“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” It was the statement from a Toronto Police Service officer last year that rocked the entire city – a glaringly apparent display of inherent misogyny and institutionalised sexism. It was a message that rang loud and clear: victim blaming is alive and well in our fair city.
The reality is that comments like those of that officer to an entire audience at Osgoode Hall are not isolated incidents. Victim blaming has taken on new forms, and has subtly but quite intricately woven its way into the fabric of public opinion. It operates as a mechanism to keep victims silent and keep society comfortable. It keeps victims of sexual assaults questioning themselves and their own actions – maybe I shouldn’t have worn that skirt, maybe I shouldn’t have accepted his drink offer – and it allows the rest of society to shake their heads at the poor choices these loose women made that brought the entire situation onto themselves. Quite frankly, they were asking for it. Maybe next time, they’ll know better.
Because knowing better is of course the key. A radical shift has been made towards making victims take responsibility for the role they played in being assaulted. It’s an almost indiscernible shift, often masked as concern or education, but it is significant.
When did it become acceptable to respond to a rape investigation with questions about why the victim was wearing the type of underwear that she was wearing?
Why are judges handing out minor conditional sentences because of “inviting circumstances” like Manitoba Queen’s Bench Justice Robert Dewar or “an opportunistic event” like the judge in the case of Fernando Manuel Alves who pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was given nine months of probation?
We’ve failed to reach a societal understanding of the patriarchal and misogynistic core of sexual violence. It is about power and control, not about miniskirts and stilettos. These misconceptions are crippling victims, and allowing them to be re-victimized by a society who holds judgment and a justice system that places the onus on them.
Do women need to know how to protect themselves in crisis situations? Of course. But the conversation needs to shift back to equality and, in this case, the equal right to be free from violence and to feel safe in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities.
A message to victims of sexual assault: It’s not right.
It’s not your fault.
And it is a big deal.