Changing the Victim

How we focus on women when men are at fault.

Posted Jun 03, 2016

This past week I was teaching a class in social policy to graduate students and we had a discussion about the role of gender in the delivery of social services. There was a case study on domestic violence. Some of my students had worked in the field of intimate partner violence and I asked them to think about the where, and with whom, we intervene and why. The conversation that followed inspired this post.

Why Did She Stay? What Did She Wear? What Did She Do?

Social work is supposed to be about social change but social change does not happen case-by-case, woman-by-woman. As a culture, the reaction to one more woman's murder by a present or past intimate partner, is always one of "Why did she stay"? Even as collectively we shake our heads at one more man doing what we seem to accept that men will do.

The worldwide 'Take Back the Night' movement was started by women and is 'inclusive of men', but men are not the focus. It is about women being brave, about women telling their stories of pain, survival and victory. Men get included as 'allies', not central to the story, but in support of the women's efforts. It can be argued that male privilege means that we as women are central to our story, but perhaps that male privilege needs to become male responsibility.

The very popular 'Lean in' movement, created by a very powerful woman (Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook), is all about women changing and adapting to what seems to be a default 'male environment', and not about changing men's discriminatory and socially exclusionary behavior. 

In women's desire to create social change we have focused on ourselves. And there is a good rationale for that of course, because changing ourselves is 'easier' than changing someone else. But perhaps, in focusing on ourselves we have let men off the hook.

Changing Women, Changing Men

Of course, there is nothing 'wrong' with inspiring and motivating women to challenge the negative impacts of patriarchy on their psyches and their lives. Nor is there anything wrong with male allies supporting women's efforts to liberate themselves from male oppression.

Why is working with men an 'add-on'? The strategy for behavior change on the part of men is all about 'the stick'. Culturally we wait until a man has committed an offense before we intervene. Once a woman has been violated, men are consequenced and given the opportunity to change. But there is very little primary intervention.

For generations men have been taught that a 'real man' does not hit a woman and yet men hit women all the time, and with very little social accountability. For an event as widespread as intimate partner violence, many of us shake our heads and get angry. But though we disapprove of the behavior, there are not a lot of long term social costs for men.

Even in sex scandals, no matter the circumstance, men go on with their lives while women continue to wear the 'scarlet letter'. Both Monica Lewinsky and Paula Broadwell have spoken out about how long it takes for them to throw off the stink of scandal, while the men go on to bigger and better things with their misbehavior forgiven, if not forgotten.(Petraeus is now a partner in an equity firm and Clinton got a second go at President).

In the recent case of the rape of an unconscious woman by Brock Turner at Stanford, Brock's father argued that his son should not have his whole life destroyed because of '20 mins' of his life. The victim argued that she was questioned about the clothing she wore, as if that had anything to do with her rape. The outrage in response to the relatively light sentence (6 months in jail and 3 years probation for 3 felony counts of sexual assault) is encouraging, as it reflects shifting norms about the accountability of males in what is now called 'rape culture'. Judge Persky said that Turner had "less moral culpability" because he was drunk. What?! There are calls for Judge Persky to be recalled from his uncontested renewal of his term.

Lean Out and Give Back the Night

Why isn't there a 'Give Back the Night' march consisting of men who push for making the streets a safe place for women? Why aren't men being asked to 'Lean Out' and let women speak? Why isn't there a 'friends don't let friends assault women' campaign?

In focusing on women's behavior, the victim becomes the focus of change. As if somehow it is the woman who needs changing so that she does not get hit again. As if it is all about her 'poor choices' and not about the 'bad behavior' of the male perpetrator. I acknowledge that there are the beginnings of a 'men's movement' that include groups like Good Men Project, but they are not yet 'mainstream', nor are they taking to the streets or writing bestsellers that inspire other men to action.

As a feminist I am passionate about the collective action of women that is needed to change the world to make it a better place for us and for our daughters, sisters, mothers and friends.

But I am also a strong believer that the collective action of men is needed to change the social norms for our sons, brothers, fathers and friends; and not just as allies, but as the leaders of social change.

(Since the original post, Brock Turner was sentenced and as it is an example of the issue being discussed, I have revised the piece accordingly).