shouted, “Why the fuck is your dog in here?! Get that dog out of here! Your dog just bit my dog! Why did you bring that animal to a public dog park?!”

The man didn’t look at me. He didn’t speak. He leashed his dog again and wandered back to his former perch, a bench under a shady oak.

Meanwhile, a crowd of people with rubber necks had gathered beside me. Several people asked me kindly about Tootie’s condition. But the woman with the aggressive-as-advertised dog muzzled her dog and then shamed me for bringing my “small” dog into the big dog side of the park because “there are several herding dogs present who will attack small animals.” “She told me that her dog is mean to other dogs,” a girl with three pit bulls reassured me. “I don’t know who brings a mean dog to the park!”

But meanie’s owner wasn’t the only one shaking her head at me. What a sight I must have been: furious, crying, holding my daughter in one arm and my Boston terrier, bleeding, in another; with a swarm of finger-waggers circling me. “We all knew this would happen.” “There’s a small dog side for a reason.” “You really brought this on yourself.”

My mind raced and my eyes found their way to a 20-lb French bulldog on our side of the fence. Is there really a difference between that dog and my dog, who usually plays with big dogs too?  

Meanie and its owner left. She was probably afraid that we were going to call the proper authority and, knowing that she was in violation of the signs that read “No Aggressive Dogs Allowed,” removed herself from controversy before it could stretch to include her. And with no understanding of what else to do, J*** and I took Tootie to the animal hospital…but not before the attacker’s owner snuck through the fence beside me and threw a snotty “sorry” over his shoulder at me. There was no way to punish him for his failure to restrain his dog and no way to force him to pay our impending $165 vet bill. There wasn’t even any way to learn who he is or where he lives. He vanished, leaving the victim to be responsible for the violence.

Okay, we’re talking dog violence here, not human violence. I understand the difference. For one thing, Tootie will bear a physical scar forever; but she forgot about the attack moments after it occurred. She’s not emotionally scarred the way a human would be after, say, a tiger attack. There were things I could have – should have – done differently today. I should not have brought my “small” dog into the big dog park, even though we’d never had a problem with a vicious dog before. There are signs posted. I put Tootie in the position of being the woman with the shortest skirt at a frat party, didn’t I? For whether men rape instinctively (as dogs attack) or after mental calculation; they often make the argument that the rape is justifiable because the victim “showed too much skin” or “flirted with me at the bar” or “dressed older than her age,” etc. “She was asking for it!” And that’s just what they told me at the park!

I’ve often written that I plan to encourage my daughter to make the safest choices she can in life; but this is problematic when it comes to rape because there really is no way to prevent rape if you’re a victim of it. Night joggers, for instance, should wear reflectors. A car driver who can’t see a jogger in the dark can cause an accident by striking the jogger. The key word there is: A.C.C.I.D.E.N.T.  That accident could have been prevented by reflectors, perhaps. But it’s not really an accident if the driver of the car is drunk, is it? Even if you didn’t have complete control of your faculties when you decided to drive, you did when you decided to drink. You therefore inflicted violence on another person by extension of your choice, and the fault of the tragedy is yours, whether the jogger was doing the “safe thing” and wearing reflectors or not.

Rape works like that. Whether a rape victim wore a short skirt or ski pants, she becomes a victim when a perpetrator makes a choice to rape her, to perform sexual violence upon her. And whether or not I put Tootie in a dog park or walk her up the block wearing a leash, a violent dog owned by a negligent, ignorant or irresponsible owner might be at liberty to attack her when its owner makes a negligent, ignorant or irresponsible choice. A victim never has a choice about becoming a victim, even if they’re doing “safe” things. Anyone can become a victim of violence at any time. (This stance doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon my intent to advise Ellie to reduce her risk.)

Why do we blame victims for crimes done to them, without their consent and often without their knowledge? I think there are two reasons. For one thing, we like to bend the rules out of our inherent sense of entitlement, believing that we’re special and therefore above them. So, if we own moderately aggressive dogs, or suspect that our un-vetted dog might be vicious…we might visit the dog park a little here or there, increasing the length of our stays or the frequency of our visits over time as we observe no consequences for our breach of edict. But when something goes wrong – as it did today – and somebody gets hurt, we don’t want to believe that we could have been to blame, so we instead blame the victim; even though the perp could have been a perp under any other different set of circumstances. Isn’t it easier to blame someone else than to examine our own culpability?

For another thing, if it’s possible to identify with the victim, we don’t want to believe that such violence could ever happen to us…so we convince ourselves that our own risk reduction will keep us safe from harm. It’s more comfortable to believe that Tootie would have been safe if she had been in the “safe” park for small dogs, than it is to believe that she could just as easily have been bitten by a vicious dog on that side of the fence too. And fences can be breached just like rules, no?

The United States collective stance on war embodies these two human tendencies. We glorify the violence of soldiers because we’re convinced of our own entitlement to enforcing global democracy, or freedom from terror, etc. But what we’re really fighting for is a need for crude oil masquerading as a “global concern.” And when we think of the the victims of the wars we wage, including the innocent who cannot defend themselves from our weapons of destruction, we sleep better knowing that they were “asking for it” by virtue of their geography. “It could never happen to us,” we say. “We’re the good guys.”  

At the end of the day, it’s a violent perpetrator who is unsafe; not a dark alley or a bar or a dog park. Those are spaces. We choose how to fill them.

While some of the dog park visitors might be sitting around their Chippendale-inspired dining tables tonight, congratulating themselves on being “above” dog park violence, I’m trying to learn a lesson from this very unpleasant situation. Lesson learned (and compounded by our veterinarian): dog parks are risky environments because dog “play” is often unpredictable. But the biggest lesson to be learned on this and every other day is the lesson we all hate the most, because, let’s face it: it applies to all of us. Life’s not fair. Today, it wasn’t fair to Tootie and me and Ellie and Charlotte and J***, who just wanted to have a pleasant afternoon at the park. And it certainly wasn’t fair (according to the National Organization for Women) to the 600 or so women who were raped, today – or any given day – in the U.S.

Can you fit 600 women wearing short skirts into the small dog side of the park?

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One Response

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  1. faemom said, on May 22, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Great post. All violence is related in one way or another. You made some great arguments there. It’s sad and sick that we blame the victim because, you’re right, the victim had no choice. Even if the victim was in a short skirt, heavily flirting, the rapist had a choice to listen to her no or not.


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