Blaming the Victim: Been There Before
posted by Danielle Citron
Let me build on Professor Franks’s incisive post on the blaming-the-victim response in the revenge porn context. As Franks rightly notes, a recurring response to women’s suffering is to blame the victims. As I discussed here, cyber harassment victims are often told that they provoked the abuse by blogging in their own names, sending pictures to boyfriends, or writing about sex. The public said the same about domestic violence and sexual harassment. Society minimized the culpability of the abusers and maximized the responsibility of victims to justify those practices. Law certainly was not necessary to address them. Then, as now, the public refused help to blameworthy women.
Before the 1970s, society tolerated abuse of so-called “recalcitrant” wives. The public’s attitude was that the battering was justified by the wife’s provocations. The notion was that if the woman had been a neater housekeeper, a more submissive helpmate, or a more compliant sexual partner, “her nose would not have been broken, her eye would still be uncut, [and] bruises would never have marked her thighs.” Judges and caseworkers asked battered wives to accept responsibility for provoking violence, rather than assessing their abusers’ conduct. The solution was to “fix” battered women. Social workers advised them to clean their homes and have dinner ready for their husbands when they arrived home from work. Consider a judge’s response to a man’s beating of his wife. While before the judge, the man said he hit his wife because of her unkempt hair, unsatisfactory cooking, and nagging because he refused to take her out. He told the judge: “Look at her. I wouldn’t take her to a dog fight.” The judge agreed. He determined that “straightening out the situation” required the wife to improve her appearance. Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy Against Family Violence From Colonial Times to the Present (Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 136. Psychiatrists supplied a medical diagnosis for the experience of battered wives. In esteemed medical journals, researchers claimed that wives suffered from “feminine masochism” that drove them to goad their husbands into beating them because they derived sexual and psychic pleasure from abuse. In other words, women enjoyed the humiliation. Police officers refused to arrest batterers because their wives brought on the abuse. In the mid-1970s, police training guides tended to portray battered women as nagging or domineering and instructed officers that removal of the abusive husband would be unreasonable if that were the case. The public also ignored domestic abuse because women failed to leave their abusers. Judge Richard D. Huttner, the administrative judge of New York City Family Court, recalled a colleague’s reaction to domestic violence victims: “Why don’t they just get up and leave? They have been taking these beatings all these years and now they want me to intercede. All they have to do is get out of the house. What do they want from me?”
The “blame the victim” sentiment pervaded the response to sexual harassment. The traditional view was that women belonged in the private sphere, the home. Women entered the public sphere, the workplace, at their own risk. Society insisted that women invited their supervisors’ sexual advances by dressing provocatively and flirting. Employers said that female employees were “responsible for at least some of what happened.” In the 1970s, a broadcasting executive justified sexual harassment in his workplace: “You know, some women dress so that people look at their breasts.” Courts legitimated this view by permitting employers to argue that women invited employer’s sexual advances. Society refused to take sexual harassment seriously because female employees had the chance, but refused, to change supervisors or jobs. Female employees were told that they bore responsibility for their predicament because they stayed and risked more harassment. Their failure to leave was proof that supervisors’ sexual advances were not unwelcome. In a Redbook story about Congressman who hired female staffers because they agreed to provide sex to them, reporter Sally Quinn criticized the women as failing to stand up for them selves. She described the women as “choosing to compromise [their] bodies.” Sally Quinn, “The Myth of the Sexy Congressmen,” Redbook, October 1976: 96.