Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Victim Blaming vs. Not Being a Victim

A beloved friend became outraged at her parents recently. Well into her twenties, she assumes she’s in control over her life; but this week, Mom and Pop emailed her, warning about the risks of jogging around campus alone. “There is so much wrong with what they are implying—the sexism, the victim blaming,” she writes on Facebook. “They think my day to day decisions... are derivative of some impossible innocence that twenty-six years of life wouldn't choke out of a woman.”

I have every sympathy with my friend. What adult would want, at 26, their parents second-guessing their basic sense of self-preservation? Surely they can see her experience, living away from home (far away, as it happens, studying internationally), can protect her from serious threats. And even if it can’t, who wouldn’t feel outraged to hear somebody suggest the consequences are their own fault? That isn’t how adults talk to one another.

Except, the longer I considered my friend’s situation, the more I circled back to Mia Zapata. Lead singer of a Seattle punk band, The Gits, Mia Zapata was massively influential in her area, without ever signing a major label contract. Though she never gained mainstream fame, she enjoyed notoriety in Seattle, and spreading outward, for writing songs about taking control over her life in ways men had long taken for granted. Later musicians have cited her influence over the 1990s-era Riot Grrrl movement.

Around 2 a.m. on Thursday, July 8th, 1993, Mia Zapata, age 27, left a club and started walking home. Her actions subsequently remain shrouded in mystery. Only one fact remains clear: an hour later, a woman’s screams alerted neighborhood residents, who ran to find Mia Zapata’s body in the street. She’d been beaten, raped, and strangled, her body left on a sidewalk. Her killer left little evidence, and her murder remained unsolved until a fluke DNA match to a complete stranger a decade later.

As my friend writes, it’s arrogant to assume Zapata was at fault for the circumstances surrounding her death. Nobody wants to die on the cusp of mainstream breakthrough, leaving a legacy unfinished and friends mourning the senselessness. Nobody asks to be murdered. It’s churlish to say the victim bears responsibility for the events surrounding her violent, untimely death.

Mia Zapata
Nevertheless, Zapata’s death had wide-ranging consequences beyond the music community. The Riot Grrrl movement, based on women becoming invincible by simply claiming their right, suffered a mighty blow when they discovered that a woman’s confidence doesn’t make her literally invulnerable. The Seattle music scene, riding high on runaway acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, shuddered at its peak, and never really recovered. Zapata’s death sent a spasm of fear through women nationwide.

It’s incorrect to blame women for violence they suffer. But that doesn’t mean women bear no responsibility for their safety. Sure, anybody can make a mistake, and opportunistic attackers will exploit any opportunity, so complete safety is never guaranteed. And when violence happens, fault always lies with the attacker, never the victim. We can agree upon that. But willfully risk-taking behavior carries the implicit possibility that risks will fail.

Consider the Brock Turner case. Turner attacked his victim because she made herself vulnerable. His actions were so heinous, the only witnesses were said to weep while giving their statement. Only a vulgar, reprehensible person would imply that Turner’s victim bears blame for his actions.

But her testimony reveals that she drank beyond her limits, a risk compounded, by her own admission, by no longer knowing what her limits were. Drinking alcohol among strangers is always risky, for anyone. That’s why victimizers notoriously ply targets with drink, to lower inhibitions and drop defenses. Turner’s victim isn’t at fault, but that doesn’t mean she never took irresponsible risks.

Mia Zapata walked Seattle’s downtown streets at an hour patently risky for anybody, man or woman, to walk alone. The old dad-ish saying goes: “Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.” Though she didn’t invite violence upon herself, she took an unnecessary risk. A skydiver doesn’t invite a failed parachute either, but takes the risk knowingly. Any liability lawyer would concur.

My friend shouldn’t have to live in fear, avoiding exercise because risks exist. But violent people really are out there, undeterred by law or retribution. If threatening bad people with jail, guns, or worse really worked, life would be beautifully risk-free. But they aren’t, and it isn’t. And it isn’t victim-blaming to say anyone, man or woman, shouldn’t accept needless risks when safe alternatives exist.

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