Victim blaming or same old scare tactics?

Some feminist blogs are outraged by an Australian PSA that shows a drunk teenager being raped. But is the anger justified?

Published October 15, 2008 9:15AM (EDT)

A recent Australian public service announcement (posted below) begins with a nightmare scene that shows a teenage girl about to be raped in a desolate alley; it's an ugly moment, straight out of a snuff film. Then the tape rewinds, taking us backward through her night of reckless, drunken partying and ends with the beginning of the evening, when her father hands her a case of beer. "Sixty-seven percent of teenagers have been abused or assaulted whilst under the influence of alcohol," warns a somber, female narrator. "Don't kid yourself. Buy your children alcohol, and they could pay the price."

We've all seen these kind of hyperbolic PSAs. Clips like this are designed to scare us out of whatever risky behavior we might consider engaging in. (Anyone remember one from a couple years back in which a little girl drowns in a backyard pool because her baby sitter is inside smoking weed?) So it's not particularly surprising that the Australian ad uses such an extreme situation to warn parents against buying alcohol for their children. But is the video really, as some feminist blogs claim, an instance of victim blaming?

"Oh, and girls, we know that we've told you this before ... but don't kid yourselves into thinking you have the right to exist as a social being without being blamed in the event that someone assaults you," seethes Cara at the Curvature, noting that no one would dare run an ad suggesting "that rapists are ordinary people who are responsible for their own actions." Feministing's Samhita posts the video with almost no comment, writing simply, "This PSA just about takes the victim blaming cake and plays off several inaccuracies about sexual violence towards young women." (After I e-mailed Samhita asking her to elaborate, she decided to update her post. "I think what is upsetting about this is that it perpetuates the belief that rape is a young woman's fault and that if parents buy their daughters alcohol they are putting them at risk of rape," she writes. "It is victim-blaming to suggest it is the fault of parents for buying alcohol or the fault of their daughter to be drunk and therefore gotten herself raped. What about telling young men to not rape drunk women?") And Equal Writes, a feminist blog by two Princeton undergraduates, observes, "But victim-blaming, and now, the all new parent-blaming, in which parents are deemed partially responsible for the rape of their children, is not the way to approach this problem."

There is a good deal of validity to these women's reactions. The idea that you bear some share of the blame if you drink -- or dress provocatively, or have a "reputation" -- and are therefore raped is reprehensible. But Equal Writes, the blog whose reaction is closest to my own, rightly points out that it's the father, not the girl, who is at fault according to the ad. It suggests not that the young woman invited rape by getting drunk but that her dad unthinkingly set the entire chain of events into motion by purchasing the beer for her. In other words, teenagers can't be entirely trusted to make their own decisions, so don't put them in a situation that requires them to do so.

What's strange to me about the commercial is that it doesn't show the classic, acquaintance/date/gray rape scenario that we tend to associate with the drinking-leads-to-rape argument. Any girl, drunk or sober, walking down a desolate, nighttime street, could find herself the victim of random sexual violence. The presence or absence of alcohol in a teenager's bloodstream has little bearing on her ability to fight off a cadre of would-be rapists.

Another thing that bothers me about the video is that its images have a very different meaning from its text. The narrator's language -- including the 67 percent statistic, which I (and Equal Rights) find both vague and unbelievably high -- is gender-neutral. The video could just as easily have shown a boy staggering drunkenly down the same abandoned street and getting jumped by the same thugs who accost the girl. Why show rape instead? Because it's probably the most terrifying, sensational situation the PSA's creators could come up with. Unfortunately, the garbled message we're left with is, "Parents, don't buy alcohol for your daughters, or they'll end up the victims of the kind of random, violent street rape that only happens when teenage girls get blackout drunk." I wouldn't quite call that victim blaming. Rather, I think it preys on parents' worst fears and ignores the reality that women can be attacked on the street no matter what their blood alcohol level happens to be.


By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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