Blaming blame culture


Over the weekend I saw this peaching-to-the-converted piece by Nick Cohen in The Observer. Lamenting the UK’s shameful rape conviction rate of around 6%, Cohen placed most of the blame on the jury:

A representative sample of the people who pass them [men] in the street, takes their account of themselves literally and says that, if the defendant is really so brassy and sassy and in control of her life, then rape isn’t the responsibility of the rapist and the victim must pay.

Sadly, Cohen is not exaggerating. The UK’s blame culture is still in full swing when it comes to rape. In 2005, Amnesty International published statistics showing that 30% of Britons believe a rape victim would be partially responsible for her ordeal if she was drunk, dressed provocatively, or had had several sexual partners. Of course, here the obvious issues would be defining how drunk is drunk, what constitutes provocative attire and how many sexual partners are ‘several’ or ‘too many’.

The courtroom also provides the arena to drive this blame culture home: speaking at a public trial I attended in early 2008, rape victims affiliated with Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, north London, called their violating and intrusive court cases ‘a second rape’, a process they would rather not repeat were their ordeals ever to happen again. The bottom line seemed to echo ‘you’re asking for it.’

China is sitting in the same trap. One recent example comes from the light sentencing of two civilian police assistants charged with the rape of a young girl in Huzhou, Zheijang province. Their case garnered attention because the judged ruled the crime a “temporary” one that occurred “on a whim.” The judge ruled that, although the two officers had raped the teen, having wined and dined her and then taken her back to a hotel to allegedly “let her sober up”, the act itself was never a part of their game plan. Plus, since they turned themselves in, they were in the market for a fair amount of sympathy. Crucially, their crime was treated as a spontaneous and whimsical time-filling activity, trivialising the domination, intimidation and horror embroiled in rape itself.

Examples of blame culture were evident in the rampant discussions that followed the news of this “temporary” (i.e. not pre-meditated) crime. Blatant misogyny was found on various blogs and comment boards, with the victim being told she was a ‘bitch’ who ‘had it coming to her’, and that the case sat in a sexual act twilight zone, blurred by the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by all involved. Alongside such comments, however, were also instances of outrage at the judge’s sentencing. One contributor from Tianya wrote,

the law has become a plaything in the hands of judges. Being born in a China this terrifying is too frightening.

Of course, my comparison can only go so far since the social realities for women in China and women in Britain are vastly different. The gender inequalities suffered by women in the PRC are far more blatant and less widely challenged than those in the UK. For instance, the concept of face bears a heavy weight in China: a colleague told me about a domestic violence crisis centre that had opened in Beijing last year, but due to shame and embarrassment embedded in a far wider socio-cultural context, no victims came forward.

Yet, the two countries also share the reality that rape is a topic so often trivialised by a lack of understanding and an immense stigmatisation of women, providing a fertile ground for a blame culture to blossom. This is our twenty-first century version of reinforcing female subjugation and limiting female social mobility: if women are blamed for rape due their alcohol intake, the freedom to dress as they wish and the illustriousness of their sexual past, then they are subsequently being confined even further into boxes of ‘appropriate behaviour’.

This is not to say women are or should be void of any responsibility. On the contrary, we need to understand and respect ourselves and our bodies by being in control and not putting ourselves at risk. We should know how much Grey Goose it takes for us to become paralytic.

But with this comes an even wider responsibility on the part of society to draw the difference between sex (i.e. consent on both sides) and rape (i.e. domination and control on one side over the other). In China’s case, of course, this is easier said than done, given that sex itself is a topic so rarely discussed (unlike in the UK), and sex education remains drastically poor (not too dissimilar from the UK). Online, however, more liberal attitudes and curiosities have a chance to run wild, as shown in this recent, if tasteless, series on chinaSMACK. The online arena, away from traditional social constraints of offline life, may well provide an environment for more diverse understandings to germinate.

All this talk may be purely hypothetical; there is clearly a lot of work to be done in breaking down gender barriers and pointing fingers on both sides of the globe. In theory, a deeper awareness of the severity of rape could deter us away from an all-too-easy blame culture. But in practice, we continue going around in circles bordered by misogyny and trivialised understandings.