Victim-blaming on our campuses: unacceptable and unsurprising.

The second that writing about the way police treat university women seems out of date, overblown, or archaic, a story like this comes along. After reading about the (certainly less explicit, but nonetheless problematic) police response to a string of sexual harassment in Halifax, my friend Hayley and I felt like we should give some concrete explanations of what rape culture looks like. But were we being silly? Do we live in a post-victim blaming society? Nope. Clearly not.

Recently, UNews reported that a mysterious south-end hair sniffer is parading through the Dalhousie neighbourhood.

In response to one victim’s experience running away from the attacker, Constable Brian Palmeter commented, “the woman did the right thing by fleeing the suspect and finding a safe area to call for help.”

One student said she was surprised because she was “under the assumption that this was a really safe part of town.”

We feel like these comments demonstrate the ineffective way sexual assault is looked at in the Dalhousie community, and in Halifax in general. We’re ready to talk back.

HG: First of all, Constable Palmeter’s idea that a victim can do a right or wrong thing is victim-blaming. It perpetuates the idea that a woman must run away (as opposed to any other action) if she wants to have done the right thing, and be a ‘real victim’.

KT: What would the ‘wrong thing’ have been? We have the right to tell people when their behaviour is not okay. Women who confront assault have started sharing their experiences at, a worldwide movement to end street harassment. Their stories show that sometimes, perpetrators of harassment do stop when confronted. Clearly, running away isn’t the only “right thing”.

On the flip side, some women are coerced, manipulated or forced into situations where running is not an option. Why would we imply that they’re doing something ‘wrong’ when they are the victims of the crime?

HG: I also take issue with the idea that the South End is a safe neighbourhood. Halifax generally divides its communities into “Safe” and “Unsafe”.  Safe neighbourhoods are ones with well-to-do students from Toronto.

We label low-income communities in Halifax, like the North End, as zones where it’s okay or expected for sexual assault to happen. This perpetuates racism and classism: people who can’t afford to live somewhere else, or don’t want to, but experience violence are ‘asking for trouble’.

KT: That same safe/unsafe divide you talk about creates another big problem. When we say that only some people rape, we discredit many women’s real stories and experiences with sexual assault. White, middle-class students all throughout the South End are capable of sexual assault. Women who’ve experienced assault have their credibility snatched from them when we insist that ‘that sort of thing doesn’t usually happen here’.

KT: Constable Palmeter also told people to to “be more aware of your surroundings”. This prescription is particularly haunting in context of the assault. The woman was walking past the local school at dinnertime. She wasn’t in a situation which would render her particularly ‘unaware’ of what was going on.

HG: Clearly from this incident, we can see that sexual assault can happen to anyone at any time. Palmeter’s statement perpetuates the idea that women are sexually assaulted because they are doing something wrong, such as not paying enough attention.

KT: Perhaps Palmeter forgets that women are constantly taught not only to be aware, but also to live in fear of their surroundings. If we walk instead of taking a cab, it’s not because we’re stupid. Living our daily lives is not a reckless activity.

HG: The sad thing is that women who read comments like Palmeter’s start to feel like they can’t leave their house at night, during the day, or ever, because it’s not safe unless they’re being walked home by a man.

KT: But the real irony is that women are more likely to be assaulted by the people they know! 68% of reported sexual assaults in Nova Scotia were committed by individuals known to the victim, according to 2005 statistics from the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

HG: I hate the concept that a police officer thinks they have the right to tell me how to protect myself.

KT: You’d think that with all the money we’re paying them to serve and protect us, they’d spend more time trying to find this guy, and less time telling us what to do.

Originally printed in The Dalhousie Gazette.

3 Responses to “Victim-blaming on our campuses: unacceptable and unsurprising.”
  1. relativisticgeologist says:

    I might be missing something, but I’m having trouble getting too upset about Palmeter’s comments. Victim blaming in cases of sexual harassment and assault is total bullshit, of course, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between moral judgment and practical advice, and Palmeter’s comments fall into the latter category.

    It is total bullshit to suggest that the victim’s actions somehow invited the attack, but once the attack was already in progress, it doesn’t sound all that antifeminist to me to suggest that there are some actions that can help avoid making a bad situation worse, and others which will tend to play into the hand of the culprit. Calling these actions “right” and “wrong” respectively is probably a bad choice of wording because it has problematic moral implications, but if that was Palmeter’s only sin then it doesn’t seem that grave.

    Some contemporary discourse on rape has concerned me somewhat because, in its admirable desire to avoid and take down the language of victim blaming, it tends to place all the onus for rape prevention on the potential rapists themselves. This is useful, and No means No campaigns have probably averted a lot of rapes, but I’m worried that this approach neglects to recognize that there are some people who don’t give a shit what “No” means, and will go ahead and attack women anyway. If the only weapon we have against these people is to demand that they stop, then we give them all the power. Accordingly, I don’t see anything wrong with the police saying what to do should one be unlucky enough to encounter such a person.

    I recognize that I am very much against the grain on this one, so it’s entirely possible that I’m full of shit. I just think that justified demands can only go so far in preventing violent crime.

    • katietoth says:

      I think that if we lived in a world where women weren’t constantly told to Watch Out! , your comments would be justified. But the fact is, we do. We’re frequently told to be aware of our surroundings, and that’s why Palmeter’s comments to be more so are both condescending and didactic.

      Also, as I wrote, there is evidence from every angle that shows that a whole diversity of behaviours **sometimes** provoke attackers to stop. Sometimes those behaviours make the attack more violent. Really, whatever potential survivors do to stop attacks is taking a shot in the dark. I’m all for them taking a shot, but it’s not Palmeter’s place to say “yes, I can see that you aimed correctly.” On the flip side, if it’s dark and you can’t find the gun, how is it his place to say “Hmm. Looks like you missed your mark on that one”?

      We don’t have to just blame victims or beg perpetrators to stop, right? We can also create communities where all victims are believed and where perpetrators aren’t given our tacit approval, where if something does happen, there’s a whole world of people ready to speak up about it and look out for each other.

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