Yes, I’m angry, but that doesn’t make me illogical: On victim-blaming


Illustration to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1745).

Today – when I should have been looking for a house to rent for my new job – I read an article in the Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on the subject of victim blaming. It was provocatively titled “Have accusations of rape victim blaming gone too far?”. As you can imagine, it didn’t put me in the best mood to read what followed, so what you’re getting here is a heavily re-written piece of blogging.

The kernel of this piece was Cosslett’s feeling that, when women internalise rape myths and victim-blame themselves, it is wrong to respond with anger, because anger at rape myths can read as anger at traumatized women who’ve bought into them. I was angry when I read this piece, and so – like the nice, well-brought-up feminist that I am – I tried to put myself in Cosslett’s shoes.

Why are rape myths so insidious, so attractive, that women like Cosslett cling to them even when (as she says of herself), they know they are myths? Is it more than their simple prevalence in our culture – is there some reason why they continue to appeal?

Immediately, I thought of one of the most ‘appealing’ narratives of victim-blaming ever written, a narrative that was one of the most popular novels of its day. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published the novel Pamela. This novel features a virtuous female servant who is the constant target of her wicked employer’s sexual advances. He imprisons her, tries to rape her, intercepts her mail and gaslights her. Eventually, propelled into true love by sheer sexual frustration, he marries her, and they live happily ever after. Ish.

It’s an unpleasant story, but there’s more to it than that. Richardson’s novel recounts Pamela’s experience of the attempted rape in her own voice, despite the fact that the character claims to be in a swoon. This is a bit of clunky writing on Richardson’s part: it requires the narrator to be both aware of her surroundings, and simultaneously, unconscious. Richardson’s contemporary, Henry Fielding, latched onto this unfortunate narrative style and made it central to his spoof, published a year later and titled Shamela. Fielding re-imagines the scene with Pamela/Shamela cynically pretending to swoon while enjoying the sensation of her employer groping her body. His reworking turns what was a male author’s artistic failure of plausibility into a female heroine’s active and deliberate duplicity. 

This spoof is extremely clever, because it exploits one of the most irritating features about Richardson’s original heroine: the fact that she has almost no agency of her own, almost no will to take charge of her own narrative. Fielding neatly sidesteps the fact that, if Pamela had screamed and shouted, it’s highly unlikely she could have prevented her employer from doing what he did. And so, he gives her the only agency she can possibly have in this scenario: the agency of welcoming (indeed orchestrating) the sexual assault she supposedly ‘suffers’.

This pattern is the same pattern that animates victim-blaming narratives, and both are kinds of fiction, modes of retelling a story over and over. Not all victim-blaming narratives require women to welcome sexual assault, but they all capitalise on the same possibility of narrative agency. If only you had done something differently, you would have changed your own story. Victim-blaming narratives hold their appeal because they offer the (fake) promise of control over the narrative.

This measured analysis of the appeal of victim-blaming narratives wasn’t my first response, and it’s not my whole response. My first response was pretty furious, and that’s because Cosselett doesn’t just buy into victim blaming stereotypes – she buys into, and exploits, a whole host of other anti-feminist stereotypes while she’s doing it.

Now, I reckon my reasons for objecting to rape myths and victim blaming are pretty coherent. To publish rape myths in a National newspaper (as Cosslett did) is to give them credibility, and to perpetuate the idea that rape is someone other than the rapist’s fault. We can see the very clear, disturbing and worsening implications of victim-blaming in the recent news that, as of now, your chances of getting a rape case to court are the lowest since records began.

In addition, there’s a backlash against women reporting rapes, which is reliant on the myth that men should not take full responsibility for their actions. We’ve seen it from the rapist Ched Evans, serving a jail sentence, is welcome back into his old job at Sheffield United. We’ve seen it from Julian Assange, who’s been hiding out so he doesn’t have to face rape charges (as you do when you’ve a mature and compassionate attitude to legal process, right?) and from Ma’lik Richmond, returned to his old position in the Steubenville football team. Gee, guess Paul Callan of CNN was totally right that Richmond’s life was ‘destroyed’ by being, er, convicted of a crime he committed.

