The un-funny, unfair and un-feminist thing about victim-blaming

“I’ve never really understood feminism,” begins Chelsea Fagan’s Thought Catalog essay about the recent ‘Slutwalk’ protest in Toronto. “No shit you don’t,” I found myself thinking when I was done reading it.

In her essay, Fagan explains why she disapproves of the Slutwalk, a protest against comments made by a Toronto law enforcement officer who said that women who don’t want to be assaulted, raped or otherwise “victimized” should avoid dressing “like sluts.” She also completely misses the point of the protest, engages in some spectacular victim-blaming and demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that no, she does not understand feminism.

The basic argument of “The Funny Thing About the ‘Slutwalk,’” is that if a woman is raped while wearing something “slutty,” she should take some responsibility for what happened to her, because she ought to have known better than to dress that way. “Women know the kind of attention they attract when they dress like that,” Fagan writes, repeating the oldest argument in the history of gender relations. Seriously, this story was sexist and wrong in 1697, when Charles Perrault wrote it about a young woman in a red cloak, and it’s sexist and wrong now.

Firstly, while the Toronto protest might have featured some women dressed in a way that they, and Fagan, would deem “slutty,” the point of the protest was that rape happens to women wearing all kinds of clothes. Women showed up wearing skimpy and revealing clothing, sure, but they also showed up wearing jeans, and pajamas, and lots of other clothes. Men showed up wearing plaid shirts and cargo pants. The point of the protest, as Fagan would have realized if she understood feminism, is that rape doesn’t follow a dress code. Rape happens to women in pajama pants and men in plaid shirts, not just to “sluts” in miniskirts. That’s why the comments made by that law enforcement officer were so very, very misguided.

They were also misguided because they blamed women for the actions of the men who victimize them, something that Fagan does repeatedly. She writes that she has learned how to live safely in a big city – how to walk, how to avoid eye contact, and of course, how to dress. Here are her guidelines:

if you want to further increase your chances of remaining safe and flying under the radar, you do not dress like a prostitute. You do not dress like someone who is out tonight to find sex by any means necessary. You can look pretty, feminine, elegant, attractive – without stripping your appeal down to its basest, most physical level. Women know the kind of attention they attract when they dress like that. And just like the Supreme Court can’t define porn but knows it when it sees it, we know when we look into the mirror before we go out if we look like we’re trying to lay down for the first man that looks at us. Even if we don’t want to admit it.

Try and swallow the vomit that rises in your throat when you read those words, which fairly drip with contempt and disregard for sex workers and anyone else who falls outside of Fagan’s definition of acceptably demure-looking, because I want to break this down a little. You ready? OK.

The above paragraph is the one that left me shaking my head at the glaring truth of Fagan’s statement that she doesn’t understand feminism. If she did, she would realize that world in which women are under these kinds of restrictions while men are not is one in which women and men are not equal. In this world, a woman who wants to be safe on the street, or in a night club, or on a college campus, has to ask herself when she stands in front of her wardrobe mirror: “If I am raped in this outfit, will I be blamed for it?” She has to ask herself when she walks down a street or across a darkened campus: “If an autonomous, free-willed adult man accosts me on this street, will I be held partially responsible for his autonomous, free-willed adult actions?” These are questions that men almost never have to ask themselves. Because in this world, with which Fagan is apparently quite content, women and men are not equal.

Feminists, who believe that men and women deserve the same rights and opportunities, recognize this inequality, and seek to correct it.

If Fagan understood feminism, she would also probably realize that her statement about the universality of sluttiness – “we know when we look into the mirror before we go out if we look like we’re trying to lay down for the first man that looks at us” – is horribly, dreadfully misguided. “Slut” is not an absolute term. “Slut” is a nebulous, relative term that is used to condemn any woman who steps out of line, whether it’s by dressing in skimpy clothing, or by having casual sex, or by violating in any way the rules that a culture has set down for women to follow. What might appear slutty to one person might appear totally unremarkable to another. In other words, Fagan doesn’t get to define “slutty.” No one gets to define “slutty,” because “slutty” is entirely relative. Which is especially handy for people who want to blame a woman for her own rape, since the “slut” label can be slapped on pretty much any woman, anywhere, at any time!

But what about when alcohol is involved, Fagan asks? Surely we can’t expect men to act like moral, ethical, adults after they’ve had a few beers, right?

Women are pressured, followed, and hounded by men who, when sober and in the light of day, often would never do such a thing. And for a man, a sexually and visually driven man not in full command of his wits, having a woman tell him “no” while wearing the most provocative, arousing, blatantly sexual outfit possible is, to say the least, confusing. And while that does not give him the right to violate her, it also cannot be claimed that women are entirely innocent in this situation.

