Editorial: We’re still blaming victims

A recent study on Canadians’ opinions about sexual assault shows there’s still a long way to go in achieving equality of attitudes concerning women and men. The Canadian Women’s Foundation released the results of a survey last week that suggested a significant number of Canadians connect sexual assault to what a woman wears, how she behaves or what she drinks.

Nearly 20 per cent of the respondents believe that women may encourage or provoke sexual assault when they are drunk. Fifteen per cent believe women can encourage or provoke sexual assault by flirting with a man, while 11 per cent think women can encourage or provoke sexual assault by wearing short skirts.

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Let’s be clear about sexual assault — it’s a crime, degrading and damaging. Yet in the minds of some, it can be excused because “she asked for it,” or “she really wanted it” or “did you see what she was wearing?”

One of the most notorious recent cases of sexual assault took place in Steubenville, Ohio, last year. A teenage girl at a party drank until she passed out, then was repeatedly sexually assaulted by boys at the party, some of whom recorded the deeds on cellphones and posted details on the Internet. Two high school students were convicted of raping a minor.

Some of those who posted online comments blamed the victim, a not-uncommon reaction in such cases.

In the Steubenville incident, it was foolish of the victim to drink until she passed out — it’s foolish for anyone to drink that much. But that is no justification for those who assaulted her. The inability to say no is not the same thing as saying yes.

A person who robs a drunk is regarded as lower than low. Someone who sexually assaults an unconscious person is not always seen in that same shameful light.

It’s an attitude, still too much part of our culture, that regards a promiscuous man as a sport and a promiscuous woman as a slut.

In fact, this double standard is ingrained in our language. In a 1977 study, University of Nebraska linguist Julia P. Stanley found 22 terms in English for promiscuous men and 200 words for promiscuous women, all of them derogatory.

“The belief that women are responsible for sexual assault because of their actions or appearance is still common in our society and can cause women who have suffered abuse to stay silent and often feel responsible for what happened to them,” says Anu Dugal, director of violence prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “Canadians must stop questioning and blaming sexual assault victims and start asking why some men rape women.”

A person who is robbed of money or a cellphone can eventually replace the stolen items. A person who is sexually assaulted loses something that is difficult to replace, and organizations such as the women’s foundation work with victims to help them overcome often-crippling feelings of self-blame, depression, anger and fear.

The idea that some women bring this on themselves by their actions or appearance is abhorrent.

We tend to look down with smug superiority from our lofty Canadian perch on countries such as Pakistan and India, where victims of rape are seen as dishonouring their families or communities while perpetrators go unpunished.

But it’s sadly obvious we’re not entirely free of that attitude.

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