Why Don’t We Accept Victim-Blaming From Rapists?
Last month, convicted rapist Daniel Katsnelson administered some advice to the two York University students he raped in 2007. After pleading guilty to entering a campus residence, prowling for open doors, and then raping two students, Katsnelson told his parole officer that he hopes the girls learned something from all this:
Katsnelson indicated he hoped his victims could take something “positive” away from the experience of being sexually assaulted. “When asked what that might be, he suggested that maybe she will now know to keep her doors locked,” the pre-sentence report stated.
Anti-rape blogger Cara Kulwicki wasn't surprised by Katsnelson's comments; she encounters disgusting sentiments like that one every single day. But she was surprised to learn that mainstream media outlets reacted with disgust to the "lock your doors" lesson. After all, when victim-blaming tips are handed down by anyone other than a convicted rapist, nobody seems to bat an eye. Kulwicki writes:
And far more than I’m surprised by his comments, I’m surprised by the fact that the media seems to be almost as appalled as I am. The statement isn’t just printed in the article, it’s featured in quite a few headlines. His words are referred to as “startling” and the “revulsion” of listeners is carefully noted. And while relieved that for once publications aren’t just parroting back the victim-blaming excuses and framing of a rapist and his attorney, I also simply cannot help but ask myself: where the hell are they the rest of the time?
Where is the shock and outrage when it’s argued that a victim shouldn’t have gotten into a car or entered a building with her assailant? Where is the outrage when it’s argued that if women didn’t get themselves so drunk, rapists wouldn’t rape them? Where is the outrage when it’s essentially stated that sex workers can’t be raped? Why is it not a cause of shock and source of headlines when a sexual assault is explained away as verifying the genitals of a person the assailant suspected was trans? Where are the expressions of horror when those who failed to stop the reported and ongoing rape of a woman with a mental illness declare themselves to have not been negligent? Where are the editors shaking their fists when a defense attorney goes out of his way to note that an alleged victim was a drug user? Where is the anti-rape media perspective when the assault of a child by an adult is being referred to as “sex”? Where are they? Because nine times out of ten, they’re turning the other way.
As far as victim-blaming sentiments are concerned, Katsnelson's comments were far from extreme. Last fall, a series of sexual assaults were reported inside a freshman dorm at the George Washington University. In October of last year, a University of Maryland student entered the residence early in the morning, prowled for open doors, and then sexually assaulted several women, placing his hands down their pants and forcibly kissing them. In response to the attacks, G.W. student newspaper the Hatchet—the leading media source on campus—performed an act of victim-blaming nearly identical to Katsnelson's. The assaults, the paper's editors wrote, served as a “valuable reminder of the necessity for students to lock their doors at all times and to take responsibility for guests you bring into residence halls.”
When a rapist blames his victims, we're appalled. When we do it, we're just being "realistic," "concerned," "protective," "responsible." Why are we outraged when rapists blame their victims, but not when we blame them? Because while it's unseemly to blatantly support the sorry excuses of a convicted rapist, we're still invested in supporting a culture of victim-blaming that shifts the responsibility of eliminating rape away from society as a whole, and onto individual victims. When Katsnelson tells his victims to "lock their doors," he's shifting the responsibility for the rape off of the rapist. When the G.W. community tells victims to do the same thing, it similarly excuses the campus of taking any meaningful action against sexual assault.
But when rapists start using the same victim-blaming arguments we do, it makes it a lot harder for us to keep up the narrative of blame without being identified as rape apologists. One solution to this problem is to tell those rapists to shut up, because it's making us look bad. So we call out a rapist for revealing himself to be—gee, who would have thought!—a rape apologist, and we draw a line in the sand that helps to protect our own right to victim-blame. We use the same tactic to excuse our own casual homophobia and racism. Our homophobic slurs and racist jokes are just "ironic" and "anti-PC" and "social commentary," but when a gay basher or a white supremacist uses the same words, well, that's just socially unacceptable. The reason we are allowed to use these words, we tell ourselves, is because we are not truly homophobes, or racists, or rape apologists.
In other words, the only people who are allowed to blame rape victims are people who don't really, truly believe in their heart of hearts that the victim is at fault. This clever little set-up helps keep victim-blaming alive while preventing any victim-blamer from actually being identified as a bad person. It's also inspired the use of the very popular construction, "I'm not blaming the victim, but [enter victim-blaming sentiment here]."
In the end, the only people who are allowed to use the language of rapists are the millions of people in this country who haven't actually been convicted of the crime. How is this not a rape culture again?