Feministing Chat: Individualism, violence, and victim blaming

Im-not-victim-blaming-She-just-shouldnt-have-walked-down-there-on-her-ownAt this point, the cycle is familiar. A commentator writes an article telling women how they can avoid rape through individualistic, ineffective methods. Dress conservatively! Shout loudly! Stay sober! The piece never addresses how we, as a community, can resist violence, and it shifts the focus from perpetrators’ wrongdoings to the “mistakes” of survivors. In response, the feminist internet rises up to condemn the victim-blaming. The fury dies down and, a few weeks later, another, similar article emerges again.

In these reactive conversations, we rarely get the chance to dig deeper and proactively consider the roots and harms of victim blaming. We sat down (at our individual computers, thousands of miles from each other :( ) to take a stab at that conversation.

How has victim blaming affected you personally?

Lori: Like many of my friends, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion policing my own style based on fear of being perceived as a “slut” and thus being exposed to social judgment and in some cases actual physical danger. This phenomenon plays out in a way that is inevitably gendered, and isn’t limited to preemptive self-policing, either. If I’m ever catcalled or street harassed, especially if I’m wearing something that might be more revealing than pants and a t-shirt, I find there’s still a small voice inside me that says “I deserve this, and whatever might follow” even if I liked my outfit and felt it was appropriate for whatever activity I was up to. I know so many people who have stories like these, and this is even mild compared to people who have actually been blamed for their own assault or rape. I think we talk a lot about how victim blaming affects victims or survivors of assault, but less so about the chilling effect it has on everyone else in society, every single day of their lives.

Veronica: Lori, I am right there with you on the questioning of my clothing — i.e. what I’ve done to “deserve” harassment — even though I know this is absurd. I vacillate between sometimes wanting to wear revealing clothes and censoring myself to avoid harassment, which makes me feel like shit, and saying “fuck that noise” and dressing as slutty (said here with 100% positive connotations) as I want and more often than not getting harassed, which makes me feel like shit. Lose-lose.

How does an individualistic approach to feminism affect our work combating sexual and gender-based violence?

Juliana: It silences us. When we are constantly told that it is within our immediate ability to stop rape or violence against women, it creates this shame around being a survivor. “You were raped? You must have wanted it. You must not have tried hard enough to escape. Did you yell? Did you fight back?” And so we don’t share our stories. And those with no experience with sexual violence, or those who perpetuate this violence, create the narrative that society subscribes to.

Lori: The irony of victim-blaming is that, while it is often couched in faux-concern for women’s safety, it effectively makes everyone less safe from gender-based violence, across the board. We’ve documented on this blog hundreds of instances where victim-blaming has been used to explain, excuse, or otherwise enable perpetrators of violence. “She was raped? She must have been asking for it” and similar sentiments act as a literal get-out-of-jail-free card for violent criminals every day. How can we go after rapists and violent perpetrators when the terms of their assaults are perpetually in question by the very institutions under which we’d hope to hold them accountable?

Alexandra: Right. And that constant debate is a distraction from actual proactive measures to stop violence. The more time we spend talking about what victims should do or why perpetrators aren’t accountable, the less time we’re thinking about the power structures that enable assault and abuse.

Veronica: While folks are busy pointing fingers at individual actors, the actual systems that allow for and foster gender-based and sexualized violence — the criminal (in)justice system, the prison industrial complex, and other sites of institutionalized racism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia — go unquestioned. And even as we are all negotiating ways to keep ourselves safe through our individual actions — and let’s not front like we don’t do this, though we know it shouldn’t be on us, because as Lori and Juliana pointed out, sexual and gender-based violence is a daily fear for so many — not all of us have equal access to individual sources of harm reduction. Women of color, trans and gender non-conforming folks, sex workers, people who are all of those at once, and many other marginalized communities are targeted disproportionately, and can’t rely on the individualized systems of safety more privileged folks have.

Juliana: The only place where I see individualism as a useful tool for fighting violence is in putting a face to the numbers. For many, the fact that one in three women will be raped within their lifetime means much less than the fact that their friend, neighbor, or loved one has experienced sexual violence. Putting a face to rape might teach more people that this is in fact a collective issue that affects all of us. Senator Gretchen Whitmer’s brave speech on the Senate floor comes to mind. This is obviously asking a lot of survivors, and not always possible.

