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.