Content warning: sexual assault
Don’t dress provocatively on public transport. Don’t walk alone at night. Avoid eye contact with strangers, always.
As a young girl in Turkey, I lived by these rules. On the news, there were always cases of sexual assault and femicide, in which women were harmed often by their intimate partners. From a young age, I learned that some men were dangerous.
Expressing my concerns to friends and family, they reassured me that the women on the news shouldn’t have gotten involved with such men in the first place.
“You know better,” they said. “You’re a clearheaded girl, and wouldn’t put yourself in that situation.”
In Turkish culture, “clearheaded” is high praise for a girl. It implies she’s sensible enough to avoid trouble and isn’t easily influenced by others. So at the time, these words flattered me.
During my senior year of high school, I briefly dated a guy whom I thought was very kind and respectful toward women, unlike many boys I had met before. But he soon showed me a different side of himself. The night after I ended our relationship, he sent me a series of violent messages in which he threatened to hurt me until I regretted breaking up with him.
Staring at these hateful messages, countless scenarios went through my head, each worse than the last. Suddenly, I was the woman in the news who had put herself in a dangerous situation. My reality had shattered: Perhaps the problem was bigger than women not being careful enough.
Flash forward to my first year at UC Berkeley where I learned that as a female college student, there were new rules I had to follow to keep myself safe, especially during college parties: pour your own drink, stay with your girlfriends and don’t get drunk.
After all their warnings, my American friends reassured me. “These things only happen to girls who aren’t careful enough. You know better.” Familiar with these words, this time I didn’t feel empowered. I felt afraid.
It took me almost 20 years to realize a flaw so deeply normalized in our society; once I gathered up the courage to connect the dots and look at the big picture, the pattern was obvious.
The sexual assault cases on the Turkish news or American college parties are not isolated incidents. Women constantly feel in danger and are taught that fear is normal, that it is their responsibility to change their lifestyles to be safe. When victims are held responsible for the actions of perpetrators, violence becomes the norm; the focus shifts from solving the problem to avoiding it. Sexual assault is deemed inevitable, yet women are told to evade it and judged when they cannot.
Victim-blaming has many forms. Some of its proponents entirely rob women of their autonomy, spouting nauseating beliefs such as “when a woman says no, she really means yes,” or “women love being forced into sex.” These unpalatable statements only serve men who think they are entitled to women’s bodies, and most times, are likely to be called out by people.
Yet more often than not, victim-blaming behavior is not as explicit, and women aren’t innocent of it either.
When we hear about a crime, we can easily put ourselves into the victim’s shoes, and wonder, “What would I have done differently?” Convincing ourselves that we would have acted differently than the victim and that their reckless behaviors have led to the outcome is a defense strategy, a way for us to feel more in control.
When people told me I had the power to prevent assault, I felt safe and powerful against the things I feared the most. But I soon realized that although comforting, these feelings were illusions, and still a form of victim-blaming.
Any woman anywhere is at risk, no matter how careful she is, and this is never her fault. Letting go of the constant state of fear women live in requires a universal effort to deconstruct our perceptions of sexual assault.
We need to remind ourselves at each step that nothing a woman does, says or wears justifies her being harmed. We need to hold perpetrators, not victims, accountable for their actions until our first question when we hear of a crime is no longer, “What could she have done differently?”
Today, the price of being a woman is high. Unless we start telling men not to rape, instead of telling women not to get raped, violence will keep increasing: more women will be silenced, blamed and condemned for their trauma.
We must change the way we approach young girls when they come to us with concerns about their safety, and educate young boys about women’s experiences. We need to teach them, and also each other, that while it is certainly important to be cautious, it should not be mistaken for an acceptance of living in fear.
Stories of sexual assault still affect me deeply. When I recall the threats my high school boyfriend made, my anxiety makes me wonder if I somehow deserved his violence. But I quickly brush off those thoughts. It’s not easy to actively fight against the doubts I was taught to have, but I do my best every time. There is still progress to be made, but meanwhile, I refuse to take responsibility for any man’s violent actions. Now, I know better than that.
Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.