Actually, it can. And when it is, it’s correct. Being drunk isn’t a get-out-of-rape-free card, just like being drunk isn’t a get-out-of-committing-any-other-criminal-act card, and raping a woman who’s dressed like Fagan’s idea of a slut is just as bad as raping a person wearing any other outfit. Yes, feminists believe that women are adults who can make their own decisions, but they don’t believe in holding women responsible for men’s decisions. Especially when men decide to ignore a woman’s desire not to engage in sex. The only person responsible for a rape is the person who commits it, and it doesn’t matter if the rapist is drunk or if the woman he rapes is wearing a short skirt. Rape is rape, and no amount of alcohol or tight clothing can change that. If you’re a “sexually and visually driven man” who finds it hard, when you are not” fully in command of your wits,” to keep yourself from raping someone, then I suggest that you stop drinking alcohol and seek psychological treatment.

And if you are a young woman writer and finds yourself penning depressingly misguided essays in which you hold women partially responsible for their own rapes, I suggest you stop drinking the rape culture Kool-aid and seek some Feminism 101 resources to set you straight.

UPDATE: Ryan O’Connell, an editor at Thought Catalog, has issued an apology for publishing Fagan’s essay, and it’s worth a read.

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28 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    This is a really excellent piece, Chloe. I’ll definitely be posting links to it! As angry as I get reading Fagan’s piece, I can’t help but feel sorry for her a little bit. Especially where–right before the part you reference–she talks about learning to walk walk standing straight, avoid eye contact, etc. I just want to hold her hand and say, “Don’t you see how you have had to change your life to avoid rape? Don’t you see that we live in a rape culture that makes women responsible for avoiding rape?

    I’d like to ask her: if a woman slouches and makes eye contact, does that mean she is culpable in her own rape?

    Fagan’s piece is infuriating while also being heartbreaking.

    • Posted April 5, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      let’s see what ms. fagan has learned from this experience!

      http://poorinthe16th.tumblr.com/post/4363400566/awesome

      not much?

      • Posted April 5, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        I posted:

        “It has existed everywhere since the dawn of time, when it was just called sex.”(her quote regarding rape)

        You can’t differentiate between rape and sex? You’re even fucking stupider than your original article led me to believe.

        Yes, I know, I’m not very nice at all. But at least I’m not a champion of rapists.

  2. Posted April 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    The only thing more frustrating than the persistent culture of victim-blaming set forth by our patriarchal society is when women themselves buy into it. Is it that it makes us feel safer to tell ourselves that rape only happens to people who invite it, whether through their behavior or clothing? Or is it just a way to get an approving head-pat from the aforementioned patriarchal society? How is this more helpful than addressing the root of the problem?

  3. Posted April 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Sheesh! How can she not see that the actions she has had to adopt are actually oppressions of rape culture…

    I think this is a great example of the social psychological concepts behind victim blaming. It is really threatening to the self to think that there are random acts of violence, so the self-preserving tendency is to other the victim (ie, rape happen to “those type of girls” because THEY dress like a sluts, THEY drink, etc etc. So rape will *never* happen to me.)

    The reality is, of course, that you can never do anything to make someone rape you and rape is wide spread regardless of the choices of the victims. That’s a pretty terrifying reality, but it is reality nevertheless.

    (Keep in mind I am NOT excusing her words, I’m simply pulling from a concept I learned as an undergrad a long, long time ago.)

  4. Posted April 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Another ironic thing about Fagan’s post (other than the fact that she sees rape culture SO WELL that she has guidelines for how to live in it as a woman) is that her advice about being demure, “avoiding eye contact,” and being generally submissive and docile looking in order to “fly under the radar” are the exact characteristics rapists say they look for in a victim. They don’t say “I look for a woman dressed in skimpy clothing.” They say “I look for a woman who looks like she won’t fight back.” And that’s exactly the image Fagan is, I’m sure not intentionally, trying to create. Very sad. Painfully ironic.

  5. Posted April 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    In addition to being the very definition of victim blaming, Fagan is also propogating the archaic concept that men ‘can’t help themselves’. Great. Let’s perpetuate heinous crimes on that completely debunked idea.

    • Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      >And for a man, a sexually and visually driven man not in full command of his wits, having a woman tell him “no” while wearing the most provocative, arousing, blatantly sexual outfit possible is, to say the least, confusing.

      ME MAN. ME NO CAN UNDERSTAND “NO” IF SAYS SEXY WOMAN. IF WOMAN FATTY, ME UNDERSTAND.

  6. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s a means of defense and a means of absolving oneself of their role in perpetuating victim blaming. And all too commonplace. How we love to wash our hands of the larger problem.

