A group of women that I spoke with recently at a Virginia university was asked to submit anonymous questions that centered around dating violence and hook-up culture. The most common theme that emerged among them was victimhood. Here are a few examples:
1) To what extent could it be the victim’s fault?
2) Is it considered sexual assault if you technically initiated it?
3) Is it considered sexual assault if you have no memory of “the event” and would never have consented to it if you had been sober?
What is struggling to reveal itself here is the good girl/bad girl dichotomy.
The Greco-Roman world may have provided the bedrock of Western civilization for the arts and democracy but they also codified racism, classism and misogyny. According to historian, Sarah Pomeroy, the Emperor Constantine inscribed a purity doctrine 2,000 years ago. “Constantine was explicit about the guilt of the victim. Regarding raped virgins, he distinguished between girls who had been willing and those who were not. Both would be punished.”(Pomeroy, page 160). Constantine’s reason for punishing the unwilling rape victim? If she truly didn’t wish to be raped she should have yelled louder so that family or neighbors could’ve come to her rescue.
Has anything changed?
This law of course had nothing to do with the assaulted woman’s welfare. It had to do with concern for the wronged man’s property. Victimhood, premiering at the instillation of what the West considers its earliest laws, protected a select few men in power. And, I would argue, still does (read Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas).
I dressed like a hippy/gypsy in college (in the 80’s) but the elaborate combination of sexy kimonos, slightly revealing layered silks and handkerchief skirts that were part of my everyday ensemble didn’t exist yet in stores. They were put together, piece by found piece, from accumulated consignment shop finds that established my staple, my look, the way millennials today might assemble piercings and tattoos. By the time my oldest daughter was in second grade, years and years later, Madonna inspired black lace, Spice Girls accessories, a Stevie Nicks-ish gypsy line and Hannah Montana products had invaded every young girl’s clothing department from Walmart to Neiman Marcus.
The hot-girl-of-elementary-school look didn’t start there, in the early 21st century, of course. It had evolved through a consumer-focused, multi faceted advertising campaign launched across the 80’s and 90’s when gender representation in the media and pop culture went through a seismic shift — one that made it easier and easier for girls to look sexy sooner (at younger and younger ages, hence Madonna for seven year olds). It had also evolved alongside the politically conservative backlash to feminism and through a harshly critical postfeminist lens that conflated self surveillance and disciplining of the sexual body with internalized sexism. In this time period, victim blaming (ie, the good girl/bad girl dichotomy) moved from the institutionalized policing of objectified bodies via the male gaze to the internalization of hating our own bodies and serving judgment/hate onto other women.
The message was and still is: Look sexy now and you will be free to be you. But there are strings attached, aren’t there? The disciplined body that strives to be both sexualized and fit into a good girl category falls within a cultural politic of who’s to blame when addressing sexual assault and other — no, all — gender-related violence. There needs to be some shade thrown to the media, pop culture and advertising. Just as one might argue that boys are confused by what women are wearing — do they want sex or not? — girls can be confused, too.
I can promise you this, though: women want to be valued beyond their bodies, even in their low cut blouses, and they want sexual autonomy even though they get drunk at frat parties. Yet, how would you know that by looking at a thirteen year old model for Victoria’s Secret every time you go shopping?
We have been conditioned to believe our current understanding of beauty has become, what Rosalind Gill calls, a choice biography, an integral part of what the media and advertising would like us to think when we buy into (literally) the program that promises health, pleasure and happiness if we spend money on not just being attractive, but by presenting ourselves in a hyper sexualized way. Somehow we manage to avoid the difficult conversations about the amount of money we spend on looking “hot”; look at the staggering trends of tweens who wear push up bras, teenagers getting Brazilian waxes, the forty-something women’s use of cleanse fads, the millions of women who rely on beauty products and beauty procedures just “as a way to feel good about themselves,” or the specialness of good friends taking advantage of today’s deals to enjoy breast augmentation as a shared experience. Gill argues that our generation is both feminist and anti feminist, a sensibility that exists situating women as free agents as long as they are buying things that enhance their sexual bodies. And the resulting achievement is so similar and familiar: hairless, wrinkle-less, youthful neck, firm buttocks, slim waist, large breasts, bleached ____ — well, you know, the list goes on. These mass-media constructs of Western beauty are ingested and make us feel it is by our own desire for a meaningful self-narrative that we need to dress/act/move/buy this way.
