How Survivors Feel Reading Words Like Mayim Bialik’s Victim-Blaming
Understand how survivors respond to victim-blaming and you’ll know exactly what’s wrong with it.
“Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” That’s the title of Mayim Bialik’s recent article in the New York Times.
It’s framed like an analysis that could help us get to the truth about Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment and assault, and the gender dynamics of a society in which countless women are the targets of men’s entitlement to our bodies, and countless men get away with it.
This framing suggests that Mayim, child star of Blossom and current star of the popular sitcom Big Bang Theory, is someone who gets it, someone who’s worked in one of the most notoriously predatory industries and lived to tell about it with her feminist values firmly in tact.
Which means it’s all the more dangerous that Mayim doesn’t “get it” at all — she just has a platform to share her opinions. Those opinions can reach far, influence a lot of people… and make women and other people who have been targeted by sexual harassment or violence feel really terrible about themselves.
I know this because of my work around abuse. I know this because I’m a survivor of sexual violence.
Many of us know that Mayim’s approach to these issues amounts to victim-blaming. But I know some people will be skeptical about the criticism of her approach. What’s the big deal? They’ll say. Isn’t she just talking about how women can use common sense to avoid harassment?
There’s a lot I could say about Mayim’s assertion that women who aren’t conventionally attractive, and who don’t make an effort to look a certain way, can avoid being targeted. But right now, I just want to speak for myself as a survivor — and maybe I can bring some more understanding to what other survivors go through.
Because if you have opinions on how women can protect themselves from sexual assault, coercion, or harassment, but you don’t actually know about how cycles of abuse and self-blame work, then guess what? You have an uninformed opinion.
And here’s the impact of spreading those opinions far and wide. Here’s what survivors and people who have been harassed might say to themselves as they read Mayim Bialik’s piece.
Here’s the real impact of those opinions that some see as a simple matter of common sense.
“I’m so stupid.”
Mayim seems to believe in a false dichotomy of sexy or smart. There are the pretty women who men target for harassment, and then there are the smart ones, who have priorities other than being pretty, and who avoid getting harassed as a result.
So where does that leave the people who have been targeted? Many are left beating themselves up for being “too dumb” to avoid it. If only we could all have PhDs in neuroscience like Mayim — surely then, men would take us seriously instead of treating us like sexual objects, right?
The high rates of harassment in STEM fields suggests otherwise.
Making smart choices is no guarantee for protection, because we’re not the ones who choose to be targeted. The person who makes the choice to harass or abuse a victim is the only person responsible for that choice.
“Was I flirting?”
Mayim writes that she makes choices every day that she thinks of as “self-protecting and wise.” For example, “I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”
I wonder how many women have the same policy, but end up cornered by men anyway. How many of us have set boundaries with men, only to be met with something like: “But I know you want me.”
It’s enough to make you second-guess yourself, no matter how clearly you set your boundaries. I used to think that men harassed me relentlessly because I was “too nice.” Even if I told a man I wasn’t interested, he’d take any possible sign of friendliness — a polite smile, for instance — as an opportunity to persist.
We wonder, “Did he target me because I was flirting?” even when the obvious answer is hell no.
And even when we do flirt, that’s no excuse to violate our consent. But the idea that not flirting means not getting assaulted can lead us to blame ourselves, as if simply existing as free beings in this world means we’re asking for trouble.
“Is this why no one believes me?”
Mayim’s piece has a big focus on appearance. She writes, “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms.”
From her perspective, it’s the traditionally pretty women who have to deal with these problems, while the others get overlooked.
If this were true, we’d be able to identify entire groups of women who are supposedly free from sexual violence — the women of color, fat women, disabled women, gender non-conforming women, and more who fall outside of Hollywood’s narrow ideal of a “perfect ten.”
But in reality, many of these women can’t escape gendered violence, no matter how they look. This myth that someone could be a target simply because of their appearance or clothing contributes to the inaccuracy of the public’s ideas about sexual violence.
Harassment and sexual assault do not happen simply because a perpetrator finds someone attractive. But this idea helps cover up the truth. It helps cast doubt on real, everyday victims who have to convince others they that, too, experience sexual violence — even without the plastic surgery.
“What did I do wrong?”
Mayim’s piece has the unfortunate impact of adding to the long list of things women can supposedly to do to avoid predators. People who approach sexual violence this way often believe that they’re helping women avoid becoming victims.
The real impact, however, is trapping victims in an endless cycle of self-blame. We could think through all the rules a million times and come up with countless possibilities of how we might have set ourselves up to be targeted.
Was it what I was wearing? What I said? How I walked? Was it my fault for trusting my abuser…my boss, my partner, my friend?
Harassment and sexual assault can happen when we don’t expect it. It can happen in situations where we expect to be treated professionally, or respectfully, or with compassion. It happens more often with people we know than with strangers in dark alleys.
That means it’s simply impossible to set rules to guarantee self-protection. The only guarantee is that setting these rules will lead survivors to blame themselves for something that’s not their fault.
There’s nothing wrong with Mayim Bialik having her own values about how she looks, dresses, or carries herself. There’s nothing wrong with her being proud to be nerdy and intellectual, or freeing herself from the pressure to base her sense of self-worth on her appearance.
But she could carry these as her own personal values without applying them as universal strategies for avoiding harassment. That just doesn’t hold up against the truth of how sexual harassment and sexual violence happen in our world.
Mayim may have avoided it, but some of us aren’t so lucky, and we’re listening.
If you’re a survivor who’s listening, hear this instead: I see your wisdom, I see that you never deserved what happened to you, and I see that nobody’s victim-blaming can take that away from you. We know the truth.