Don’t be a victim. We hear (and say) it in all kinds of contexts — protect yourself, we say, from identity theft, financial abuse, the stranger in the backseat, sexual assault. Hell, we even say it about Facebook’s exploitation of our data (there’s even a TedTalk now): delete it! Don’t take those little personality quizzes anymore! The internet will take us all down if we let it, and you’re letting it!
Regardless of the conversation, though, I’ve felt uncomfortable with how we view this word for a long time, since I was doing research for my graduate thesis (don’t worry, I won’t drag you too far down into that rabbit hole, but an overview is necessary for now). I was writing about how slaves subverted their masters, and later, how free blacks continued to challenge the system of oppression. All well and good, but I found myself hesitating to talk about it in some cases, because I’d start ideas with sentences like this:
“Slaves who remained on the plantation had their own ways of fighting oppressive structures; they weren’t passive victims of their circumstances.”
“On the surface, the character seems complicit in his circumstances. He might seem like a powerless victim, but isn’t.”
Something about these sentences left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. After all, it is important to highlight ways that people thwart really terrible power structures, and it’s also good to bring attention to under-acknowledged ways of doing so. But I felt weird about it, and couldn’t bring myself to use the word “victim,” so I cut it (and got my thesis published because of it! Ha…just kidding).
I’ve been mulling over these ideas more and more lately with the (you guessed it, this is another article about it!) Aziz Ansari conversations, but still couldn’t articulate why I felt so uncomfortable with the use of the word “victim” in these conversations (hint: it’s not because I don’t think our friend Grace is one), until today.
I was reading an article on Medium about the Aziz Ansari debate (which, frankly, I don’t think should even be a debate) called “A Tale of Two Dates: 15 Lessons from the Aziz Ansari Case.” In it, writer Lo Sharkey examines the grey area of these conversations. She notes that the debate is two-sided; we either believe that Grace’s experience was a bad date or that she was “the powerless victim” of “sexual assault” (Sharkey’s emphases). Sharkey argues that both parties in sexual encounters need to share responsibility for communicating their wants and needs, and provides us (both men and women) with 15 lessons on how to go about doing so.
Sharkey’s article has a lot of good, productive stuff in it, including the idea that everyone seems to be missing — that sexual violence, coercion, or assault is not, contrary to what we might believe, always about conscious power and control (sorry, fellow feminists, I’ll expand more on this later). As Sharkey put it, “It’s possible for Grace to have felt genuinely violated while at the same time Aziz genuinely (albeit mistakenly) thought she was into it.”
But where Sharkey misses the mark is in her description of victimhood. She writes:
Yes, Ansari’s behavior was unquestionably selfish, entitled, presumptuous, and clueless — it should be harshly criticized and all of us (especially men) should learn from it. But does this kind of bad behavior magically, surgically remove an adult woman’s sexual agency, her voice and her personal preferences? Should we be so quick to unequivocally call this “sexual assault” and Grace a “powerless victim”? Doing so risks infantilizing women and ultimately undermining the effectiveness of the critically important #MeToo movement (emphasis mine, read more here).
I have a lot of problems with this line — I’ll try to give Sharkey the benefit of the doubt regarding her use of scare quotes around “sexual assault,” but her tone toward those who’ve experienced sexual violence could use some adjustment, to say the least. It was when I read the bolded line above that I put my finger on what’s been bothering me for so long: that our aversion is not really about becoming victims, it is too often to the victims themselves. It is about our impressions of how they should have acted. It is about our need to tell ourselves that there is some power to be had in any circumstance; it is about putting “power” on a pedestal, about defining what we think power is and isn’t.
In our constant definitions of what power looks like in sexual encounters and even in our well-intentioned listicles to fellow women, we are criticizing people for being powerless, whether or not we are doing so intentionally. We are characterizing them as powerless; we are building powerlessness into their person, we are adding a qualifier, and one (actually, two, if you add “victim”) that we view extremely negatively. We are reducing them to a label and are therefore removing their humanity. Would you say, “don’t be like that person who was victimized?” No. But we say “don’t be a victim” all. The. Time.
