Last week, speaking during an interview in the New York Times’ podcast, ‘The Daily’, to the journalist Megan Twohey, who broke the Weinstein story with fellow reporter Jodi Kantor in September 2017, Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney Donna Rotunno glibly claimed that she has never been a victim of sexual assault, In her words, “because I would never put myself in that position.” “I’ve always made choices, from college age on, where I never drank too much, I never went home with someone I didn’t know, I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstance ever,” she argued. Sure, her words sparked a public outrage, for not only being cavalier about survivors’ suffering, but also for deploying a worn-out misogynist trope — women are susceptible to sexual assault when they are not careful enough. This thinking perhaps, beyond the strict issue of legal calling, would justify Rotunno choosing to defend a serial predator accused by over 90 women of misconduct, apparently believing that the women opened themselves up for assault by not being careful enough and absolving Weinstein of any responsibility. This must be why she has reportedly made a career for herself defending high-profile men accused of sexual assault and rape with this default thinking about blaming rape and sexual assault victims for the violence against them. Only that such despicable thinking, suggesting that the onus should be on women to prevent sexual assault, is at best nauseating, dangerous and very misogynistic; placing the world dangerously on a slippery slope in which we continue to enable perpetrators. This is not an argument that should be made at all as it trivialises and minimizes the trauma of sexual assault victims while excusing the evil and bad behavior of the perpetrators. And to think that this kind of argument would come from a female speaks to the all too familiar issue of women perpetuating patriarchy by suggesting that women’s behaviour must change to make way for errant male violence, and how dire the consequences have become in recent times!
To be sure, sexual assault is the only crime where we focus on the victim’s looks and actions and not the perpetrator’s. It’s the only crime where we assume the victim should have done something to avoid the crime,— a philosophy Rotunno further pushed by asserting that women should stop drinking to avoid being susceptible to rape, forgetting that there’s no risk of rape, unless there’s someone around who’s willing to rape. The risk is not in the alcohol, neither is it in the dress worn or the place, thus Rotunno’s oft-used and poorly structured argument comes from a place of downright ignorance as most women, both in high and low places, who were sexually abused in the last few decades were neither vulnerable nor placed themselves in such situations as her flawed logic insinuated. These are simply arguments to transfer the responsibility of control and power from the perpetrator to the victim. For instance Elizabeth Smart recently disclosed that she was sexually assaulted on the plane last year. She said she was asleep during a flight when the man next to her began rubbing her inner thigh with his hand. In any case, Smart was neither drunk, nor improperly dressed as rape apologist would likely say, she was simply on a plane. What precaution would could she have taken to prevent that? Not board plane with men on the same flight?
Truth is, the idea that women have to take extra precautions to keep themselves safe is well intended but very problematic when applied to sexual assaults. Several women and girls have been told to avoid rape by not drinking alcohol, not wearing the wrong outfit, by not using headphones, always stick to well-lit streets and by not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Women do these things everyday in various tiny ways, yet, doing this has not stopper them from being harassed, assaulted and raped. For most of us, it’s even automatic especially when you’ve been made to live in fear, after an unsavory experience in the hands of a predator, responses such as crossing the street, doubling back, clenching our fists and walking faster happen instinctively. What is worse is that, the society does not just continue to encourage women to do these things but gives the impression that it is only by acting in such ways that women could prevent sexual assault, and thereby reinforcing the idea that it is women’s responsibility to keep themselves safe, not the perpetrators’ responsibility, not to harrass and assault them. In this wise, the line between encouraging women to avoid risky situations and restricting their behavior does seem foggy — which, unfortunately, is probably the reality of living in a culture that is still struggling with how to effectively address a rape epidemic.
In the end, we must face the reality that women are not responsible for awakening a sleeping giant within sexual predators just by existing, that’s their demon to slay; and by all means, rape prevention/intervention that appears to put the responsibility in the hands of women, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators is and would be hard to stomach since it is just missing the point and running away from where real responsibility lies. No matter where an assault happens, and no matter other factors like what the survivor was wearing or whether she was drinking that are also present, the only person who is at fault for what happens ultimately when violence occurs or a negative act is visited on the woman/girl is the perpetrator.
We must seek to create a society where girls and all young people can live and move freely, not constantly having to question their wellbeing or worry about their safety. While it is deeply disappointing to see a female attorney like Donna Rotunno voice such flawed and very misogynistic ideas, her comments are unfortunately not just restricted to those who may not possess a detailed insight into the kind of treatment and abuse that women are being subjected to globally. It is a widely held view that denigrates women and all victims of sexual assault that should be eschewed if we are truly concerned about the increasing pervasiveness of sexual assault against women. It is this kind of wrong argument and thinking that tells us that sexual harassment and sexual assault are the outward manifestations of skewed sociocultural power dynamics, such that as we continue to have these pertinent discussions about sexual harassment and assault, it is important that we focus on the power dynamics that forge and often sustain these abuses and address it appropriately.
Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.