Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bad things only happen to bad people, right?

I've mentioned a few times that I've been assaulted on a bus a few months ago, and that when I do speak up about it I'm faced with a lot of victim-blaming bullshit. What I did not talk about was the fact that although I haven't just kept it to myself, I have not breathed a word of it to anyone in my family.

I haven't told my Grandmother because she worries enough about my taking the bus on my own, no matter what time of day.

I didn't tell my Grandfather because I didn't want him trying to buy me a car.

I didn't tell my Father because I knew it would make him sad, and even more frustrated that he had to move so far away. Also see above about car buying.

I didn't tell my Mother because I didn't trust her not to say something like "You KNOW you're not supposed to sit at the back of the bus when you're alone! You KNOW you should only ever sit at the front of the bus near the driver!" and descend into the worst victim blaming I would have faced yet.

It isn't that my Mother is malicious or would have thought I "had it coming"; it's that she thinks that it's possible to avoid these sorts of things, if only you follow these magic rules ("never go out alone" is the gist of it) and her magic rules largely reflect a deep misunderstanding about sexual assault and rape, and what actually motivates it. This mentality is sadly common, and I know it is common based on all the victim-blaming I have received when I've talked about it.

I understand the appeal of the just world fallacy. The world makes sense, and good actions net good rewards while bad and careless actions bring in bad ones. It also helps flatten and simplify the world so it can be explained to children. You should do good things so good things happen to you! If you do bad things the universe will come and punish you! You, and your loved ones, can be protected if you are constantly vigilant! When it comes to things like "look both ways before crossing the street" and practicing safe sex, these rules work better, but nothing is certain. This fallacy is as toxic as it is commonly believed. Not just because it is, often at its root, what causes victim-blaming, but because we internalize it. I almost got suckered into the cycle. I brought my assault upon myself, what, by being a woman and alone and sitting at the back of the bus and all. If I had been more careful I'd have been fine! I then promptly realized this was total bullshit, but it's a tempting thing, and it's one that makes it so much harder to heal. If you believe your assault is your fault, you get angry not at your attacker, or even the situation, but at yourself.

Like all fallacies, it's one that isn't terribly difficult to see through once you think about it, but we don't want to think about that one, because it's (seemingly) safe and comfortable. I don't know about you, but I think my imagined safety and comfort aren't worth maintaining a lie at the cost of other people's suffering and mental health. I don't think it's worth giving a culture that thinks it is on women to not get raped and not on men to not rape more power to perpetuate that belief.

Sadly the world is not a logical or sensible place. Bad things just happen, and no matter how careful a person is, it could happen to anyone. So next time you hear someone lament the cruelties the world has brought upon them and you find yourself about to tell them what they did to get there, think about it a little longer and harder first.*

*Yes, there are times when people bring shit upon themselves. Blow all your money on porn and candy so you went into debt? Sorry, that's all on you.


  1. I'm trying to decide if "everything happens for a reason" people are better or worse. In theory, they'd be less inclined to try to blame anybody, but more often or not they're the type who expect you to be happy about anything and everything, and that's still really annoying and stupid, not to mention a huge heap of wishful thinking. Lost your job? "This is just an opportunity for you! Why would you get depressed?" "Rape baby? Oh, you have to keep it! S/he'll change your life for the better, never mind the huge stresses and responsibilities of parenthood you didn't want!" You aren't even allowed to get pissed at little things. "Got splashed by muddy water flung from a car's wheels? Maybe you'll meet your true love in some rom-commish series of improbable events!"
    So (theoretically) less blaming, but invalidation of any negative emotion and, possibly, an attempt to restrict your choices. Maybe it's not better or worse, just a different variety of bullshit.

  2. well, in your mother's defense, she's from a different generation. That's just how things were back then for women. Walking alone at night wasn't necessarily "asking for it," but it was expected that something bad might happen to you. I was raised with that mentality-- my parents never let me out past 8pm, I had the same curfew until I ran away from home. I asked to take self-defense/martial arts lessons even as a young child and I was told no. I wasn't given pepper spray when I went off to college like my younger half-sister was. I was basically raised to believe that as a woman I was programmed to be a victim if I overstepped my social boundaries. Thanks to experiencing city life (Seattle and Spokane clubbing, especially), I developed a sense of confidence that our mother's never really got a chance to develop.
    Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why you wouldn't tell your family about this (I have never told my family about anything that happened to me), but it's especially hard when you already know how they'd react.

  3. Walking alone at night wasn't necessarily "asking for it," but it was expected that something bad might happen to you.

    That's still how it's treated today, and it's still technically accurate in the sense that sometimes bad things do happen to people in those situations, but it still doesn't make it the victim's fault, which is the point here. Everyone's still being told that if they get assaulted, especially if it's in a Designated Scary Zone like 'outside at night' or 'the back of a bus', it's only because they let themselves get into that place. Saying it comes down to a generational difference is basically writing off everyone over age X as being incapable of learning new things, isn't it? And it's not like these concepts (calling it the just-world 'fallacy', or identifying victims as not being responsible for their victimiser's actions, were invented in the 90s.

  4. I think they're still related. I have yet to meet someone so dedicated to "Things happen for a reason" that they'd bust it out on a rape, but I could write a whole other post about people's obsessive/instinctive reaction/need to try to make a situation seem less awful, no matter what. People are not good at just saying "I'm sorry that sucks" and I think that's what the "things happen for a reason" stems from, people feeling the need to try to find the good in an awful situation. It still leads to invalidating some very real and traumatic emotions and fears, however, which is all sorts of not-good.

  5. I think part of what contributes to the just-world fallacy is that human are generally pretty rubbish at figuring out which consequences can be traced to a person's own actions, and which consequences are the result of someone else. Sign for a $5000/month mortgage when you only make $2500 a month? That one is probably on you. (Not always, though.) Signed for a modest mortgage, then had it jacked up by your bank to unreasonable costs because they didn't want to lose money on their gambling? Not your fault.

    Same with these things. People have a right to bodily autonomy. If someone violates that right, it's on them, not on the victim. Problem is, a lot of us are stuck in a values system that insists that certain classes of people are responsible not just for themselves, but for everyone else around them. Which well and truly sucks, and provides an easy out for victim-blaming instead of fixing the problem.

    We're sorry that you don't have someone in your family that you can tell the encounter to.

  6. Agreed. Also, when we cut some people slack for bad behavior-- in this case, older folks-- it both makes it look harmless/quaint, and makes it seem more acceptable. Oh, it's no big thing, it's just like when my mom calls me because she's got a virus in her internet. Oh, it's no big thing, because good people are doing it, and good people don't do bad things (Ta-Nehesi Coates has a great piece about this at NYT right now). When we excuse people who do hurtful things, we normalize that hurt and we don't make progress, even if we're hip young people whose brains haven't ossified yet. And that's not okay. I understand that people are seeking to explain why good people they trust do these things, I'm just not very interested in the why, because the people being hurt are more important.

  7. I agree with you, although I would like to think that everything is part of a Master Plan (which also doesn't exclude personal choice/fault, but that's another thing). That is not to justify bad things happening and I have no idea what that Master Plan is, but if would just go around thinking 'The world is a bad and sick place where bad things happen to good people constantly with no rhyme or reason and bad people go on unpunished,' I would be constantly depressed and probably suicidal. And I am not trying to justify your horrible experience or anything like that, yet I would like to believe that the person who did this to you would get punished by the universe.

    And as far as victim-blaming, pretty much everyone around me does this SO well. Not even in a hypothetical situation can I explain 'No, it's NEVER the victim's fault.'