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Raising girls in an unjust world



As the mum of a 13 year old daughter, I'm trying to prepare her for adulthood in a world that will, at times, judge her for being female. She's at the beginning of her adolescent journey, when the future seems to hold so much promise but also new dangers.

Girl faces woodsThe one that gives me pause, in the odd moment when I allow myself to think about it, is what I can tell her about protecting herself from bad men who might want to harm her, without scaring her into believing all men are potential rapists.

If nothing else I want her to understand that rape is a crime of power, violence and hate, and never the fault of anyone but the rapist. But I'm a pragmatic woman. I'll tell her not to leave her drink unattended, to avoid dark alleyways at night, and to ditch any fella that doesn't treat her as his equal.

It's a difficult course to navigate. There's something perverse about the culture of victim-blaming in our society when it comes to sexual assault.

No-one would suggest a fella who regularly lends a few bucks to his mates and is often seen shouting a round at the pub would deserve to have his wallet stolen. Yet, that is the logic behind women failing the 'good-girl' rape test, according to which unless she is a virginal damsel violently attacked by a monstrous stranger while picking daisies in her cloistered garden, she kind of had it coming.

Ideas of sexual promiscuity, provocative clothing, lack of respectability, and men's inability to control themselves when sexually tempted are all produced as 'evidence' of culpability leading to victim-blaming — the idea that a person shares responsibility for what happened to them. It is part of the reason why sexual harrassment and assault reporting is so low in comparison to other crimes, and plays a part in the lack of successful convictions in Australia and elsewhere.

We know from research conducted over the last few decades that one of the reasons many people engage in victim-blaming is because they hold what's called the Just World Belief (JWB). That is, what happens to people is what they deserve. Good people have good things happen to them and bad people have bad things happen to them.

While the JWB can be useful in helping people feel safe and secure in their lives, it also leads to the simplistic judgement that if a person is raped, for example, they must have done something wrong to deserve it. Maybe she slept around, maybe she was purposefully wearing a low-cut top to attract attention, maybe she didn't say no loudly enough, maybe he was too effeminate.


"Accepting the reality that we live in a world where where bad things happen to good people, where rapists will look for opportunities to target women (and men) they perceive to be vulnerable, means we need to mitigate against risk."


This also (incorrectly) absolves the bystander from his or her duty to help, whether literally at the time of the assault, or later in terms of support, belief, and seeking justice. They can just shrug and say, 'Well, she was asking for it.'

Anyone familiar with the biblical story of Job will immediately recognise the problem with the JWB. Pious Job was a wealthy family man who, when his fortunes dramatically turned as part of a bet between God and Satan, remained faithful. Job's friends, however, couldn't understand how God could allow this to happen to Job, so they reasoned he must have done something really evil to deserve all the punishments lobbed his way. Job's suffering contradicted their JWB.

Whether you take the Buddhist view that life is suffering, the Christian view that sin has resulted in a broken world, the Islamic view that all that happens to us is ultimately outside of our control, or the Baha'i view that God allows tests to happen to spur our spiritual growth, there is no place for indifference and blame towards others.

At the same time, accepting the reality that we live in a world where injustice occurs, where bad things happen to good people, where rapists will look for opportunities to target women (and men) they perceive to be vulnerable means we do need to mitigate against risk, while still recognising moral blame for rape lies squarely on the shoulders of the rapist.

For example, we know that there is a link between alcohol consumption and both physical and sexual violence. In a January article for the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, William H. George and Kelly Cue Davis cite research demonstrating alcohol can exacerbate sexual aggression in violent men. 'Men with sexual assault proclivities may seek out bar/party settings as opportunities for heavy drinking, hooking up, and possibly engaging in sexual assault with intoxicated women,' they write.

Quite possibly some also seek out opportunities to engage in violent physical altercations with other men, which is why some Australian jurisdictions are experimenting with lock-out laws. It's not that that the resulting decline in assaults is because the morality of individuals has substantially changed, but because opportunities for those violent attacks has decreased. And, while a drunk lad who is coward-punched never deserved it, suggesting to our young men that limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding bars and clubs at closing time is simply sensible risk mitigation.

Similarly, we need to generally advise women to be aware that while they absolutely never deserve to be raped, the unfortunate reality is that there exist men with sexually violent proclivities who use certain modus operandi to seek victims, including plying them with drinks to incapacity (to give one example). Although it's not fair, women do need to take action to limit the risk of their exposure to potential crime. It's simply the reality of the unjust world in which we live.

I wish we lived in a world where I could tell my daughter she is free to wear what she wants, do what she wants, and be what she wants and noone would judge her for it, or hurt her for it. Instead I'm going to tell her that she doesn't live in that world and needs to act accordingly. Meanwhile we can spend our lives trying to bring that more just world into being.



Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, sexual abuse, rape, victim blaming



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Existing comments

How we learn to deal with painful situations, as women, is often a matter of good counsel. We cannot always control circumstance and we cannot always protect ourselves, or protect ourselves from judgemental attitudes. It can be particularly challenging for some men to overcome beliefs around equality and trust when a relationship has faced difficulties. It's important for women not to self-blame and to work for a more equitable world. I remind myself to value the good in a relationship and work to overcome the negatives.