  7. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    If there’s one constant I’ve noticed in the perpetuation of despicable behavior throughout humanity, it is the seemingly limitless pile of apologetics around them. Victim-blaming in cases of rape may be the most prominent and visible instance of this in our culture, but the psychology behind it is so deep and pervasive that it is, perhaps, the worst ethical cancer in our society. The United States, with it’s oh-so-wonderful mythology of strength, autonomy and self-determination, seems to love and worship this idea that victims don’t truly exist; that the misfortunes people find themselves in are usually the result of their own failings; that the only true natural rights are those you acquire by will and protect with force. The poor are to be blamed for their poverty, the uneducated for their ignorance, the abused for their abuse. How else can we justify such widespread and accepted dehumanization and victimization?

    The reasoning that any immoral acts are simply ”human nature” and that ”things will always be this way, so look out for yourself” is both intellectually and ethically indefensible. It is cowardice, and it is complicit in the continual destruction of both our planet and our civilization. Humanity needs people who simply stand up and say ”This is WRONG. It needs to STOP.” If there is a future for the human race, it belongs to those who work to ensure we have one.

    • Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      The victim-blaming you describe is based in the ideology of individualism – – not to be confused with individuality.

  8. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m a victim of both rape and rape myths and victim blaming. I’m sick of ignorant insensitive arseholes talking about something they don’t have a clue about.

    She is pretty much saying (even if she doesn’t realise it) that.
    -Men can’t help raping women dressed sexil.
    -It’s mens right to rape women dressed sexily.
    -It isn’t that bad because she was dressed sexily.
    -If you dress sexily you’re giving up your right of consent.
    -If you dress sexily you deserve anything that happens to you (is murder ok here too?)
    -If you dress sexily you realise a man is going to want to rape you, so it’s your fault.

    Ignorant people who are blinded by culture and society, believing that rape is something irrelevant to them, it isn’t a big problem, the police and justice system will catch ‘real’ rapists and ‘real’ stereotypical victims and treat them the way they deserve. No, no, no, no and NO!!!

  9. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    While it doesn’t make up for the fact that Thought Catalog posted this piece in the first place…

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/2011/were-so-sorry-about-the-funny-thing-about-the-slutwalk/

  10. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Many people in Toronto have expressed so much more disdain, anger and resentment towards “Slutwalk”, than they did against the officer who made the vile suggestion that there is something a citizen can (wear) do that takes away their human right to say no. This resistance to resistance underscores one of the biggest problems we encounter when we try to talk about rape.

  11. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    The Canadian Supreme Court cannot identify pornography? That’s news to me! I guess Fagan is unfamiliar with R v Butler! The Court had to do just that in order to see if certain forms of pornography fell under obscenity legislation… The trial judge’s obiter is quite hilarious (albeit sad) as they write about what they are witnessing on the tapes (and their subsequent morality and aesthetic judgments…).

    Actually, I just clicked on Fagan’s link where she writes about how the Supreme Court cannot define porn. I see nothing in the article that supports her premise.

    I was saddened when I noticed that Fagan is actually a younger person. Perhaps it is my own subtle sense of ageism, but I was suprised to see that this article wasn’t written by an older person.

    Just for precision- when talking about “rape” in the Canadian context, the correct term is “sexual assault”.

  12. Posted April 5, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I am sure that men and women of those cultures that demand that a woman covers her hair in public made arguments similar to Fagans. Putting the onus on women to not get raped hasn’t worked for thousands of years. The slutwalk is simply trying to demonstrate that.

    Fagan seems to think that women aren’t doing their part. As if they didn’t realize that rape is an unfair reality. Women are already taking a part in arming themselves against rape; walking to cars & bathrooms in pairs, petitioning for lights at college walkways, & drinking with friends instead of alone. Her tone and underdeveloped reasoning suggests that for the often raped prison inmate, she would justify the crime by labeling the victim a criminal.

    Fagans believes that conservative dress guidelines may help a girl in limited situations and that it is good to get the message out. She thinks that she is helping. To her mind, the question becomes: Of men who commit rape, are there men who would curtail from raping a certain sort of woman? She pictures a seedy, drunk, date rapist type, looking “to score” who is more likely to pursue a woman that he views as more sexually available, and one component of that evaluation may be dress.

    But rapes occur in the military, convents and boarding schools, all with strict dress codes and explicit contracts and codes of ethics telling men that they cannot have sex with, let alone rape the women, so obviously, Fagans view of victims is as flawed as her view of perpetrators.

  13. Posted April 5, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s crazy – no one would apply that logic to any other crime.
    Officer – “I’m sorry ma’am, but you have a beautiful home. It was pretty clear to anyone who walked by that you probably had some valuable stuff inside. If you really wanted to …protect your belongings, you should have stayed home on a Saturday night when you knew people were walking home from the bars. Having such nice stuff but not being home to watch it sends a mixed message, I just can’t feel like the burglar was really responsible for his actions.”

  14. Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Fagan’s whole blog post, but can we talk about how racist/classist it is, in addition to being incredibly sexist?