None of this wider context about rape made it into Cosslett’s article, which was instead taken up with arguments against those women who’d originally objected to the perpetuation of rape myths. Cosslett appears to believe that the real issue here is that most feminists are, well, just a bit thick compared to her. Speaking of the Judge who suggested that drunk victims of rape are just too tricky for juries to believe, she asks:

When Rape Crisis Oxford called Judge Mowat’s comments “outrageous”, did they reflect how many of the victims who come to them may have expressed similar views, similar regrets?”

Well, I don’t know, but somehow, I’m guessing they did reflect, you know. It’s part of their job. So far as I know (and I’ve lived in Oxford since 2008 and do notice these things), they do quite a good one.

She goes on to suggest that what’s really an issue is that some feminists use words:

Terminology is helpful (“rape culture” is much snappier, is it not?), but it can preclude nuance.” 

Rather vaguely, she claims that ‘some people’ are ‘irked’ by the term rape culture, and so it seems that ‘terminology’ is something that nice, polite ladies do not use – perhaps the equivalent of the wrong fork at dinner. What nuance Cosslett imagines is being missed was, sadly, not revealed.

Next, she objects that feminists failed respond to her own affirmation of rape myths either “sensitively” or “logically,” or with “insight and analysis”. By this point, I pretty much had my anti-feminist bingo card full, because this terminology buys into one of the oldest and most damaging stereotypes about women: that we’re all just irrational and illogical. Cosslett (like, I’m afraid, many an anti-feminist I’ve read) didn’t explain what was illogical about calling out rape myths, nor did she explain why she didn’t recognise the analysis behind the arguments of those who disagreed with her. She simply slapped on the customary label that’s used to silence women you disagree with.

While I was wondering how to respond to this article, I spoke to a friend who (like me), had recently read about how Mary Beard chooses to respond to internet trolls, using her considerable privilege (as a professor at Cambridge) to explain herself and elicit startlingly positive, apologetic responses from, for example, the man who photoshopped genitalia onto an image of her face. One of the revealing points Beard makes (and it’s discussed in more detail in the New Yorker) is that, while her approach works for her, she objects to people painting this response as uniquely feminine in its empathetic, caring (and time-consuming) qualities. She notes that people have interpreted her responses as ‘maternal’ and therefore praiseworthy, while sheer anger might have won her a very different set of responses even from those who agree she has cause to be angry.

This is an important point: very often, feminists are criticised for responding with anger, which buys into the old stereotype that women should be more caring, more patient, more keen to spend their time on educating those who disagree with them.

This made me think quite hard about how I wanted to respond to Cosslett, but also about why I was so angry about her piece. I object to being told (from the privileged position of someone writing for a national newspaper) that if I disagree, it’s because I’m unnuanced, illogical, insensitive and, well, a bit thick. And yet it’s easy for me put aside my anger, to refute those claims, to pull out the recently-published statistics on rape, and to dress the whole thing up with a nice literary-historical anecdote. It’s easy, and it implies that Cosslett is right to equate angry responses with a lack of logic, nuance and sensitivity.

But what about those women who read Cosslett’s piece and responded from a position of feeling hurt, traumatized and upset? What about (god forbid) those of us who are not articulate writers in the Guardian or smart-arse junior academics who read too much eighteenth-century fiction? What about you and me on the days when we don’t feel calm and composed and inclined to spend a couple of hours pontificating about narrative structure (rather than, say, stating categorically that rape myths are misogynistic bullshit)? What about the days when we read about the rape of thirteen-year-old Ebony Williams? Shouldn’t we be able to respond without being told we’re ‘illogical’ and unnuanced?

It is not inherently illogical, unnuanced or insensitive to state that rape myths are categorically harmful, incorrect and antifeminist. It is not evidence of superior intellect, or sharper debating skills, to demand that everyone should agree with you, simply because you genuinely feel upset. There is a worrying trend, I think, to equate perfectly rational anger with lack of nuance – and it’s not just Cosslett who does this.

Shouldn’t we let ourselves be angry?

I know I am.


Thanks to Hannah Bailey who discussed the article about Mary Beard with me, and pointed out some of the implications for this post.


This is a great, courteous but absolutely correct, follow-up to the media response to Beard’s interactions with her trolls. Worth a read.