Pam | 15 September 2017  

I remember, years ago, hearing an excellent talk given by a lady doctor who worked for the Commonwealth Medical Officer. She said most men incarcerated had serious psychological or psychiatric problems. Obviously being temperamentally inclined to violence is one of these problems. Some men may very well be this way, but, like a tendency to paedophila, the ailment does not excuse the crime. Obviously alcohol is a real problem with men like this. It may also help to turn down, even turn off, a woman's natural wariness around a man with felonious intent. Gender based anti-violence programs do not impress me as I think we need to focus on a certain number of men with these violent tendencies. Not all men are rapists by any stretch of the imagination but there are an awful lot of potential rapists out there. I think women can, and should, learn the danger signs; assertiveness skills and some practical self-defence like Krav Maga. Unlike the 'smashee plankee' sort of martial arts, which emphasise feats, KM is brutally practical as it was developed by a Jewish man in Eastern Europe in the 1930s for practical protection from fascist thugs.

Edward Fido | 15 September 2017  

“I wish we lived in a world where I could tell my daughter she is free to….” If, as the Bible says, we are not the owners of our bodies, nobody is free to wear what he wants, do what he wants and be what he wants. The woman who says she is free to wear a hijab, or to wear a hijab in certain circumstances only such as at worship or in the presence of men whom she does not know, is also saying that she considers herself unfree not to wear one in those circumstances even though there may be dissimilarly dressed women at those same circumstances claiming to be free to dress as they are. Unfree or free because of what? Not only God claims to own your body, the collective habits of other people do so as well: casual Friday is when an ethos expects you to wear casual clothes at work, ‘gay’ doesn’t mean joyful, Eric Abetz’s ‘Negro’ is ‘offensive’ (except to older ‘African-Americans’ who prefer not to be called ‘African-Americans’). “Meanwhile we can spend our lives trying to bring that more just world into being.” Actually, anathematising rules of compulsion of that just world.

Roy Chen Yee | 15 September 2017  

The sad truth, Rachel, is that the sexual revolution which has swamped Western Society over the last fifty years has altered all the once respected rules that governed male/female relationships and promoted sex as the norm to be had by all without restraint or intersex respect. Part of this revolution was the liberation of female sexuality equating it with the perceived male freedoms which were denied women (the Female Eunuch mantra of Greer and Co). Unfortunately the young learn from what they see and hear from their peers more so than from the perceived restraints imposed by their parents for religious or simply decency reasons. Parental and religious philosophies are submerged in the sexual cyberspace which is not always healthy, legal or conducive to respectful human behaviour between the sexes. I reckon the best that a parent can do these days is control the internet for their children and throw away the mobile smart phones with internet access

john frawley | 16 September 2017  

I remember reading what some parents give their children to remind them just how much they love them. https://img0.etsystatic.com/041/0/8995095/il_570xN.548988768_mk5u.jpg Nature versus Grace? Ours is the choice in all things. Including the way we express our ideas, love, hate, and critique the unjust world. Though Grace, like elegance, courtesy and finesse even when speaking about all things odious is always much more apt.

AO | 17 September 2017  

Thanks Rachel, It is as it is. I watch and wonder at my grand daughter's future as well. It's a fine line to tread, a balance which a mother seeks. It's a journey which brings joy and occasional anxiety. I wish you and your daughter much joy on her path to womanhood, hoping she finds her way with confidence, and reaches her potential safe and happy.

Joan Daniel | 17 September 2017  

I don't think you can blame the supposed 'decline in morals' ushered in by The Pill for the incidence of rape in today's society. Rape has been around from time immemorial. The so called 'Moral Nineteenth Century' - the time of Dr Arnold and his Evangelical 'Muscular Christianity' - was a time when London was full of child prostitutes. Don't tell me this was not sexual exploitation of women very much like today's sex trafficking. Up until fairly recently it was extremely difficult for a woman to lodge a rape claim with the police, who were mostly male and not trained to deal sympathetically with this. Women were also often browbeaten in court by defence barristers. Women's liberation has brought all this to light and changed things vastly for the better. What really worries me is the incidence of some of the dreadful online pornography made commercially in places like California, the UK and Germany which involves dreadful sadomasochistic scenes between supposedly consenting adults. Some people get addicted to this. Some think it 'normal'. There are disturbing instances of children watching this and trying to act out these scenarios.

Edward Fido | 17 September 2017  

My wife and I have raised two lovely women who are now making their mark in society ,one is married, the other yet to do so. While we were concerned for their welfare, I can't recall being overly concerned for their relationships with the male of the species. All the guys in their lives have been courteous and respectful. I feel sometimes that we vastly underrate our girls' ability to be aware and alert but not afraid. Thank God most men are not sexual predators, sadly the actions of the few damage the reputation of the whole.

Gavin | 18 September 2017  

Hi Rachel! Great to read this piece. Thank you. Alas, the world is risky for women and for all. I hope the young ones enter it with a new fearlessness, courage, than l knew 7 decades ago. Alas, again, it remains largely a man's world, with the bad boys running amok as we speak.

The Reverend Patricia Violette Bouma | 26 September 2017  

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