Victim blaming a thing of the past? Research suggests otherwise

22 / 05 / 2013

University of Melbourne academic Violeta Politoff has been investigating Australian media representations of violence against women. Her research suggests we have not progressed past ‘victim blaming’ as much as we would like to think.

A Slutwalk protest in Edmonton, Canada

It’s often suggested (particularly in ‘developed’ countries like Australia) that violence against women is not as serious as it once was, that it’s more of an issue in ‘other’ countries/cultures, and that victim blaming is no longer considered a valid mainstream point of view. For example, in 2011 the Age published an article criticising the SlutWalk protests (a global protest movement which began as a reaction to a Toronto policeman who said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”). The article says that:

“… SlutWalk, like its pretext, is a one-liner. The organisers insist the Canadian cop’s dodgy remark is indicative of a deeper problem and cry ”enough is enough!” I don’t entirely buy their exasperation; it seems a little forced. They’ve had enough of … what, precisely? Yes, too many people still have a blame-the-rape-victim mentality, but the tide is clearly against them.”

The article goes on to argue that law reform in Australia has mostly solved institutionalised victim blaming, and that mainstream opinion has turned against victim blaming because “the ‘no means no’ concept has been thoroughly explored in pop culture, from Jodie Foster in The Accused to countless TV cop shows.” Unfortunately, after extensively researching media coverage of violence against women, I can say with confidence that victim blaming continues to be a problem – and not just for a small minority who are going ‘against the tide’.

Professor Jenny Morgan and I, in collaboration with VicHealth, have been researching this issue. Our 2012 report shows that, while explicit victim blaming is rare, 17 per cent of 2007-2008 articles from The Age and the Herald Sun covering violence against women include details which could imply that the victim is (at least partially) responsible for enabling the violence (e.g. taking a ride from a stranger, drinking heavily, etc.). Similarly, our research on coverage of sexual assault shows that 16 per cent of articles in our sample include commonly held misconceptions about rape, or ‘rape myths’. Among these are problematic ways of understanding consent, and suggestions that women often lie about sexual assault.

After establishing this baseline data, we wanted to see how sexual assault was represented in high profile cases – stories which receive high levels of coverage and commentary. We decided to consider the representation of sexual assault allegations against well-known sportsmen. Not only do these allegations receive large amounts of coverage, they are also cases where the accused is known to the public, and the (unknown) complainant is often young, and may have been willingly partying or drinking with the accused. Therefore, these cases tend to include elements which are often seen to suggest the complainant enabled the violence.

We found ‘Hard’ news stories are far less likely to include victim blaming elements than features, letters to the editor, or opinion pieces. When discussing complainants, often the stereotype of the footy ‘groupie’ is invoked – a stereotype which serves to undermine the veracity of the allegation. Statements like “The reality is there are women out there who do hunt footballers down, are prepared to have sex with them in nightclub toilets” (Herald Sun, 19/5/2009), and “I hate to let you know but there are some girls out there who are not that prim and proper (Daily Telegraph, 15/5/2009)” were common in discussions of allegations of sexual misconduct by celebrity sportsmen. Among the responses to ‘Spida’ Everitt’s shocking victim blaming tweet in 2010 was an op-ed piece in the Herald Sun which argues that “a post-grand final party after a bender is probably not the smartest place to find oneself in the early hours of the morning… women could also smarten up a bit about where they do and don’t find themselves… Save yourself the heartache, stay safe and know that you will never end up in a mess that could haunt yourself forever”. Although this author says at one point that sexual assault is never the woman’s fault, the story nevertheless suggests that if women were smarter about their behaviour they would “never end up in a mess”. We found these types of (often contradictory) sentiments to be depressingly common.

In spite of this there is something of a silver lining. While it’s disappointing to see victim blaming continue to hold any relevance in public debates, we did find articles which challenge these views to be relatively frequent. So it appears that while women’s behaviour continues to be scrutinised in relation to sexual assault (and these views don’t appear to be living outside the ‘mainstream’), at least these ideas aren’t going unchallenged. Thankfully there is SlutWalk, and a multitude of other outspoken organisations and individuals working hard to make sure victim blaming and rape myths don’t go uncontested. Finding that resistance to victim blaming also participates in mainstream discussions is motivating – and reminds us of the need to keep resisting.

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