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Crime: Are you to blame?

Safety is a difficult thing to contemplate in a country where nowhere is really “safe”. It is hard to pretend that we don’t know. We can’t ignore the high crime statistics, and police commissioner requirements of stomach in chest out. It’s almost impossible to meet anyone who doesn’t know anyone who has been victim of crime, or hasn’t been one themselves. We don’t live in a safe place. We should all be aware of danger.

I think perhaps this assumption that we should be aware of danger, or the belief that we all know that we live in a context of risk, comes with a strange social requirement that we must manage that risk. Our walls are high, marked by an acoustic array of electric fencing, sirens and lasers. We put alarms and bars across the windows, we lock our doors, and we have household-safes and money under our mattresses. We are afraid of strangers. We take out insurance and the insurers bank on the fear economy that we live in. We take on the responsibility for our protection.

For many the first question you are asked when you are a victim of a mugging was “Where were you walking? Was it at night? Were you alone?” For a victim of a hijacking we ask “Where were you driving? Were your doors locked?” For rape survivors we ask “What were you wearing? Did you fight them off?” What we’re really asking is “How are you to blame? Why didn’t you try harder to protect yourself?” It’s a complex blame game.

We can acknowledge that we live in a world of violence, that some areas and contexts are fraught with danger. But we must surely also be able to acknowledge that everyone has the right to be free from violence, and that blaming victims for crimes means that we don’t blame perpetrators. We must acknowledge that entering into a dangerous situation doesn’t mean that you are the cause of that danger.

Sexual violence is fraught with stigma, shame, and social myths about women’s sexuality and women’s rights. In sexual-offences cases victim blaming is particularly prevalent because we see that there is complexity in all sexual situations, and that consensual sex is rarely as simple as saying yes. South African norms of sexuality complicate our awareness of the crime because say that women say “no” when they really mean “yes”, and that women who dress, live or fuck in a particular way deserve what they get.

Society expects women to take the same risk-management strategies with their bodies as we take with our homes. So when we hear about women being raped, society tells us the question we should ask them is why they didn’t try harder to protect themselves and prevent their own rape. Our logic is so fixed by fear, that we can only blame the victim and be proud of ourselves for keeping safe.

This logic also convinces us that only some men rape. That we can anticipate who those men are, and that we should therefore work harder to avoid them. But in SA, statistics show that the men women should be trying to protect themselves from, are the men they know. Worse, they are most likely their family members, fathers, uncles and brothers. These are South Africa’s rapists.

It is possible to be aware that SA is dangerous, but I think the jump from awareness to responsibility and blame is a bigger one than we have acknowledged it to be.