Consent, Safety and Blaming the Victim

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The way that I teach about “healthy relationships” is through the lens of Consent.  I think that Consent is a complicated concept but gets right at the center of what’s ok, and what’s not.  Consent, along with Respect and Safety, are the baseline in relationships, anything that does not incorporate all three is below an ethical bar.

We have several scenarios written by educator and resident legal researcher, Brian Flaherty.  We ask students to identify situations where someone is able to give their free and informed consent, and situations where this is more complicated or impossible.  Some are sexual situation but not all are; they are written to get at issues of drinking/intoxication, peer pressure, communication, dating violence, etc.   We’ve had success using them to discuss consent and communication in grey areas, or when things aren’t going particularly well.  What could have been different?  Did he/she consent in this situation? (click here for a link to our conference materials, including this consent activity)

One trend that I have noticed with high school students is their tendency to see things in black and white (shocking, I know) and particularly their tendency to “blame the victim.”  Where I might say “they should have asked”, “they shouldn’t have assumed”, “it’s never ok to hit someone in anger” My students are more likely to say “They should have said something” , “they shouldn’t have been drunk” she shouldn’t have made him mad” “ They shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.”  My students blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator.  My students also disproportionally blame the girls in the scenarios.  It’s as if SHE – the girl in the situation – is solely responsible for the communication, for being in control of the situation, for holding the line.  This blame is particularly prevalent from girls.  One of my scenarios begins with the characters drinking.  Too often girls say “She shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place,” and that “anything that happens to her while she is intoxicated is her fault.”  I have to explain to my students that assaulting a drunk person is so much more wrong than being drunk?!  The reason my students place the blame on the victim in this situation is because she is female, and she is expected to keep herself safe.  In one situation where a fictional “Bob” gets physically abusive following an argument, the girls said they said that it was her fault because she shouldn’t have argued with Bob in the first place, and that if she was going to be in a conflict situation, she should have been in a public place.  This strikes me as absurd.  You should only get in an argument with your boyfriend in a public place in case he gets mad enough to hit you?  Does he not have any responsibility NOT to hit you?

This one class was an extreme – every single bad thing that happened in these scenarios was the girls’ fault.  But I have noticed a trend: girls in my classes are much more likely to blame other girls for anything bad that happens.  The way we talk to girls about safety creates this message.  We are forever giving girls rules for protecting themselves and lists of Do’s and Don’ts : guard your drinks, don’t drink too much, have a buddy system, don’t drink at all, only go out with people that you know well, don’t dress too suggestively, communicate clearly and assertively.  While this may all be useful advice, I fear that our girls get two unfortunate messages from this. The first is that if you get raped, assaulted, abused that it is your fault; you were careless and so you made it happen by not following all of the rules.  The second is that my students feel like they are not at risk, because they are basically good girls who follow the rules, not “slutty girls” who go around asking for it. They believe bad things happen to people who deserve it.  Too many young people see the victim as being the one at fault because they failed to protect themselves – they broke the rules.  They miss the fact that a perpetrator is always at fault.

The way we teach girls to keep themselves safe can have a huge impact on this.  In discussing consent, and ways to keep themselves safe, we sometimes we forget to emphasize the obvious:  it is not your fault if someone else harms you.  In our efforts to protect girls, we have to make sure we are not setting them up to blame themselves, and each other.

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