Women of all shapes, colors, ages, and identities are sexually harassed and assaulted. But as women who are conventionally beautiful, curvy, who choose to dress “provocatively” (can we just delete this victim-blamey word?), or who have any other physical attribute that could conceivably be sexualized by men may know through experience, unwanted attention is not only frequent, but almost certain.
These two facts aren’t mutually exclusive. It also doesn’t mean that women who belong to the latter category are at fault for the harassment and violence they may experience. Unless you believe that harassers and assailants (who are overwhelmingly men) literally cannot control themselves when they pass by a woman they find attractive, the (male) perpetrator is clearly the instigator.
To say that women should be dowdy, cover up, wear less makeup, or change any part of their appearance or behavior in order to deter male sexual aggression plays to a long history of asking women to be responsible for men’s actions. In short, rape culture.
We blame the victim because we erroneously assume that bad thing happen only to bad people or people who “ask for it,” and because we live in a society that has normalized misogyny and predatory behavior from men. The first is a psychological fallacy, and the second is social conditioning. Both are things we can actively work, as individuals and collectively, to change.
I’ve noticed a lot of anger expressed online by women-identified people and feminists about Mayim Bialik’s NYT Opinion piece, where she recounts how she deliberately avoided looking conventionally attractive in order to deter the sexualized attention that she saw directed at many fellow actresses by producers, directors, and executives. They say she is victim-blaming, because she “implied” that only beautiful women experience sexual violence and that all women can deter sexual violence by changing their appearance. I don’t believe she said either, although it can certainly seem that way at face value.
In the film industry, where women’s beauty is literally currency, men are incentivized by the system to acquire that currency (a.k.a. sexual favors from women) by whatever means necessary. I don’t blame Bialik, who was a child actor with very little institutional power to challenge a deeply rooted culture of sexualization and the (male) executives who benefit from it, for trying to do something to reclaim a little agency. No, we can’t be sure of whether she did not experience unwanted sexual advances because her self-protective measures really worked, or because she was simply lucky. But instead of directing our outrage toward her, we should question why we, as the consumers of the entertainment industry, assign such outsize value to the physical attractiveness of women we see onscreen.
In Bialik’s words, before we have created that “perfect world” where women are “free to act however they want,” it would be naïve to yell “women are not to blame for sexual assault” until we are blue in the face without acknowledging the other facts surrounding those words. Such as that today, being a woman is in itself a risk factor for harassment and violence. But responsibility for perpetrating that harassment and violence will always rest with the offenders to not offend, instead of women to make ourselves unappealing targets.
It is my hope that one day we can all be naïve — that women can enjoy the simple pleasure to look, dress, act, be exactly the way we want without having to consider the risk of “attracting the wrong kind of attention.” Today’s #MeToo movement was the first step to ending our present culture of impunity for people whose attitudes actually create that risk.
Thank you to those who felt comfortable speaking up today (though survivors should never be obligated to publicly disclose painful memories in order to “prove” to others that we exist). I see you, your fellow survivors see you, and I hope the (male) allies in your lives see you too.
As a woman entering college when the issue of campus sexual assault began to capture national attention, I have seen the slow progress that can be made in policies, culture, and individual attitudes when we make the collective decision to never let the issue of gender-based violence go silent. When there is another groundbreaking revelation of pervasive sexual misconduct by a powerful man — because unfortunately, there will be another Harvey Weinstein, just like Trump before him — we will speak up again and again, until passive bystanders become allies and we are all invested in making this world safe for women.