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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The Charlotte in me

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays by femspotter on September 30, 2009

September 30, 2009

My favorite name is Charlotte. How I wish I were Charlotte! The name comes from the French language and means “little” and “womanly.”

This longing, of course, goes against everything I stand for: the annihilation of gender stereotyping and the ascension of women and men to positions of self-acceptance. Let us not hate ourselves because we are women who challenge authority or men who cry.

Somewhere in time, I was doing my usual bit to overturn “the way things are,” and I started to cry often because this tendency of mine to scrape other people’s authority and bruise egos made me largely unlovable. Oh yes, I am an unlovable, abrasive crier as opposed to the alternative: a politician. And so, I find myself at an interesting gender crux: I try to rebuke hypocritical authority but I am weak and I cry. I try to epitomize my theories and principles, but what I really want is to be petite, slender, pretty and feminine – in the Victorian sense – just like the magazines tell me I should be. I want to be Charlotte even though “Charlotte” is…wrong? And people think that I have bad, selfish intentions when I question authority; but in my mind my intentions are noble.

Victorian novelist Charlotte Bronte did something revolutionary: she wrote about what really goes on in the female mind. In Villette, she wrote about Lucy Snowe and her madness, fearing her state of spinsterhood and haunted by the tragic ghost of a nun (as she perceived the apparition). She wrote about the mad black woman locked away in the attic – who at once represents the slavery women face in matrimony and the enslavement of the natives in colonial Jamaica – in Jane Eyre. Bronte wrote about “crazy” single girls; but her girls weren’t really crazy…they were merely thoughtful and frightened by their limitations as women in a patriarchal culture.

As much as I’d like to say that Bronte is the Charlotte in me, I am compelled to tell you the truth. This is the Charlotte in me:

Charlotte: "Little" and "Womanly"

This is my pit bull. And like me, she is largely disappointed in her state of being and commonly misunderstood. (I would call her a “pit bull mix,” but the “mix” part doesn’t seem to matter much to people who don’t know her.) She has a sadness in her demeanor.

How is Charlotte disappointed? She too wants to be pretty and petite.

A few years ago, we surprised her with a little sister: Tootie, the Boston terrier. Tootie is cute, and she is petite compared to Charlotte: they weigh in at 15 and 62 pounds respectively. And so it is that Tootie is more of a “Charlotte,” though she is the dominant dog in their relationship.

Charlotte and Tootie

Charlotte and Tootie

Nonetheless, Charlotte and Tootie have adopted each other; they clean each other’s ears. Tootie, though small, fancies herself big and rules the roost by humping and sleeping on Charlotte. Meanwhile, Charlotte fancies herself petite and tries to climb on my lap whenever she can.

All of this is well and good at home. It doesn’t transition smoothly to the dog park, however. This picture (at right) is a picture of two secure dogs who know their pecking order and who accept “the way things are” at home. But at the dog park, the pecking order changes and they become insecure and a little crazy.

Why go?

I like to see my dogs running free. We walk them several times a day, but they are always leashed in such cases. My husband even believes that Charlotte “smiles” when she runs at the park. It’s worth the risk that Charlotte might snarl at another girl dog and offend a nervous owner.

I have been able to sit back and observe some interesting canine behavior during our visits to the park. When a new dog enters the arena, many of the dogs gather to perform an inspection. This 20- to 30-second period usually consists of ass-sniffing in a circular kinesis. One dog sniffs another dog who sniffs another dog, etc. Occasionally, there’s the assertion of authority: dogs – usually female – snap at each other causing a rumble.

The females are generally dominant at the park, and Charlotte is no exception. She likes to run with the boys and hump them to prove her superiority. Additionally, she loves when she can get a boy dog to lie on his back so that she can stand over him in triumph. (Somewhere, deep inside, all feminists want this experience too.) I think that Charlotte is afraid to let the boys win. And I think she is just afraid of the girls…period.

The dog park is also an interesting vantage point from which to observe human behavior…and so it is the human park too. There’s the man who hits dogs. That’s right; he hits them. He’s given Charlotte two strong whacks on separate occasions when she’s gotten a little bitchy with another…well, bitch. There’s the “lesbian brigade” (my nickname for these metaphorical or perhaps literal lesbians) who have staked a claim to the center picnic table and who bring at least half a dozen rescue dogs who circle around the table in playful glee. There’s the sweet but disabled elderly woman who is nice to chat with but who cannot physically restrain her dogs and relies on the hitter. There are the macho men with macho dogs (Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, etc.) who stand on the benches to lord their superiority over the lesbian brigade, smoking big, fat cigars. There are the shy girls with big dogs and the shy girls with little dogs. (I guess I am the shy girl with both.)

So it would seem that girls rule in dog world…perhaps not so much in the human world? There are hitting, smoking lords and nurturing, adopting, soft-spoken ladies at the dog park, at least during peak hours. While Charlotte may be in control, or at least fighting for authority, I am sitting quietly in a corner reading books by authors like Jose Saramago and Margaret Atwood, merely dreaming of Utopia. And what did I do when the hitter attacked Miss Charlotte? The first time, he apologized, to which I replied, “That’s okay.” The second time I merely wandered away. Coward! I am angry at myself for participating in the assumption that I am a member of the weaker sex.

The thing that’s easiest to observe in people at the dog park are the relative levels of fear. In general, there is a pervasive wariness of pit bulls like Charlotte. Historically, some have bitten people and such stories always draw media attention. But Charlotte doesn’t bite people, and to my knowledge she has never bitten another dog. If she were a biter, she surely would have bitten the hitter. I probably wanted to bite him more than she. Charlotte just got down low to the ground with her tail between her legs and crawled away…as did I, in spirit.

The women at the dog park are less fearful of pit bulls. They keep and love them. It is only the gentlest, kindest, quietest men who bring pit bulls to the dog park. Most pit bulls are loving and silly…and a little bit dumb. You never see a smoking or hitting macho man with a pit bull for pit bulls really, by their own God-given nature, are not rough enough to show for these men.

However, it might be fear that keeps these men from owning pit bulls. And that is where the tables have turned: that is where women show their dominance in the human world, in our unwillingness to fear the underdog and our confidence to sit and read novels at the dog park.

When Charlotte is safely back at home, exhausted from an afternoon of play, she resumes her subordinate role to the wacky Boston terrier. She resumes her romantic sadness…and sleeps. And while we have silly names for the Boston (Rootin’ Tootin’ Tootie, Toots McGee, The Tootster, etc.), Charlotte has no nicknames. She is just Charlotte to me in my own home: “little” and “womanly.”

And while Charlotte dreams of being smaller than her 62 pounds, trying to get me to lift her up the way I did when she was a puppy and I plucked her from the shelter cage and she rested her head on my shoulder and sighed…I cherish my greater size so that I can hold her, care for her, love her like a good mommy does. In this madness – the madness of loving a pit bull – I am glad, for once, not to be so meek and little as I must seem at the park. I am glad to be brave, and just a bit big.

And I promise, Charlotte, never to let that man hit you again. For you are a part of me, and I see myself in your dog park play.

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