27 thoughts on “Yes, I’m angry, but that doesn’t make me illogical: On victim-blaming

  1. I do believe in learning self defense and I actually did quit drinking as a form of rape prevention over ten years ago. I’d been part of a sexual assault task force during my college years and one of things I do advise girls and women is to have a “designated driver” by helping each other avoid getting trapped while intoxicated. I don’t blame victims for wearing suggestive clothing or drinking to excess and would never say anyone was asking for it. It seems a man willing to rape a drunk woman is in effect interested in necrophilia. If she’s just an object it’s obvious how the laws should go, and yet fail to do so. I agree with your article and as a rape survivor I am angry. Thanks for the various links and fuller understanding of this discussion.

    • I think a designated driver is an excellent idea for men and women (and more for men – men are statistically very likely to be assaulted if out in public, whereas it’s much less of a risk for women).

      I worry about the self-defence and not drinking, though, myself. I have been told that a woman like me (not physically strong, not large) is likely to put myself in more danger by trying anything like that. The risk is angering someone who may well be stronger, better prepared and perhaps armed. So I would never try it, and I’m particularly cross that when I was at school, we were told that it was realistic to believe a few lessons could show us how to throw a full-grown man to the ground! I know that’s nonsense now, but at the time, we were taught it as a serious self-defence strategy.

      Alcohol is a more frightening issue, because I am sure you are correct some rapists target drunk women. As you say, it says disturbing things about them. But to me, the benefits of promoting the ‘rape is the fault of a rapist’ message outweights everything else, which is why I go with it.

      I hope that all made some sense as a reply!

      • Thanks for replying and yes your reply makes sense. Martial arts provides offensive moves and or traditions that focus on offense so one can escape. In terms of defense, there are disabling moves small people can use as well to incapacitate, without it requiring “taking them down”. But I’m not trying to push anyone past personal comfort zones and it shouldn’t have to be a requirement that women become “warriors” to feel safe in their communities, and homes, so your larger point is well taken.
        The refraining from alcohol is also a personal choice and women should be allowed to determine their own health/recreation needs. Date rape drugs that are slipped into drinks can be put into soda and water just as easily.
        It isn’t just rapists targeting drunk women. It’s men getting drunk and becoming incapable of control, and decreasing intellectual functioning, and justifying their violence against women or lack of understanding about rape culture and/or themselves. This would certainly enhance risks of attacking one another as well. I don’t meant to blame everything on alcohol consumption… if that’s how it sounds. I speak of it as a pretty big factor in many rapes as it changes people physiologically and emotionally. Whatever personal responsibility men and women can take as prevention, in addition to agreeing with you that it is the fault of the rapist, is what I hope can be useful to others.
        Thank you again for the dialogue.

      • Oh, I *so* strongly agree with you alcohol is a factor in that sense! I hadn’t quite taken on that was what you meant, but it’s absolutely true that some rapists will say ‘well, I was drunk and couldn’t help it’. Chilling, but we’re conditioned to take it as a ‘valid’ excuse. I do believe alcohol is a factor in men deciding to rape.

        With self defence, I think what bothers me so much is that it excludes so many of us. Many women are physically disabled. Many women instinctively freeze when attacked. Many women are too traumatized by previous events to respond. A big issue here is that most rapes are not the classic ‘dark alley late at night’ scenario (where perhaps a woman might think back to self defence classes), but rather, they’re situations where a woman has every reason to trust the person she’s with.

        This is why we have to have no tolerance for rape myths – not even well-meant tolerance.

      • Jeanne,
        As always, assessment is key. Are you dealing with someone who’s stone sober? Are you dealing with someone with a knife/gun?

        A woman can actually know how to throw a full-grown man to the ground. That’s an easy thing to teach (it has to do with relative center of gravity — it’s one of the moves women can do and men can’t.). After that, though? you have a man on the ground — are you willing to explode his eyeballs (use keys.)? If you’re not willing to kill, you’d better be running — and screaming.

        Rape is such a horrible crime that we have made it legal — if the guy can get the girl to freeze. Because then she never said no, did she? Despite the fact that it was “non-consensual” sex.

