The Sexist

Victim Blaming, In Rape Cases and Fatal Car Accidents

Last night, I re-read Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on parents who accidentally forget their infants in the backseats of their cars, leaving them to swelter to death in the heat. And since I can make connections to rape culture out of practically anything, I was struck by this section in Weingarten's story, about the public's reaction to parents who make this fatal mistake:

"This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence."

"I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn't really want a kid."

"He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are."

These were readers' online comments to The Washington Post news article of July 10, 2008, reporting the circumstances of the death of Miles Harrison's son. These comments were typical of many others, and they are typical of what happens again and again, year after year in community after community, when these cases arise. A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol.

Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.

Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. "We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."

Sound familiar? The comparison to victims of rape doesn't end there. One mother whose baby died after she forgot him in the backseat of her car was—strangely—explicitly slut-shamed by an online commenter:

After Lyn Balfour's acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

"If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens."

The idea of addressing parents who accidentally kill their children by putting them "in a different category" functions a bit differently when applied to the victims and perpetrators of rape. When we are confronted with victims of rape, we put them in a different category ("irresponsible sluts") in order to avoid believing that rape could ever happen to us; when we are confronted with rapists, we put them in a different category ("evil monsters") in order to avoid believing that our classmates, friends, brothers, and sons are actually capable of such a heinous crime. Parents who accidentally kill their children are both victims and perpetrators—they're our evil monsters and irresponsible sluts all wrapped into one.

Photo via spaceodissey, Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0

  • http://thinkweirdthoughts.blogspot.com Phira

    I've definitely found that a strong desire to victim-blame when it comes to sexual violence comes out of this idea that bad things only happen if you've done something wrong. A lot of people are really afraid of the idea that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and these good people didn't do anything. It also gives people some feeling of control over a situation ("Okay, if I don't ever go to a frat party/walk alone at night, I will never be assaulted!").

    It's very pervasive, harmful, and annoying.

  • Kat

    Isn't the infant who died actually the victim? It's illegal in most states to leave a child unattended in a car. It's terrible that people are hurling such abuse on them, but the parents are not victims. By using that as an example I think you're opening up your argument to massive criticism, which is a shame because you are making some very good points.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Kat, There is actually a lot of debate as to whether these accidents should be considered crimes or not, and the determination varies widely by jurisdiction/case. In instances where parents leave their kids in cars unintentionally, they often either are not charged or are acquitted, even though the facts clearly show that the parent did leave their child in the car. The debate centers around whether this should be considered purely a liability crime, or if criminal intent is a necessary element to convict. That's the question Weingarten's story dotes on (it's awesome, BTW, and everyone should read it if they haven't already).

    Of course the infants are victims.

  • http://toysoldier.wordpress.com Toysoldier

    The Washington Post article simply shows the human tendency to put the blame on others. People seem to need an explanation, i.e. someone must bear responsibility for the bad things that occur. The more inexplicable the act, the more likely people will point fingers. As Hickling stated, people want to believe they possess control, and when they see they do not people quickly separate themselves from others.

    It so frightens us to know we lack control that we create fallacious theories like "rape culture" to "explain" why things happen in order to allow us the illusion that we could control things if we actually wanted to.

    Interestingly, one should marvel at how quickly people disassociate themselves from those they do not want to resemble, such as putting rapists in a different category ("the men") in order to avoid believing that our mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters are actually capable of such a heinous crime. It is so natural for people to do this that we do it while criticizing others for doing it.

  • http://rickmangus@aol.com Rick Mangus

    HOW FUCKING BORING AND WHO GIVES A SHIT!

  • Eo

    Rape culture is a political construct and conspiracy similar to both the jew rapist in germany and the black rapist myth used during the lynching.

    Sexual assault is a problem but its not one "political class" or group of oppressors doing it exclusivly or mainly to another as it is depicted, its further complicated by the high false reporting rape which itself is complicated by the denial of a high false reporting rate which is extreme victim blaming in itself.

    If society says that Im foolish because I was mugged in area x because i was wearing an expensive suit and blind drunk at 5 am it doesnt mean that society is a mug culture, its just society telling me to be more street wise.

