Unpacking the culture of victim blaming

For a culture that continually insists it loves to back the underdog, we don’t half enjoy ripping the shit out of them too. Those of us – hopefully most of us – who read between the lines of mainstream media, from tabloid press to BBC reports, know there’s no such thing as neutral news, in a world where everything is coded to make us believe that we believe what we believe because we know best.

And so, like so many sleazy political scandals before it, the non-story of Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk sexting a 17-year-old girl, Sophena Houlihan, simmered from ‘righteous’ outrage into a pantomime in a couple of days. As the dust settled, and I’m guessing many readers agreed that the most shocking aspect of it was that it’s not a shocking case at all, we once again settled into our cosy routine of victim blaming.

Let’s start with the highly pejorative article about how Houlihan practiced financial domination online, yet had the audacity to be ‘shocked’ that an MP could abuse his position by sexting her. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t personally aware that your preferred a) sexual preferences or b) ways of making money in a society that denies college students access to state funding determined whether a man in a position of authority abused that authority? Helloooo rape culture. Not forgetting here, of course, that when the older party is in a position of trust, the age of consent rises to 18. But what does that matter, if she has exercised sexual agency in other aspects of her life? Surely that rule is now null and void.

Of course, this has happened so many times before that I’ve ceased to be surprised and have adopted an air of resigned expectation; and I’m sure I’m not the only girl who knows that this demonisation can affect anyone. The quickest Google search reveals another newspaper article that describes, without mention of force, how the victim of a grooming gang ‘had sex’ with 60 men by the age of 13. How about the Steubenville rape case, where news channels described the rapists of a vulnerable 16 year old as ‘good students’ who were in a ‘celebratory mood’, bemoaning how the conviction will impact on their careers?

It’s interesting – and by interesting I mean disgusting – how the media chooses to grant and deny the agency of women as they please. When it means that it’ll shield men in power from overdue criticism, give women as much agency as they could ask for. In Houlihan’s case, giving her enough agency to insinuate that she can take at least partial responsibility for Danczuk’s actions, but denying her that extra bit that allows her to be ‘shocked’ that what she does in her own time can impact on his abuse of power? Don’t be stupid. There is also a barrage of questions to be answered regarding the structural factors that lead to a 17-year-old needing to turn to the world of financial domination anyway, but even more questions surrounding why it’s relevant to Danczuk’s actions.

Maybe it’s time for us to acknowledge our hypocrisies and begin questioning our views about the role of power creating and punishing victims. I’d like to think that this could realistically happen, but in the vacuum of ethics we’ve managed to surround ourselves in, Danczuk will be a peer in the House of Lords before we even consider the dangers of our own assumptions.

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