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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Oh, the sexist things we say…

Posted in News, Pop Culture by femspotter on March 26, 2011

March 26, 2011

“What would you rather do: make 80 cents on the dollar or have your head cut off?”

Um, those are my only choices? (If that’s true, I’ll cut my own head off.) Quite obviously, I’d rather…make 100 cents on the dollar and keep my head, Bill Maher. Yes, the liberal commentator – in making his morally relativistic point that “degree matters” in the maltreatment of women – posed that question to talk show host Tavis Smiley on Maher’s Feb. 18 “Real Time.” Why? Apparently, according to Maher, it’s important to understand the difference between United States sexism and Muslim-world sexism. We non-Muslim Americans should be patting ourselves on our backs for only hating women…a little.

Smiley replied that sexism isn’t relative: “It’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s either acceptable or it’s unacceptable.” Exactly! Thank you! And Bill Maher was arguing that sexism on the lesser end of the spectrum – such as paying women less money than men get for equal work – is acceptable because it’s not as bad as violence (which we have plenty of in the U.S., by the way). No. NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! He also said that the statement that women are being maltreated in the U.S. is “bull shit.”

And in case you think Maher’s sexism begins and ends with women, think again. He also said a mouthful about how men are universally uncivilized by default: “Civilization begins with civilizing the men. The women are sort of already there.” What?! Been to a sorority hazing lately, Bill? Women are often equally less civilized than what would be desired. Not only can we be equally productive, we can also be equally destructive.

Smiley had the last laugh, however. Maher tried to diss Smiley’s liberalism by saying, “When you tolerate intolerance, you’re not really being a liberal.” (That should be embroidered on a pillow.) But, Bill, you’re the one tolerating sexism – or sexist intolerance: “I mean, in this country, we treat women badly because they don’t get equal pay, or someone calls you ‘sugar tits,’ or something like that.” I guess he doesn’t read past front page headlines. (To be fair to Maher, rape stories usually are buried on page 10.) 

***

***

“One of the things that is troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, ‘Hey look, we’re having children. We’re not married, but we’re having these children, and they’re doing just fine.’ But there aren’t really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie. And I think it gives a distorted image that yes, not everybody hires nannies, and caretakers, and nurses. Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care. And that’s the story that we’re not seeing, and it’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock.”

Criticizing Portman for unwed motherhood when her real crime is those earings?! (Kidding.)

We’ll get to sexism in a moment, but I’d first like to point out the Republican double standard at work in this Mike Huckabee quote from a radio interview with Michael Medved earlier this month: Republicans champion the likes of Bristol Palin completing her out-of-wedlock pregnancy before completing her high school matriculation, but Natalie Portman – a Harvard University graduate, is the enemy? Now, I would never claim that an Ivy Leaguer is more prepared to successfully handle pregnancy and motherhood than any other woman…I leave that to the conservatives. That is what Huckabee was saying: “most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job…” But, married or otherwise, Portman does not consider herself single. So, whether she hires a nanny or not, she and the father of their child purport to be united as parents…ergo, she will not be poor or jobless because she has the help of a supportive partner and thus time enough to work outside the home. And Mikey, single mothers have a job: it’s called “raising a child.” The pay is shit, but it’s nonetheless a JOB!!!

Bristol Palin – of the pantheon of young women fighting the temptation to choose to terminate their pregnancies so they can get on with their lives unfettered (let me add that this is – quite obviously – a choice that plagues ONLY women) – is somehow heroic to Republicans. But here’s what Palin and Portman have in common: money. Neither is married, but neither is poor. So if there’s glamorizing going on, it’s happening in both places. Not all single mothers are poor, just as not all married mothers aren’t. In fact, as of 1993, only about 40% of the women receiving food stamps in the U.S. had never been married, and a similar portion were currently married, according to a report by the Census Bureau. Ergo, matrimony does not an autonomous mother guarantee. It’s sexist to assume that only the presence of a man makes for a financially stable family.

The real sexism at work here, however, is making this statement targeted at any woman…at all. That’s because it automatically implies that pregnancy is the fault of women and women alone. The last time I checked, pregnancy results from sex/fertilization between lady AND man bits. The instructions that Huckabee and other anti-Choicers (thanks to my girlfriend L***** for encouraging my use of this term) – many of them Democrats – are sending are mixed: don’t have children out-of-wedlock, but don’t terminate your pregnancies either…and don’t come to us for help to feed your unwanted babies once you do as we say (not as we do, sometimes). We won’t let you choose, but we won’t support your forced hand either.

Sure, they’d love us all to abstain from sex…but that’s not really plausible in a rape culture, and one in which we’re constantly bombarded by both temptation (sex sells) and the message that sex is bad for us or morally wrong (don’t teenagers do everything they’re told not to do?). Once there’s a pregnancy and the abstain message is no longer valid, the completion of the pregnancy is a must…which, let’s face it, is often a problem for women alone. I mean, teenage girls lose their scholarships, jobs, families, etc. over pregnancy; yet, in most cases, all a teenage boy need do is deny he’s the sperm (I’d write “father” but that’s really too generous a designation for one who had sex…that one time…and then conveniently “forgot” about it). Huckabee should be commending Natalie Portman’s partner, Benjamin Millepied. He’s there. He’s responsible. He may not yet be married; but he will be a father. Marriage is etched with ink on a piece of paper; parenthood is etched with blood on our souls.

***

“It’s just destroyed our community. These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

Why is it that, whenever there’s an alleged gang rape (as in the November 2010 incident in Cleveland, Texas detailed in this March 8  New York Times article) , people express concern for the accused? True, the accused are not always guilty; and the victim(s) is not always telling the truth. But wouldn’t it be better to reserve comments such as this – spoken by Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker – until the verdict is in. Assuming the accuser is lying is just as bad as assuming the accused are guilty, is it not? 

The fuss over victim-blaming in the aforementioned article reached newsworthy status – and hopefully brought attention to the alleged rape – after Change.org set up a petition to shame the New York Times into apologizing for its story. The specific language in question is as follows:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

I didn’t sign the petition. I think this proves victim-blaming – a hot topic in the feminist blogosphere – on the part of residents but not on the part of the reporter. (I myself have been accused of victim-blaming for admitting to a plan to encourage my daughter to avoid drinking from open containers at frat parties in college. I don’t agree with this reaction because I think preventative measures taken to avoid possible sexual assault are appropriate, though certainly not safety guarantees. Unfortunately, if I tell my daughter not to drink from open containers, but then she does anyway…and then she’s raped; it sounds like I should be saying “Well, I told you not to drink from open containers…so it’s your fault you were raped.” It’s never the victim’s vault. This is a tricky situation. I hope we can evolve to be a culture in which women, and some men, don’t have to curb their own behavior to avoid becoming rape victims.)

I agree with Arthur S. Brisbane and his New York Times’ follow-up to the reaction to its earlier article:

My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.

While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.

It should have struck the writer, and subsequently his editor, that the story “lacked balance.” But prior to that, it should have been obvious to Cleveland community members that rape is not justifiable, EVER! – and certainly not in cases where an 11 year-old girl wears make-up.

Again, reserve your judgement. It’s okay to express sadness for all involved, but not at the expense of the accuser.

Hmmmmm…………..

Up next, from comedian Bill Maher:

“What would you rather do: be gang-raped at age 11, or have your head cut off?”

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