The victim blaming of today continues to loom large. I see it often, not just in the news but in the conversations I have with neighbors. I’ve had conversations with several moms over the last year or so who have both sons and daughters. They say they are more concerned about their sons being falsely accused of rape than they were of their daughters facing sexual assault. They believe, because their daughters are good girls, they aren’t at risk for rape or dating violence like the plenty of other women who wear short skirts and plunging necklines — the same ones who might regret sex after the fact and cause trouble for America’s sons later on. (Sorry to tell you, Moms, but your son is more likely to be sexually assaulted than to face false rape allegations. And the chances of him telling you or reporting the incident are even less so. (https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-false-rape-allegations-20181011-story.html)
The underlining truth plaguing campuses everywhere is that the majority of sexual assaults, or most any incidents of dating violence, goes unreported. This, just as Education secretary Betsy DeVos, presents new guidelines that purports to even the scales of due process for accuser and accused.
Such changes to the guidelines that President Barack Obama’s administration provided to schools in 2011 on how to interpret Title IX, the federal civil rights law that states students must not be discriminated against based on sex, however, would be problematic. Sage Carson, from Know Your IX, says DeVos’s proposal would return college campuses to a time before 2011, when universities failed to uniformly enforce Title IX and sexual assault survivors often dropped out of school to avoid a harasser or rapist who their schools refused to protect them from.
Other women’s advocates underscore that this will hurt victim’s of sexual assault on college campuses because reports of sexual assault will decrease. Jess Davidson, from End Rape on Campus, says, “It lets schools turn the other cheek and be blind to what’s happening, if they wish.”
Davidson argues, “colleges will no longer have to investigate sexual assaults that happen off-campus, students who live in off-campus apartments, commute to campus, or attend parties in fraternity, sorority or any other off-campus houses may not have legitimate sexual assault complaints in the eyes of university officials.” Davidson suggests this would make the number and scope of campus sexual assault unknowable.
Unpacking school policy on rape is part of what brought me to the group talk in the first place. I was asked to speak on some of DeVos’s new guidelines and shed light on several rape cases that were reported and investigated by the group’s school. In one case, the accused perpetrator was an employee of the school. The school administration told the accuser (the student) to not speak publicly about her rape (there is no gag-rule supported by any law, however) and after a school hearing, the accused was allowed to return to work. The student has since dropped out.
In the second case, the sexual assault was said to have occurred while two students were studying abroad. It became a he said/she said situation and the boy was allowed, via a school hearing, to return to college his senior year. The accuser is appealing the decision. Neither of these cases would benefit from the education secretary’s new guidelines. As a matter of fact, the second case would be rendered not a case at all.
The good girl/bad girl helix is tightly wound. Throughout the conversation with the college group we continued to look for hopeful strategies. The students came up with a safe word to text one another in case they needed to get out of difficult situations at parties. And when I threw the above questions out to the group, one young woman answered, “It’s never the victim’s fault,” (cue the silent finger snapping). Still, there were also very deeply held beliefs that surfaced placing the burden of the purity doctrine on women’s shoulders. They understood that you could wear the skimpiest clothing in the world and not get raped if a rapist wasn’t there, but they also indicated that there had been moments in many of their young lives that demonstrated what little control they had when it comes to sex and dating.
Gill, R. (2016). Post-post feminism?: New feminist visibilities in postfeminist times, Feminist Media Studies, 16:4, 610–630, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2016.1193293
Pomeroy, S. (1995). Goddesses, Wives and Slaves: Women in classical antiquity. New York: Schocken Books.