What did she expect?

The facts are this: a young woman went to Rhythm & Vines. A young man there decided to grope her. She fought back. It was caught on video. And then the victim-blaming began.

(I’m linking to Newhub’s coverage of this, despite their BLOODY AUTOPLAYING VIDEOS, because their headline was one of the better ones, even if their Twitter account flubbed it).

Many will rush to object to my description of the events, because I’ve missed out the one factor that seems to have made this newsworthy: the woman in question wasn’t wearing a shirt at the time.

To them I say: poppycock.

Wearing a shirt has never been protection from assault. Wearing a full-length tracksuit or a burqa or a nun’s habit or probably even a spacesuit has never stopped men from choosing to touch women without their consent – consider Jen Brockman’s art exhibit, “What Were You Wearing?” (content note: discussion of specifics of sexual assault) which displays everything from bikinis to sports uniforms to businesswear, all worn by survivors of sexual assault, none serving as protection.

I’ve seen a lot of people condemn the young man, but add: “what did she expect?”

I can only guess: she expected to go out and have a good time. She expected grown men to be able to control where they put their hands. She expected to be treated like a human being with personal space and boundaries and the right to exist in public without harassment.

None of that should be unthinkable in New Zealand in 2018.

She probably didn’t expect a major New Zealand newspaper to publish the sneering criticisms of her made by Gable Tostee, an abusive Australian dickhead who was, at the very least, closely implicated in the death of another young woman and who has, at a minimum, acted like an unrepentant skidmark ever since avoiding any consequences for that.

But then nobody outside the Kardashian family should really have to worry about shoddy clickbait journalism before they leave the house in the morning.

What interests me in people’s responses is the line some draw, separating the assault committed against this young woman – obviously it’s terrible, he shouldn’t have done that, tut tut tut – and their own pearl-clutching disapproval of her attire, or lack of it.

“She should have covered up, though,” they say.

“She should try doing that in Dubai,” they sneer.

What did she expect, after all?

These are standard responses to any news about a woman being assaulted or harassed, especially in public. What they fail to understand – and get very indignant when you point it out – is there’s no line separating his actions and their criticism. There’s a line connecting them.

No man ever woke up one day and decided to pull a set of toxic, predatory attitudes towards women’s bodies out of thin air. No person ever had a lightbulb go off over their head and thought, “You know, actually I should just grab strangers without asking first, that sounds like fun.” We are products of our environments, and our attitudes and reflexes are products of the attitudes and messages we encounter in society. That’s basic psychology, sociology, anthropology and life.

Our attitudes to women’s public nudity (or public frivolity, or public breathing) and sexual assault boil down to some very basic principles:

  1. Women are fair game, especially if they’re acting “improperly” (drinking alcohol, wearing revealing or no clothing).
  2. Men cannot control their own actions.
  3. Therefore, women must take steps to ensure men don’t act in abusive or violent ways.

People don’t want to see it. They protest: “I’m not saying she’s to blame, but whatdidsheexpectwouldhappen?” and “Of course he shouldn’t have grabbed her, but sheshouldhavecoveredherselfupinpublic!” The condemnation is almost reflexive. “I wouldn’t have dressed like that,” they declare, as though the patriarchy will reward them with safety.

But there’s no wall insulating the criticisms levelled against this woman (or any woman). They have clear implications, and demonstrable impact on broader society. When you say, “what did she expect” or “she should have covered herself up” the obvious, only sensible meaning is: she should have expected assault and changed her behaviour – covered herself up – to avoid it. Which means in turn: it was her fault for not avoiding it.

Women hear this, every day. And as many as 91% of sexual assaults are never reported to the Police. Coincidence? Apparently.

Men hear this too. And what do we expect them to do if they’re told every day, “you don’t have to have impulse control, women should manage your behaviour for you”? If they see a guy get smacked for groping a woman and all of Facebook tells them, “well the problem is she wasn’t dressed properly”?

It would still be assault if she’d been dressed “properly”. “Properly dressed” women are assaulted every day. Because there’s always another reason why he couldn’t stop himself, and another thing she should have done to stop him.

The person responsible for assault is the person who commits assault. And this guy committed assault. And he could have stopped himself. And it is our job, as members of the society he lives in, to send that message.

And stop treating walking garbage heaps like Gable Tostee as celebrities.

The eternal name suppression debate

Name suppression cases are always a good conversation-starter in NZ. There are the (to me) very clear-cut cases where giving the accused name suppression is necessary to protect the identities of their victims – though some anti-suppression diehards don’t even think that’s ethically okay.

On the other hand I can’t get past the fact that New Zealand has an incredibly small, infinitely inter-related population. Either “everyone knows” who the people involved are – or at least a broad circle around them – or, as we’ve seen in previous cases, enough people who match the description publicly deny it’s them, which narrows down the field considerably depending on their geographic location, career, or other affiliations.

This one, however, doesn’t have the “protection of victims” aspect:

The son of a New Zealand rich-lister has won a fight to keep his name secret after he allegedly punched a female police officer in the face.

The police officer suffered a black eye, serious swelling to her face and needed hospital treatment.

The man was charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, assaulting a security guard and damaging a window during the March 26 incident outside the popular Dunedin student haunt Shooters Bar.

On Tuesday, Judge Anne Kiernan ordered that the man’s name be kept secret for the next three weeks.

Details around that hearing have also been suppressed, but it can be reported that Judge Kiernan found publishing his name could prejudice his right to a fair trial.

It does, however, involve that red rag to an online commenter bull: a seemingly straightforward case where the only knowable fact about the accused is that his family is rich.

Name suppression until trial seems fair enough. The interesting part will come after that. As the article states:

Previous controversy around high-profile offenders prompted a 2010 Law Commission report in which the Government overhauled the rules for suppressing names and evidence.

It found there is no grounds for suppression based solely on the fact a defendant is well known.

But that’s always the suspicion when someone rich/famous/related to someone important is involved. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if this case sparks another round of the name suppression debate.

(On a side note, the Herald article is a fascinating study of how the word “allegedly” is used in reporting of crimes which haven’t gone to trial. After all, the young man may not be officially guilty of assault under the law, but the security officer involved presumably didn’t sustain “bruising, swelling and tenderness to his left eye and a cut to the elbow” from out of thin air.)