        Just as a further note: it is possible to have non-consensual sex where neither party is able to give informed consent (and even occasionally where neither party wanted it).

  2. I wonder if you’ve ever read Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. He was a Jewish historian, and was compelled to tell the story of the Ghetto as he observed it and experienced it. It was important to Ringelblum that he maintain his objectivity, but every now and then, his outrage, anger, agony breaks through in the writing, usually when he witnesses the death of a child. What I am trying to say, and so wish I had your eloquence, is that your essay reminded me in a very positive way of Ringelblum. Your anger is so fierce, your argument so thoughtful, and you articulate both so powerfully, that you make me think and feel. I thank you.

  3. Well, perhaps I should clarify, that those women who can physically and emotionally handle self defense and whom should want to further prepare/prevent should learn it. For those that can not utilize self defense for whatever reasons, I agree we should debunk all tolerance for myths. And for those that are capable of learning self defense but that don’t want it in their lives, they certainly don’t need to justify that or tolerate myths either. Self defense can also include knowing where exits are in advance, carrying mace, and what you are doing by trying to stop the myths that place the blame on victims, as well as changing and creating laws.
    I hope you don’t think I have any “well meant tolerance” tolerance for rape myths.

    • I’m sorry, but I do really quite strongly disagree with this.

      If women want to learn self defence, for whatever reason – great! But it ought to be their personal choice, not something we say they ‘should’ do, and certainly not something we tell women might prevent them from harm – because we can’t be certain of that.

      I also think it is not a good idea to separate women into ‘those who can protect themselves’ and those who can’t – because it’s never that clear cut.

      I do appreciate your comments, and please don’t think any of my anger is directed at you – it’s directed at rapists and rape culture.

      • Okay. I guess I’m not clear on what you’re saying and so language is partially in the way or rather it is showing itself insufficient (not your fault, but rather I’m possibly confusing your article for our dialogue). I believe that we educate ourselves however we can to navigate and survive in life. All of those choices are in context of access, capital and personal experiences (geographical, economic, cultural, religious, age, gender, race, etc.) I don’t tell people they “should” do anything and I don’t actually give my “advice” as the thing to follow in stone or by blind faith but as something to weigh, because I can not know all of those walks of life or their abilities, wants, needs, etc.
        Nothing in life is about “certainty”. But I’m not sure what you mean by telling women to not bother protecting themselves if they are small because it might not work. That there is no guarantee… of success. No, there is no guarantee of success that fighting back prevents the rapist from harming. But exactly like how I lifted my boot and kicked the nose of a pittbull off leash and coming at me, I was able to stop the animal from biting me and I cowed it so I could leave unharmed.
        Some people freeze and can’t do anything. Some people have no strength. Some are conditioned to be non violent or whatever the case, so I am not boxing people in or separating them into “should do this” and or “can’t”…at least I don’t think I am. I do know It’s factually wrong that women should submit to rape and not try to fight because they are told it might be worse if they do. That’s old thinking. But I’m not blaming women who don’t fight back. I’m not clear how you think I’m being black and white or clear cut. If it’s about the word “should”I gladly retract it.
        I didn’t think you were directing anger at me. Thank you for your sensitivity on that. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t offending you by any word choices that it seem like I am refuting your work. I’m not refuting you, as I see it. I’m not sure what you’re actually strongly disagreeing with me on. But I respect whatever opinion you’ve formed about my lack of sound “instruction” to women about rape prevention as we’ve been able to discuss it this far. I understand that by telling them it might prevent rape, you believe this is a falsehood.
        With that thinking however, women might not graduate from college either, so better not try?
        I dunno… All situations are indeed different. The variables are hard to discuss like this.
        My best wishes for your continued work. I really do value reading your writing posts and what information you provide.

      • katherine,
        there are specific techniques that guys use (and certain guys promulgate) that will get an unaware, inexperienced woman to freeze. Unless you’re specifically training against them, that self-defense may be completely useless.

