Victim blaming. The insidious, cruel habit of saying ‘yes, but’ about a woman who has been sexually harrassed or assaulted. It’s the sex offender version of ‘whataboutery’, and one of the most effective ways of spreading confusion where none should exist. I was accused of it during a conversation on my LBC radio programme and I’ve thought long and hard about that since.
I was speaking to the author Naomi Wolf, after inviting her to discuss reactions to the revelations and allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein. For days beforehand, I’d seen accusations of victim blaming being levelled at people who, in my view, were doing no such thing. Now it was my turn.
The proper and overriding reaction to Harvey Weinstein can only be total disgust at him (pretty straightforward), and total sympathy for any woman harrassed or assaulted by him (not difficult at all), but if you then stray outside of these parameters and have additional things to say about women’s choices, or about which cultural and personal norms contribute to the continuation of this appalling behaviour, you are accused of victim blaming. This reflex makes life easier for the Weinsteins of this world, because the discussion stays in the room in which the abuse took place. Every predatory man in the world will celebrate that.
On air, I had invited calls on the question of what damaging reality exists in a woman’s mind/ heart/ body that when a sexual crime is committed against her, she turns it inwards on herself and stays silent. (Some didn’t of course. ) I wanted a conversation about changing things so that men like Weinstein have less chance to thrive. I wanted to ask what twisted norms we are handing down to our female children that they will regard this crime as the one they must absorb, not report. Give them a voice, fame, success but never let them say what happened and demand respect. For every woman who did speak up about him assaulting her, there were multiple female and male voices saying ‘Shush… don’t risk it… too dangerous’. What’s the point of using words against a man and a world which prefers to operate in the shadows?
I cited two famous actresses both of whom spoke publicly last week about inappropriate behaviour from Weinstein when they were very young, and both of whom went on to pose with or for him as much older, fully independent women. To wonder why is not to think ill of them. Does some psychology of fear and servitude exist for a woman to tolerate his company in this way? Or was it just good manners? Ambition? Either way women must ask why and to do so is not to victim blame. It is to suggest there is another way.
For much lesser offences I have stopped a number of people from ever coming near me again so I was interested in where that sense of powerlessness comes from and where it exists away from Hollywood in more ordinary lives. Much like domestic violence, until we understand why girls and women stay with violent men, we can never properly arm them against such men. My aim was to have a conversation about, forgive me, ‘Girl Power! Personal Power!’
No human injustice ever ended through silence. That is not to say speaking, shouting, suffering, for the cause is easy, but the scale of harrassment and assault is huge. Every woman knows that because most women have been harrassed or attacked. It is a social injustice like any other so speaking out and acting forcefully and together must be our response. The law, politics, the workplace needs those voices if this is ever going to change.
To my horror, Naomi Wolf spent the whole interview telling me I was blaming victims and, worse still, that I was deaf to the fact.
I am not. I passionately believe in girls and women being free to flourish and exercise their full selves in the world. That must include examining what they do in fear, and why they do it. It must include teaching them how to navigate the world of the sexual ‘weirdo’ and point out to them that he is in fact as much a criminal as the guy who steals your purse, only what he wants to steal is your happiness and self respect, your light. That is the opposite of victim blaming. It’s the first step towards moving the narrative from ‘woman’s shame’ to ‘abuser’s name’.
Wolf’s Guardian article the morning after she joined me on LBC was brilliant and all about what women must do to be heard when they are harrassed or attacked. I repeat, It was all about what women must do. That’s what my conversation on air was meant to be about too. What women must do in order to be the authors of their own story, even when the monsters of this world do their best to write it for them.
Not victim blaming, Naomi, just getting clear in our minds what it means to be respected and what we should do when we are not.