Sexual harassment, victim-blaming and the future of Lopez | Guest column

Sexual harassment, victim-blaming and the future of Lopez | Guest column

Submitted by Erica Karnes

Any culture wherein sexual violence is upheld as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults is rape culture. And, for the sake of same-page definitions, consider ‘sexual violence’ as a term far broader than that of sexual assault. From false promises and insistent pressure to abusive comments and reputational threats, sexual violence includes all harmful and traumatic sexual acts. It spans unwarranted catcalls and non-consensual sharing of explicit images, unwanted advances and unsafe work environments. In short, sexual violence is any sexualized activity when consent is neither obtained nor freely given.

Rape culture then encompasses the sexual violence itself, as well as the cultural norms, institutions, and “processes” in place that promote and protect the wellbeing of assailants — all while blaming victims and shaming them into silence.

These women coming forward should have “Just said no” or “Asked for help sooner.” What’s more, they should stop speaking up, rocking the boat, and reminding those of us privileged enough to still subscribe to the idea that our community is safe, unbiased, and non-sexist of our own discomfort.

Victim blaming serves a two-part purpose: to falsely reassure individuals that something like sexual violence could never happen to them, and to paint survivors as different from themselves. Even our language surrounding sexual violence can subconsciously transfer our focus from the perpetrator to the victim:

Joe harassed Jane. – Framed within an active voice, it’s clear who is committing the violence.

Jane was harassed by Joe. – Now framed from a passive voice, Jane comes first.

Jane was harassed. – Notice Joe is omitted from the scenario completely.

Jane is a harassed woman. – Being sexually harassed is now part of Jane’s identity. Joe is not part of the scenario.

Victims aren’t responsible for any emotional labor—for convincing or comforting anyone else surrounding their assault. It’s not on them to tell and retell their accounts to an audience privileged enough to remain unconvinced, nor is it up to them to hold space for anyone else’s denial or discomfort. Victims are not our teachers. They don’t owe us anything. A community working towards dismantling rape culture would allow victims the time, support and reparations necessary to heal.

Rather than asking, “If this [harassment] was such a problem, why didn’t the victim come forward sooner?” we should be considering: What made the perpetrator think this behavior is acceptable? What systems and “processes” are in place that enables sexual violence to fester? How are we—yes, we—collectively contributing to a community wherein rape culture and sexual violence prevail?

Sexual violence is a pervasive issue that can’t be “fixed” by focusing on an individual situation. It functions within society as a means of asserting and securing power. Perhaps these recent issues coming to light are calling us to recognize that Lopez Island is by no means immune to that—and that our work lies in remaining curious, listening, and not dismissing victims based on our own biases.