  4. You think self-defense would help you, it could. But what about the women who have learned it and still couldn’t defend themselves? What about the ones who are too small, too weak or too paralyzed by fear when something happens? Fear paralyzes us, we can’t act, we can’t think. You have quit drinking to “prevent” rape. What about all the rape that happens when we’re sober? What about the women who drink for fun? You may want to quit walking alone in an empty street at night. But chances are you would be raped at home. There is no “prevention” that actually works, it’s an illusion. And, most of all, we should not live out lives as slaves to rape culture, dying in fear, restricting ourselves from the public space, from freedom. That is indeed the GOAL of rape culture – to have us so fearful that we don’t take the space and the freedom and the power that belongs to us.

    • Well said! This is exactly how I feel.

      I understand why people want so strongly to believe we could be pro-active and that things like self defence (or fancy nail varnish, or whatever) could help, I do. But it’s just adding to this culture of fear, isn’t it?

      • I’m reading the comments now… and Um… I’m not dying in fear. Rape survivor advocates like me are not dying in fear. No it’s not adding to the fear. It’s adding options and choices. I think it’s true that we can learn things in life and maybe they won’t work, but waiting around for the space to be safe and for men to get their behavior and attitudes under control is not acceptable to me.
        But I see where you are coming from now. And it’s true that rape culture is restricting women’s freedom of expression.
        In terms of quitting drinking… well that was freedom for me. Not just helpful to rape prevention. I don’t mean to come across as a teetotaler and ruin the party. Sorry for crashing it.

  5. I’m going to go through and quote – just so it’s easier to follow. Hope that’s ok!

    ‘ I don’t tell people they “should” do anything and I don’t actually give my “advice” as the thing to follow in stone or by blind faith but as something to weigh, because I can not know all of those walks of life or their abilities, wants, needs, etc.’

    You used the word ‘should’ – that’s why I picked up on it.

    I’m not comfortable with you characterising women not training themselves in self defence as ‘not bothering’. That implies an inertia or laziness on their part – which is perjorative, in my view.

    ‘I do know It’s factually wrong that women should submit to rape and not try to fight because they are told it might be worse if they do. That’s old thinking.’

    Factually wrong, how? I never said women ‘should’ submit to rape, so I’m not quite sure if I am understanding you rightly here. But it’s not factually wrong, nor old thinking, to note that it is very risky to try to attack someone whose strength and level of danger you don’t know. Obviously, if it comes naturally, you may do it anyway – but what I’m suggesting is a poor idea is the sort of education I had as a teenager, which didn’t frame this in terms of choices or possible spur-of-the-moment reactions, but suggested it was unproblematic to teach women to try to overpower aggressors. It’s not a good idea.

    I don’t understand the college graduation parallel at all, I’m sorry.

    I think a big problem with this whole debate is that it’s easy to think that recommendations such as ‘women should learn to defend themselves’ have no negative consequences. Sure, you accept they might not be realistic recommendations for everyone, but you’re not acknowledging the negative consequences, both for women who feel guilted into trying something and end up worse hurt, and for women who hear these recommendations and find they trigger that cycle of self-blaming trauma I think is so dangerous. They also encourage women to follow the thought process ‘well, I didn’t do that, so I better not report my rape’.

    I do appreciate your polite way of putting your point across – I just feel pretty certain there are far more serious downsides to these recommendations than we tend to acknowledge in society.

    • (Apologies for the formatting of replies – it’s wordpress, and beyond my control).

      I do see you feel strongly, and please don’t think I don’t think you’re utterly genuine and motivated by the best possible reasons. But this is problematic, to me:

      ‘I’m reading the comments now… and Um… I’m not dying in fear. Rape survivor advocates like me are not dying in fear. No it’s not adding to the fear.’

      *You* are not dying in fear. But that is you. It’s not everyone. I have a friend who is wonderful, fiesty and feministy and very well aware of rape myths. And yet, when she was assaulted (thank goodness, not raped) a while ago, she was still sufficiently shaky and upset to start second-guessing herself. It really shook me and I know how deeply it affected her. And she’s not unusual or alone.

      So that’s where I come from on it – thinking how some women feel. I’m also concerned about the rapists who will prey on these myths, because people do. People do say ‘well, you must have wanted it, or you’d have fought back’. A *lot* of women internalise that one, especially when it comes from a partner whom they want to believe is a ‘good guy’ anyway.

