Pamphlets being handed out in some parts of Virginia tell women and girls, “even though nothing is showing, you’re being ungodly”. If that isn’t sufficiently obnoxious, the pamphlet goes on to tell them, “Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin. By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?”
With these last words, both those who wrote the pamphlet, and anyone who hands it out, leap right past obnoxious to outright despicable. There simply are no other words to describe people who blame rape on the victims themselves.
This story out of Bristol, Va., horrified me enough to ask, how typical this response really is. And what I found out is that with just a click or two on the Web, one can find tons of people making religious arguments to justify their blaming women for being raped. So whether this pamphlet represents the work of one person or an entire community, the thinking it reflects is real and and really ugly.
Of course there is nothing new about attempts to blame the victim for crime, and especially so in the case of rape. As psychologists remind us, it’s a coping mechanism. The logic being that if it is the victims’ fault and we do not behave like they did, then we will be safe. I appreciate the logic which animates that thinking.
Unfortunately, it’s simply false. And on top of that is both hurtful and dangerous.
Blaming the victim is hurtful because it degrades the experience of those who have been victimized e.g. if you had dressed differently, been stronger, behaved in a more circumspect manner, you would not have been victimized for being a woman, a Jew or gay. You see, it doesn’t matter the crime – a rape victim, concentration camp victim, or if your name was Matt Shepard, it’s all the same once we start blaming victims.
It’s also dangerous because blaming victims distracts us from pursuing and punishing the victimizers. So while the psychology offers an explanation. It by no means provides an excuse. And when it’s done in the name of God, such behavior is particularly ugly.
I want to be very clear: I am a father of three daughters who wear skirts to school every day because of the modesty rules observed by the Jewish school which they attend. I am also the husband of a woman who covers her hair in observance of her understanding of the same set of rules in Judaism. Perhaps that adds to why I find these pamphleteers so grotesque.
Choices about modesty are just that, choices made in light of one’s best understanding of how to mirror on the outside the beliefs that animate them from the inside. Skirts and head coverings are not armor against rape; they are expressions of values that animate our lives. Nothing more, and nothing less.
If anyone is “ungodly” it is the people who blame victims of sexual assault. They are animated by fear, heartlessness and downright stupidity which are not part of any God in whom anyone should believe.