Blaming the victim

[cw: sexual assault, in case that wasn’t clear from the title]

Today I read about the tragic deaths of two cyclists, both women, hit by reckless drivers last week. One of them was on the route I ride to work every day. The driver ran a red light at high speed, and a witness who apprehended the man two blocks away when he pulled into a gas station wrote that he was “definitely not sober” (though the police disagree).

On the occasions I take Lyft, I often talk to the drivers about cycling, since usually when I take Lyft it’s because I’d normally be riding but left my bike at work. I relayed the hit and run story to the person driving my Lyft this morning, and the first thing he said was that you still have to look out into the traffic even when the light is red. Which is true, and good advice, but reminds me an awful lot of people saying of rape victims that they “shouldn’t have drunk so much”. That is, it’s blaming the victim for a tragedy which is clearly not their fault.

When people blame the victim in these sorts of situations, it’s kind of a prayer. Please, God, tell me I have some control over this. Please let it not happen to me! If only I’m cautious at traffic lights, if only I don’t wear a short skirt, I’ll be safe, right? They want to imagine that they have some power over their own destiny. Because it’s scary to think that it could have been you that was hit and killed on the bike ride to work, it could have been you that was raped at a party.

You don’t, though. Have control. Not really. Maybe you can improve your chances a little by taking extra care, but at some point it becomes paranoia and now you’re a crazy hermit who took the doors off all your cupboards so you don’t hit your head on them. Which isn’t to say that being careful isn’t worthwhile—only that there are limits. At some point the cost of that carefulness exceeds the marginal benefit.

You can, however, exert some control over the systems in the world that lead to this kind of violence. Teach your sons and your brothers about consent. Ask your local council to build Copenhagen-style bike lanes—or better yet, remove cars from cities entirely. These are things that you and I can meaningfully affect, if only in a small way.

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