And it really is starting to sound like, “don’t be like that.”
Don’t be like that victim.
Don’t be like Grace.
You don’t have to be a victim.
(As if we have a choice.)
To say otherwise is to acknowledge that victims are humans, with complexities and individual circumstances. It’s to acknowledge that, contrary to what endless listicles on how to approach men like Aziz Ansari say, navigating those individual circumstances isn’t something that’s so cut and dry. We don’t want to admit that sometimes, being in a position of powerlessness isn’t avoidable. We don’t want to admit that being in a position of powerlessness is not a character flaw.
When we say, “don’t be a victim” or talk about powerlessness and victimhood with a tone of disgust like Sharkey does, we effectively turn our nose down at people who have experienced victimization. But newsflash, people — we are not Grace, as we are not Aziz Ansari. We don’t know how we would have acted in those circumstances, and while we would like to think we would act differently, even enough to make a listicle out of it, no matter how benevolent our intentions, saying “I would act differently and so should you” is an empty-handed gesture (at least, when you’re talking to people who might be victimized in similar situations).
The way we’re talking about (and have always talked about) victims of sexual violence and coercion is with a holier-than-thou attitude. We’ve somehow turned the conversation about victimhood into a right or wrong debate, and it’s not one that positions being a perpetrator as being in the wrong. Instead, to be a victim is to do something wrong. To avoid victimization is to do something right. You felt violated because you were pressured into sexual activities that you showed (and said) you didn’t want? Shame on you. You should have left. You shoulda punched that dick.
You bit Ansari’s fingers when he stuck them in your mouth? Gold star.
The problem with this is that it isn’t wrong to be a victim. The problem, beyond everything I said above, is that we’re too focused on what it means to be a victim. We think that to be a victim requires complete and utter powerlessness. Some powerlessness isn’t enough for us to accept as qualifying as a victim. On the same token, we think that a “sexual assaulter,” as Sharkey writes to snarkily describe how Ansari’s been positioned, means that a person must be a villain, must be aware of what they’re doing, must be a sadist. In our overarching narrative about sexual assault being about power and control, we’ve taken that definition too literally — we think it means physical power and control, and that men who assault others only get off while knowingly (and physically) harming women.
What we’re ignoring is that many times, men might be abusing their power unconsciously, or that they get off from having emotional sway. They want a need met, and they’re going to try to get it met. They’re prioritizing their needs and are projecting their desires onto their partners. When there’s resistance — verbally or otherwise — they fight that resistance with persistence, because they see resistance as something to overcome. They’re using mental control to chip away at the women they’re victimizing, because if the women acquiesce, there is room for these very criticisms.
This is not a new idea, but sadly, it bears repeating yet again. Men who sexually assault others might not actually feel like they’re doing anything wrong, because we’ve all been told what rapists look like, and that definition certainly doesn’t include Aziz Ansari’s precious little baby cheeks.
And guess what? We are complicit in the ongoing victimization of women in these situations by condemning the very fact that they’ve been victimized, by scoffing at powerlessness when we think there shouldn’t be any. At this point, we are scoffing at any powerlessness, even that which we might think is justifiable, just in how we talk about it. In doing so, we are accepting the very narratives that we’re fighting: that victims can avoid being victims if they can just do something differently than other victims, that it can’t be that guy. He’s not like that.
Here’s where I want to propose that maybe the perpetrator isn’t always just Aziz Ansari or men like him. The perpetrator is our culture. The perpetrator is conversations like the ones we have after assaults that focus too heavily on what sexual assault looks like and how we think victims should have operated.
The perpetrator is, at least partially, us.
Until we start to see victims as fellow humans and each assault as an individual circumstance complete with complexities that we can’t understand because we weren’t part of them, we continue to contribute to the problem. If we keep framing powerlessness as a result of doing something wrong, we’re not doing anything to help those who have experienced powerlessness. Instead, we’re silencing them, because they’re telling us what we don’t want to hear: sometimes, he is that guy, whether he means it or not. Sometimes, we do experience powerlessness.
But experiencing powerless and victimization doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong. Let’s stop talking about it like it does.