The Problem With “Well, Why Didn’t You…?” And Sexual Assault

Through some combination of luck and living a sheltered life, I have not encountered much sexual violence or harassment. My friends, both male and female, have, which enrages and saddens me to no end.

However, my exposure to harassment changed recently, when I moved to a Baltic country, Estonia (where, I am told, conditions are still pretty patriarchal). I live in a university town and feel safe most of the time. I walk by myself on well-lit roads at night, always passing enough people that I am within eyesight of someone the whole time. I go running on forest and river-side trails, and since so many Estonians enjoy walking, running, bicycling, foraging, and fishing, I’m within shouting distance of passers-by practically the whole time. If I lived in a bigger city, say, Tallinn, which is the capital of Estonia, yes, I would be more careful; I know people who have been robbed there.

But twice in the last two months, TWICE, during broad daylight, I have been sexually harassed by groups of men. And in processing these experiences, I stumbled upon a pretty big problem in how we think about these things. First, I suffered no lasting harm either time; in both instances, one individual from a group of men singled me out and groped me, and that was it. In one case, it was a group of men walking by where I was in a park, and in the second case, it was a group of men hanging out by a bench on a trail I was running on. In both cases, I was so shocked that I was completely flabbergasted–I had no idea how to respond right away. In the first instance, I said something rude in Russian (since I’d heard them speaking Russian), and they walked away from me. In the second instance, I gave them the finger and kept on running.

When I’ve complained to friends about these experiences, they offered advice like carry pepper spray or a weapon (unwieldy on a run), go to the police next time it happens, give them a swift kick in the scrotum, things like that. And I do want to be more prepared and fight back, because I’m pissed off that random men have the power to make me feel violated and afraid.

This, however, is the crux of it: the well-intentioned advice, and the “well, why didn’t you X, Y, or Z?” statements, require me to take actions that could well get me further violated or killed. There is a deep layer of fear here: women are raped and killed, all the damn time, whether they fight back or not, whether it’s one man or many, whether it’s someone they know or a stranger. If I raise a hand to my harassers, I risk baiting them into violence. Obviously, obviously, no one would then go on to blame me for what happened to me, if anything, since we all know victim-blaming is not cool, and since nobody, no action, invites violence.

Fear is powerful. Fear of being violently attacked for resisting a minor instance of harassment is not overreacting; it’s a logical conclusion, a defensive strategy, given the high rates of sexual violence. And yeah, not all men are rapists, and not all men fly into violent rages when women resist their overtures or supposedly harmless teasing. But some, however small a percentage, might. And I don’t know if I’m willing to bet my safety on that. Are you?

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hmoyseenko Holly Moyseenko-Kossover

    Thank  you so much for this post. As someone who has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault for over five years, this is such an important topic. Fear keeps people hidden in the shadows and not wanting to speak out. I have had so many survivor cry (sometimes in my arms) because they fear people will blame them… they wore a shirt that was too low cut, they had a drink, it was their ex-boyfriend, etc. No one asks to be raped. No one. 

    We need more people like you speaking out about this.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    I’m glad this post struck a chord. It really saddens me to hear about how fear impacts survivors and makes them worry about judgment. You’re right, no one asks to be raped–but that lingering question of whether someone did “enough” to prevent it is haunting.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    Thanks for the sympathy. I’m less angry about it now, but it still informs a lot of my daily decisions like where to walk and run.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    That is a useful saying for thinking about this, thank you.