The Dangers Of Institutionalized Victim Blaming

Cologne’s New Year’s Eve festivities took an ominous turn shortly before the city of 1 million ushered in 2016, when over 120 women were surrounded, groped, raped, and robbed by hundreds of men in a coordinated attack during the final hours of 2015. In the days since, the German city’s main railway station has become synonymous with this mass sexual assault, and the world is watching as the city attempts to grapple with the social and political impact of the violence.

Multiple aspects of the attacks are being publicly criticized, including the abysmal lack of international media coverage, exceptionally ineffective police response, and disheartening kickback by the country’s far-right leaders, who are using the attacks to call for the immediate deportation of asylum seekers.

However, the “advising” comments made by the city’s mayor, Henriette Reker, during a press conference last Tuesday are as worthy of critique as the poor policing that led to Friday night’s dismissal of the city’s police chief.

In her comments, Reker publicly instructed the women of Cologne to maintain a “code of conduct” if they wish to avoid being victims of sexual assault. Reker went on to suggest that women “keep a certain distance that is longer than an arm’s length” from men, that they should travel in groups, and that they should inform police of any suspicious behavior as soon as it occurs.

Shortly after the press conference, thousands of social media users engaged with Reker’s comments with the hashtag “einarmlaenge” (“an arm’s length”), pointing out the victim blaming inherent in the mayor’s “advice,” with even the country’s justice minister tweeting that women are not responsible for their own attacks. The enraged response across multiple social media channels suggests that Reker’s inclination to put the onus on victims isn’t as palatable as it once was.

However, the sad truth is that Reker is far from alone in espousing such views. A few months ago, The Essex Police in the UK launched a poster campaign promoting the notion that victims are responsible for their own sexual assaults, and if they would only maintain a certain level of decorum, such violence would decrease. The message was clear: women need to be constantly vigilant, modifying their existence, if they want to avoid being drugged and sexually assaulted.

essex police

The police departments of Sussex and Norfolk counties were also recently taken to task for victim-blaming campaigns of their own. These deeply flawed messages are reaching university campuses and public spaces, leaving women assured that if we just change our behavior we won’t be raped.

And it isn’t just police departments that are problematic. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, for example, released an advertising campaign blaming women for their own alcohol-related rapes. Hungary took its rape myth messaging a step further by releasing an “informational” video telling women that when they flirt with young men they are “elicit[ing] violence.” And it feels like a week can’t go by without another judge foisting the fault of sexual assault onto the victim — even if she’s just a 14-year-old girl.

When police, venerated judicial leaders, and public health boards are so widely blaming victims for our own sexual assaults, the incensed voices on Twitter pushing back against all the individual and systemic injustices offer little comfort.

The reality is that Reker’s comments don’t live in a vacuum, and police campaign posters don’t just slough off telephone poles after a few days of heavy rain. The messages are blazingly clear, and have a devastating impact on how rape is reported, how victims cope with their sexual assaults, and the ingrained cultural attitudes that create a terrifying cycle of self-blame and non-reporting.

Rape culture and all of its associated misconceptions — from the public quotes of German mayors, to judges blaming 14-year-olds for their own assaults, to countless posters highlighting how women fail to prevent their rapes — all parlay into socialized stereotypes about rape, rape victims, and perpetrators.

And these stereotypes go a long way in convincing potential rapists — subconsciously or otherwise — that “Hey, if that woman is wearing a short skirt and throwing back the booze, I guess having sex with her is completely okay.” We only need to listen to a university rape chant or see a fraternity banner to be assured of the incredibly troubling, real-life impact of all these victim-blaming messages.

Problematically, women are almost exclusively the focus in the majority of sexual assault “safety” campaigns, granting men a global pass in dialoguing about sexual assault, making rape something that men don’t have to worry about, and leaving them out of the conversation surrounding prevention and consent culture. And when these sexual assault campaigns and messages consistently focus on aggressively policing the behavior of female victims, we are silencing, erasing, and devaluing the very real and abundant numbers of male victims.

Reker’s comments underline the way our contemporary cultures have collectively agreed that the only real victims of sexual assault are women who are sexually provocative, wearing suggestive clothing, likely drunk, alone and stumbling through dark alleys. These women are responsible for their own rapes, and anyone who doesn’t fit the poster campaign’s depiction of this victim are erased and ignored.

The impact of victim blaming is a double indemnity for those who have been raped. When, for instance, Essex promotes the idea that we need to watch our drinks, and then we fail to notice the sketchy behavior of an acquaintance as he drops a flunitrazepam into our vodka, we feel complicit in the assault that occurs after we pass out. Women are less likely to report sexual assaults when we are constantly being told it’s our fault, accounting for RAINN’s statistics that only 32 out of every 100 rapes are recorded by the police.

It’s fair to assume that police departments, who are often a rape victim’s first point of contact, are less inclined to take seriously the report of a woman in a short skirt who displays symptoms of intoxication if they were busy tacking up their victim-blaming posters prior to taking the victim’s statement. And indeed, research suggests that many cops are in fact skeptical when women report sexual assaults.

It’s clear that we have a problem. Reker and every other leader, police department, and judge who derails the real conversations about sexual assault with “please modify your behavior to avoid being raped” are perpetuating a destructive cycle. Instead of such dangerous statements, we need messages that promote a culture of enthusiastic consent like Rape Crisis Scotland’s “10 Top Tips to End Rape” campaign that flips the script on victim blaming, calling out rapists to, you know, not rape us.


Certainly, we are starting to see a change in rape culture, one that helped lead to Bill Cosby finally being arrested after more than 50 women accused him of sexually assaulting them, and a conviction for serial rapist ex-cop Daniel Holtzclaw. But the fact remains that we are still trying to be women in a world where our mayors, police, and rapists are blaming us for the attacks that are perpetrated against our bodies. Hold these leaders accountable: demand change by voting, write letters/tweets/emails, attend rallies, speak out, and share examples of victim blaming and other rape culture.

It’s not us. It’s them.


Lead image credit: flickr/Gabe Austin

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