“She was just the perfect victim”
How puritanical standards of women perpetuate that some women deserve what happens to them
“She was just going for a run”
“She was just walking home from work”
“She was just following the rules”
We’ve all seen and heard these statements after a woman is a victim of male violence. For example, when the news of Sarah Everard echoed around the U.K, many people muttered “she was just walking home”, social media posts flooded saying “she was just following orders”. At the Ashling Murphy vigil, thousands gathered with signs stating “she was just going for a run”.
It’s an understandable reaction that derives from a place of anger and grief. It reiterates that even when women follow all the directions given to them in the fictitious “how to be a woman rulebook”, they still fall victim to violence, assaults, and oppression. However, it fails to recognise that it doesn’t matter what a woman is doing. It suggests that the case is particularly quite awful because she was a well-behaved woman who fell into the mould that the patriarchal society crafted for her.
It implies that if she wasn’t just doing something permissible, then she wouldn’t be as deserving of our anger and grief. If she was walking down a dark alleyway drunk, meeting her client, or picking up drugs at 2 am…she still doesn’t deserve to be a victim of a horrible crime at the hand of a man who sees her life and body as lesser.
This narrative ultimately devalues women’s lives, keeping them chained to outdated, misogynistic beliefs. It is these insidious implications that reinforce the regulations and unsaid laws that have kept, and continue to keep us shackled to fear and patriarchism. Where stepping slightly out of line will have millions of people believing that we deserved our own attack or death.
It doesn’t matter what any woman is doing. She doesn’t deserve to die. Ever.
Puritanical standards of women
Puritanical standards of women, like with most patriarchal concepts, can be traced back to religion. For example, Puritans believed that Eve’s sins were an example of a woman’s inherent moral weakness. Summarised briefly, this ultimately led to women being subordinate to men. Notably, for the sake of this article, women who were found guilty of immodest dressing were stripped and whipped until their backs were bloody.
While society may have progressed a long way since then, these puritanical standards of women are still upheld in subtle ways.
There are double standards still in today’s society that expect women to be “good girls,”. They are taught to repress their sexuality more than men, and while less salient than it was in the past, it is still a heavy reality today — even for the youngest generations.
It is this medieval purity culture and double standards that uphold the view that there can be such things as “damaged” or “used” women in society. This is bad for women as a whole but absolutely detrimental for victims.
Traumatised people don’t need to model citizens
Being traumatised, in whatever way, transforms an individual. It completely disrupts their idea of relationships and safety. Very often, coming forward about their assault can actually add to their trauma.
When a survivor of, say, sexual assault, comes forward — they are very often subject to victim-blaming. For example, a survey found that one in five believe a woman is partly responsible for rape if she is drunk. Many women are not believed, some are accused of trying to “ruin” a man’s life, and others are dismissed completely.
Women often report that police were unhelpful, dismissive, combative, and accusatory when they report their assault. This is especially true if they weren’t satisfying what society expects from a model citizen.
There is also the idea of a “model victim” — one that ticks every check box on how to be the perfect survivor. She must show just the right amount of emotion, she can’t be hysterical or it’s attention-seeking. She must report straight away or she will be accused of being opportunistic. They must be a model citizen or they might not be credible. She cannot be intoxicated because her memory will be flawed/how does she remember she didn’t consent.
This Goldilocks type dilemma is common knowledge for women, it feels impossible to navigate, and results in the majority of survivors not reporting, waiting decades to come forward, or pulling back once reporting.
It is important to note that while all women are affected by this, certain demographics are subject to much more dismissive attitudes despite being in much more dangerous environments. For instance, working-class women, women of colour, those in active addiction, and sex workers are much more susceptible to abuse whilst also being dismissed the most.
A more famous example of the perfect victim narrative would be that of the Yorkshire ripper. It is widely believed that misogyny was the sole reason that Peter Sutcliffe was able to continue his reign of terror across the North of England. Sex workers were seen as dispensable and women were blamed for drinking or going out alone. George Oldfield, the lead investigator on the case, referred to the murdered women as “pawns”. Jim Hobson, a senior detective, said; “We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. ”After Peter Sutcliffe was finally arrested, his murderous spree was described as a “mistake” by the mainstream media.
Replace the idea of a perfect victim with space for femme pedagogy
Our approach to victims of male violence should be less focused on men and their standards of women. We need a survivor-oriented approach that is underpinned by safety, choice, and empowerment. Yes, even the choice to make societally “wreckless” decisions — the same freedom that men are given.
Women should be able to drink, travel solo, walk home alone, and be on dating apps without the fear of her name being used to teach little girls why they shouldn’t do those things.
We need to change and decolonise Western feminist pedagogies — exchanging the systematic devaluation of femininity with one that puts trauma and women first. This would be the first step away from the victim-blaming, perfect victim narrative.
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