is sexual violence like Bubonic plague?

On Facebook I posted this Gentlemen’s Guide to Rape Culture, which includes, “seriously, like, the least any man can do in public to make women feel more comfortable in the world we share.”

An alum read it and commented that when she showed it to her family, they insisted that “a woman shouldn’t ‘send a message’ that she wants it” and that “a woman always has some responsibility for a man’s actions.”


I am also, coincidentally, currently listening to the audiobook of Doomsday Book, which is a novel about a time traveler who [spoiler] lands in 1348 England, right at the beginning of the Black Death.

The Black Death, which killed about one third of the population of Europe.

There’s this one character, Imeyne, who is obsessed with blaming people: “This is your fault; God is punishing us for your laziness,” and “This is your fault; God is punishing us for your sins.”

And it occurred to me that people who accept rape myths (PDF) such as, “When girls go to parties wearing slutty clothes, they are asking for trouble,” they’re basically doing what Imeyne does: searching for a place to lay blame.

And the most comfortable place to lay blame is (1) on an already disempowered group and (2) on a behavior that you feel you can control.

Imeyne doesn’t blame God for punishing them – no, God’s allowed to do what he likes; she blames the people who have “done things wrong” for bringing the punishment down on them. If they hadn’t misbehaved, they wouldn’t have been punished.

And the cultural myths don’t blame men for perpetrating violence against women – men, by this analogy, are allowed to do what they like; they blame the women, for doing things that “cause” men to rape.

But the plague wasn’t God punishing sinners. It was an infection. And when you understand what’s actually causing it, you can address that actual cause.

And sexual violence isn’t men having “out of control” desires or “accidentally” assaulting someone. Nor, let me be clear, is it caused by men. It’s sexual entitlement.

And when you understand that, you can address that actual cause.

But what could you say to a fourteenth century person to explain bacterial infection?

And what can you say to someone now who believe that rape happens when a woman “leads a man on”?

That alum asked me that. She asked what she could say or do to convince her parents that sexual violence is never the target’s fault.

Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth:

Sometimes there’s nothing you can say or do to convince someone, and mostly I find that when people cling to these kinds of myths, it’s because it helps them to feel that there really is something a woman can do to protect herself. Like, “If you just don’t do X or wear Y, then you’ll be SAFE.” That’s a very reassuring thought.

But what it means is that if a woman fails to do “protect herself,” then it’s “her own fault,” which is like saying, “Well if you didn’t want to get robbed, you shouldn’t have been carrying money” or “When you got into that car, you were consenting to be in a car accident. And then you’re like, ‘No no, get out of the way of that truck!’ You’re sending mixed signals.”

Stupid, right?

But it’s bad for guys, too: are men dick-driven automatons, incapable of controlling their desires? The vast majority of men are PERFECTLY able to see an attractive person and not assault them, and that ought to be the expected standard of behavior. The fact that we’re like, “Well she was wearing X, so of course he assaulted her,” is like saying, “Well she had long hair, so of course he grabbed it and cut it off.” Fuck that, men are adult people, not children or animals.

And, also for what it’s worth, I think change is happening. I think there are signs that people are beginning to recognize that an infection is causing the disease, and the next logical step is to start addressing the infection, instead of blaming the people who are suffering.