    As he does not specify in his statement what “victimized” means exactly, I’ll assume it runs the gamut from being cat called on the street to being raped. And just like a young man dressed like a gangbanger and walking through a bad neighborhood with a menacing, threatening stance could be met with verbal aggression or a gunshot wound to the chest – all things are not created equal. He does not deserve to be murdered because he walked down the street, but he (as an adult) understood the risks he was taking.

    • Posted April 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been wanting to talk about it as well. I think part of the subjectivity of what it means to be slutty has to do with a hierarchy of femininities according to class. When Fagan says elegant and feminine, she’s referring to an upper-class femininity that has nothing to do with amount of skin shown, but what your clothing connotes about your class. I think that’s why many slut-shamers seem to believe that dressing in non-slutty clothes equates to “respecting yourself”, because as a culture we conflate “slut” and “cheap”. So I’d say Fagan’s understanding of rape is essentially classist in a few ways, and probably includes a number of race-related connotations as well.

  15. Posted April 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I posted this in response. It’s insulting, but so is victim-blaming rape victims in the first place.

    “You sure as hell don’t understand feminism. But you’re aces at sanctimonious victim blaming. The point of their protest was that despite the cop’s perception, and yours, rape does not only happen to women who dress like “sluts”. It’s been known to happen to modestly dressed women, to women covered from head to toe, to children, to senior citizens, and hey! It’s even been known to happen to MEN! No one’s choice of attire makes them responsible for a felony committed against them. If you must wag your fingers at someone, why not place the blame where it REALLY belongs–on the RAPISTS.

    Damn, you’d think you’d need an evolved brain to write on something called “thought catalog”. What a bunch of knuckle dragging neanderthal BS.”

  16. Posted April 5, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I was there at Slutwalk that afternoon, admist the crowd of people listening to the speakers, and just wanted to share what was one of the best parts for me:

    Two women, who just seemed to be passing by, stopped beside me to listen to the speaker. After a few minutes, one of them said to the other, “This is giving me goosebumps…” And I had goosebumps, too. It felt really great to be there.

  17. Posted April 5, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey Chloe,
    as one of the organizers from the Toronto Slutwalk, thanks so much for writing this article, we are all huge fans of feministing and this put us over the moon! Thanks for addressing that article. I find that it is one thing for a person of a certain gender who will never personally feel the levels of policing that women go through daily to make victim-blaming, misogynist, clueless statements – but for someone OF the female gender to do so is just haunting. thanks, sending you slutty solidarity :)

  18. Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    In my high school sex ed class, a boy said that sometimes skimpy clothes were confusing and it was hard for guys to control themselves. My teacher stared this kid down and said, “A woman can be butt naked, surrounded by alcohol, on a mattress with her legs spread in your front yard, and you still do not have the right to have sex with her. If you can’t control yourself, you need to get help.” It was awesome. Fagan needs a teacher like him.

    • Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      your sex ed teacher needs an award

  19. Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    And as everyone knows, if you wear a Rolex anywhere, you’re asking to be robbed. If you drive a Lexus, you’re begging to be carjacked. And if you’re Chelsea Fagan and you open your mouth in public, you’re asking to be mocked.

    One nice thing about blaming the victims, though: it eliminates the neccessity to do anything about crime….

  20. Posted April 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Fagan might as well be arguing that anytime I see a shirtless man I should immediately assume that his partial nudity is a signal that he wants to have sex with me…except…oh wait! Men’s bodies are not always sexualized even when they are not fully clothed, unlike women’s bodies which are always assumed to be sexual in nature, so showing them must be an indicator that sex is in the offering. How have we produced a society where women are so brainwashed that they actually believe that victims rather than their attackers should be held accountable for style of dress being linked to sexuality or decisions about where and how you spend your time having any effect on the fact that you did not give your consent?!!

  21. Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    If I have read one essay/article/editorial/rant like Fagan’s, I have read a bazillion. It’s so saddening to me that this same exact argument keeps being regurgitated by women who have internalized society’s perpetual stigmatization of female sexuality to the extent that they honestly feel responsible for whether or not they are sexually assaulted.

    I want to ask Fagan, what about those of us who can’t conform to society’s rigid expectations of femininity for other reasons than simply how we dress. Lesbians, transfolk, and other “gender outlaws” who will NEVER be what we are “supposed” to be in the heteronormative narrative. Where do we fit in? Are we inherently rapable because we are not what a drunken supremacist patriarch wants to see at a given moment?

  22. Posted April 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I also hate how anti-man this Fagan shit is. There is literally NO possible type of clothing, including nudity that could ever, ever make me think it’s ok to rape someone. Gah. These antifeminist lowlifes are trying to encourage people to dress LESS sexy? This story happened in fecking Canada. Jackets year round anywhere.

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