I do understand the desire of parents to keep their children safe, to protect them from the myriad horrible things that can happen. I am the mother of two daughters – grown up now – and I viscerally recollect the existential dread I felt when I realized just how fundamentally out of control I was when it came to protecting my offspring.
I also understand our natural – possibly even evolutionarily necessary — desire to believe that bad things only happen to people who do something wrong and that by a series of magic spells we can protect ourselves — and those we love — from evil. As an atheist, I would argue that all the world’s religions probably sprang from just this desire to have a powerful protector who can be ritually appeased and so maintain the illusion that the righteous are safe.
It may also be the same need to reassure ourselves that leads us to ask – when we hear of someone diagnosed with cancer – if they smoked or used sun protection or if cancer ran in the family. We seek a reason, a cause, a trigger factor that we feel we can control and so keep ourselves safe.
It may also be why so many women are quick to blame the victim when yet another sexual assault scandal erupts around a sports star or high school hero. They condemn what the victim wore, where she was, how much she drank or who she hung out with rather than the boys who behaved badly. Perhaps they do this to maintain their own illusion of safety. They don’t believe they can control the behavior of the boys so they attempt to control what they feel they can – their own behavior and that of their daughters. They loudly sneer at the victim as a slut, a tease and a girl who was ‘asking for it’ to reassure themselves that because they are none of the above, nothing like that could happen to them. In a patriarchy, it is much safer for women to blame one another than a bloke.
But, as the common reaction to a friend or acquaintance getting a terminal disease indicates, patriarchy isn’t the cause of the urge to blame the victim, it simply adds – as it always does – another level of difficulty for women. The current cruel belief that if the cancer sufferer just thought positively enough they a. wouldn’t have contracted cancer in the first place and b. will be able to cure themselves of the disease, is a perfect example of our desire to protect ourselves from the stark reality of just how vulnerable we really are – how fundamentally chancy life is.
The recent debate about whether it is reasonable to warn daughters that drinking too much can make them more vulnerable to sexual assault got me thinking about the reasons we are so eager to blame the victim. It’s easy to pour scorn on mothers who watch anxiously as their young, naive and inexperienced daughters sashay out into the world, armed with nothing more than youth and optimism. It’s also easier for those mothers to tell themselves that their daughter is a ‘good’ girl and if she doesn’t do something stupid (like get drunk) no harm will come to her rather than face up to the fact that terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. Troublingly, such warnings may mean that the daughter who does get drunk (and most do at some stage) and is unlucky enough to be assaulted (thankfully much rarer) may feel she dare not tell her mother, in case she is blamed.
But, as commentators like Jenna Price have pointed out, the stats indicate that the greatest risk women run regarding rape is to have a male partner, not to go out and get drunk. Yet we persist in believing that somehow the girl who gets raped did something to cause it. One rape victim told me that – after she was raped in the early evening in suburbia walking home – her mother lost all her friends. When these upright matrons heard of her daughter’s horrific experience, far from expressing sympathy, they told the grieving mother that her daughter had only been raped because the mother had let her go out too much alone. Never mind that the assault took place on a weeknight as she came home from university. Sometimes, to protect our own illusions we are prepared to be very cruel.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t warn our kids about things like binge drinking, just that equating it with chance of rape isn’t backed up by the evidence. In fact, our sons are much more likely to be victims of violence or, sadly, be the perpetrators of it, due to excessive use of alcohol, yet we seem strangely silent about them. The boys will be boys excuse is how young men are seriously damaged by patriachy.
I used to tell my girls that they needed to keep their brains, lungs and livers for the rest of their lives. It is exactly what I would have said to sons if I had had any. The problem for parents – and for society as a whole – is that the urge to protect can become easily confused with the urge to control, particularly when we’re talking about girls and sex. When we blame the victim – of sexual assault, of cancer, or anything else – that’s a pretty good indication that far from wanting to protect others, we are actually trying to control them in a vain attempt to protect ourselves.