  • http://www.foboblo.com Kat

    What high false rape reporting claim?

  • LeftSidePositive

    Yes, Eo, that *would* be a "mug culture"--maybe society should invest more in the safety of its streets for everyone! Remember, you are "choosing" to walk in a dangerous neighborhood, but for many people that is where they live and they face that level of danger and no one gives a shit about their safety or how hard it is to raise kids in that environment. When privileged people just spout off about a "bad neighborhood" like it's a force of nature that is benign and ordained, it shows that they don't care about people who are seriously disadvantaged by living in danger all their lives.

  • KJ

    @EO
    Yes, I'll remember that next time I put on my woman suit.

  • Lizrd

    Eo is LOVING "political constructs" today!

  • Tasha

    "When we are confronted with victims of rape, we put them in a different category (”irresponsible sluts”) in order to avoid believing that rape could ever happen to us...."

    Yes but we do that at both ends as a society don't we? We either tell her she's to blame, or we welcome her with open arms to the victim club. Im NOT saying that women who are raped and abused are not victimised, obviously, they are. Rape is a terrible crime, and women who are raped do need to receive help by way of support, medical attention, therapy etc....

    However, when the victim identity becomes a refuge for women, it's detremental too. Just as detremental as slut shaming or victim blaming, perpetual victimhood can create all manner of emotionally crippling side effects. For example, the constant messages of "You were helpless...it's not your fault....you didnt do anything wrong" etc etc, which are clearly appropriate to say to a rape victim at the time of her rape and in therapy, *can* lead to an almost ingrained new POV for the victim in that she's transfered these situational words of support and mentally applied them to all aspects of her life-- "I didnt get the job but it's not my fault...my marriage is failing but not because of anything Ive done..." etc etc. It can become a mantra for life.

    I know that many rape victims experience self blame and need to hear these messages frequently, we cannot STOP saying these things, they are too important...but for some it becomes an excuse for personal failure

  • napthia9

    Failing to take action in response to a problem is a feature of human nature. There are plenty of people who've -never- been the victim of -any- crime and still say that nothing is their fault. So what? That some people react to a loss of control in one area by feeling that they lack control in other areas of life doesn't change the fact that worrying about the personal responsibility of rape victims typically comes at the expense of considering the personal responsibility of rapists.

    Identifying rape victims as victims, regardless of their identity or their actions, isn't something we do because being a victim is super-great. It's because where there are victims of crimes, there are criminals. And the criminals involved in rapes are getting away free because people would rather pretend there are no rape victims (and therefore cannot be any rapists).

  • EmilyBites

    Suck it up, rape survivors - Tasha says you're feeling too sorry for yourselves and it's irritating hir!

  • http://toysoldier.wordpress.com Toysoldier

    As I stated before, it so frightens us to know we lack control that we create fallacious theories like “rape culture” to “explain” why things happen in order to allow us the illusion that we could control things if we actually wanted to. We also attack those who disagree with us.

    Interestingly, one should marvel at how quickly people disassociate themselves from those they do not want to resemble, such as putting rapists in a different category (”the men”) in order to avoid believing that our mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters are actually capable of such a heinous crime. It is so natural for people to do this that we do it while criticizing others for doing it.

  • Tasha

    "Suck it up, rape survivors – Tasha says you’re feeling too sorry for yourselves and it’s irritating hir!"
    ----EmilyBites

    Yes, yes....thats *exactly* what I said you melodramatic moron.

    Further, you've no idea about my victim/survivor status so why don't you stfu?

    I have experienced a great deal of the things we are discussing here and on other threads....do you think that just because I hold certain opinions it means I am not included among you in that regard?

  • Michael Hatfield

    "create fallacious theories like “rape culture” to “explain” why things happen"

    I think you missed the point of the post, the point is we hold people responsible for things they are not responsible for. And that includes survivors of automobile wrecks, and rape victims. Amanda is right, we do do that.

    I am a big believer in the concept of personal responsibility, but your not responsible for the things you have no control over. I don't see any reason to believe that most rape victims were careless. We undermine the very concept of autonomy by stupidly blaming people for things they have no control over.

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