Alexandra: I definitely agree that personalizing feminism is incredibly powerful strategically, but I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between that and combating violence as an individual’s problem. For example, I think someone can talk about his or her experience being raped when incapacitated in a way that highlights that there are serial perpetrators out there always looking for the drunkest person in the room — so that, until we create real systemic change, anyone’s individual efforts to not be that person à la Yoffe don’t actually reduce rates of violence. That’s a personalized story that recognizes a collective problem.

What do you think is driving this mindset?

Alexandra: I see, in the ever-present victim blaming, a faith that we can “lean in” to not getting raped. Both the CEO feminism Sandberg espouses and the Emily Yoffee school of shame and sobriety present misogyny, in its different forms, as an individual problem we have to tackle as individuals — and if we really try hard enough, we’ll succeed. Of course, as we all know, sexism is a collective problem, and it requires collective solutions.

Maya: I think this is really true, Alexandra. And, of course, it’s not surprising that we’re so attached to this idea that we just try really hard, we’ll succeed — since that’s the foundational myth underpinning our entire capitalist, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture. And I think the closer we get to gender equality, the more seductive it feels — particularly for the most privileged women. Because there’s an element of truth there: For someone in Sandberg’s position, “leaning in” probably does take her pretty far. And, though I’m even more skeptical that individual tactics for avoiding sexual assault actually work, sure, maybe if you stay sober and stick with a buddy and learn self-defense and remain ever vigilant of your surroundings and only sleep with people with whom they’ve signed a consent agreement, you can reduce your personal risk of being raped to nearly zero. And I bet that that woman feels super empowered and in control–and also super restricted, but if that’s what she wants, good for her — but that’s not about feminism. Cause as we’ve said, sexism is a collective problem and feminism is a collective movement.

Jos: Individualistic responses are easier than actually addressing systemic problems. Unfortunately the work of stopping sexual violence isn’t that easy. Feminism’s personal and political: it involves caring about what happens to others around you, not just yourself or your immediate circle. Part of the problem with individualistic responses to sexual violence is that they don’t do anything to stop sexual violence (of course the problem’s also that individualistic advice like don’t drink or wear that short skirt doesn’t actually work, and saying you can avoid rape by not drinking suggests someone who was drunk and raped could have avoided it). They’re about trying to get out of the way. What about the next person a perpetrator targets? And the fact is, marginalization through race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other factors increases a person’s chances of being targeted with violence. I’m sick of concerns about sexual violence being raised to keep trans women out of spaces, and not just because of the fucked up gendered assumptions involved – part of the reason is that we are statistically more likely to experience violence than cis women. Individualistic solutions to any systemic problem often suggest a privileged worldview to me, one where you’re shielded from the hurt experienced by others.

Alexandra: Exactly — an individualistic approach to violence gives those for whom these questions aren’t urgent an excuse for not exploring their/our own complicity and advocating for structural change. And for that reason it’s both very dangerous and very appealing. Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could end rape by telling college girls to stop drinking, rather than by upending violent hierarchies?

Maya: I’d go even further and say that in addition to giving us an excuse for not for exploring our complicity, it also allows us to avoid fully acknowledge our own vulnerability. I think we see so many women engaging in victim blaming and advocating individualistic solutions because it’s a way of distancing themselves from the problems and maintaining an illusion of control. If you can convince yourself that there’s an individual solution to sexism or sexual violence, you don’t have to think of yourself as a (potential) victim. And I totally get it, actually. No one wants to be a victim. I definitely don’t want to be a victim. And I think many young women who have absorbed the empowerment, girl power, you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to brand of feminism really don’t. But in that quest for a sense of control and safety, we are often willing to sacrifice our own freedoms and throw other women under the bus–both of which take us further away from the true collective revolution we need to secure actual power.

Next week we’ll talk about about how we can proactively resist this individualistic approach to sexual violence. Leave your responses, comments, and questions below!

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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