      But I’m talking too much … I must say, you absolutely didn’t ruin anything. I found your comments illuminating, and I’m glad you shared them.

  6. Self defense for women doesn’t teach over powering aggressors. It teaches how to move and strike vulnerable points to get away.
    The college education parallel is that it’s okay to learn things that might not end up helping us succeed if we didn’t “master” the material or were restricted by some other limitation, but I don’t need to press on an analogy that doesn’t work for you. Women’s self esteem based on how they handle rape before or after making them feel “wrong” or “blamed” needs to be debunked. So I agree on the refinement. All the more recent reports I’ve encountered, over the last several years have indicated women “should try” to fight back. I see where the “should” allows for failure, guilt and blame as you’ve explained, but that’s not what I’m saying.
    I don’t imply women are lazy. I’m saying don’t bother if self defense is not safe feeling to you. That’s all. You are reading into my use of the word “bother” I assure you.
    I don’t like a violent culture where gender relations are learning self defense in order to co-exist, so advocating for self defense isn’t something I’m taking lightly.
    I won’t debate your reasoning on the serious downsides anymore, but rather will continue reading and listening to your ideas to see if I can embrace more of your meaning. I certainly don’t want to cause confusion on the matter or divide things.

    • That makes self-defense a horrid thing to be teaching.

      If you’re not bothering to teach people how to spot the techniques that will be used to systematically take away their agency, then how the hell are they supposed to stop a rape, from a man who is deliberately attempting to take away their ability to withhold consent — or fight back?

      To fight the enemy, one must understand him. There are many varieties of rapists, the ones i’m referring to above are simply one form.

      But teaching self-defense isn’t going to defend you against scavengers either (folks that will take advantage of either drugged/passedout/or “too drunk to fight” girls).

      And teaching self-defense isn’t going to help you if you don’t realize you are being raped (yes, it’s happened. yes, some guys specialize in this).

  7. I actually agree with what you’re coaching and why. Thank you for taking the time. Being raped will most likely induce those feelings of self doubt and guilt no matter how one handles it, because rape simply undermines one’s mind body and spirit, so I think how you are sensitizing the wording is indeed important.
    Maybe for perspective, In my creative writing I think I break all the rules of politically correct language and I often wonder if I’m glorifying rather than appropriately handling intense subjects and then I experience the constraints on words, and buck what feels like censorship, and control in other respects and then discussions can blur. I can’t separate my life from my art very well sometimes and art is not sufficient for topics that require such earnestness, so it’s my social skills that are lacking here… I appreciate how you are making me reflect and grow.

    • And I appreciate you taking the time and thought to comment! 🙂

      I don’t think your social skills are lacking at all … it’s just such a big debate, we can’t hammer it all out in one go!

      • Well I had some conversations with people after our dialogue on this debate and everyone opened to a greater understanding of the language used around rape victims (I prefer word survivors) that perpetuate shame and self-blame/doubt and that does not belong to the survivor but should be carried entirely by the rapist. I think your article with links to the reading is one of the most important I’ve read, lately. So, thank you for taking the time too. I needed this discussion and expansion. 🙂

    • At some point you have to fight against the rules.
      (one can actually tell a funny rape joke. The bar’s a lot higher,
      and one should be very, very sensitive to where one is telling it
      (victim blaming is never funny).
      But I’ve heard funny holocaust jokes.)

      • Hi Mian, I’m not sure what you are saying to me. I’ve never said victim blaming is funny. Do you have me confused with someone else? If you mean what I have wondered about my own writing, art and how to deal with subjects like rape (as a survivor of rape I process it in my work sometimes), I’ve thought a lot about it since my last dialogue on this page, and as someone who understands an author like Jonathan Swift for satire, it can be a risky choice to embark on as well as easily misunderstood. I understand wording in laws must be more exact and that this requires a cultural shift as most all of our institutions, documents and languages are steeped in mysogeny. As an artist, I’m going to be true to myself and my voice, my need to express pure and uncensored, and without audience, but for my own catharsis and growth. I will not put trigger warnings. Some people will understand what I’m doing and some will not. Some might like it. Some might not. In any case…
        About self defense… I came to understand the author’s sensitivity and reason and concur with her fine tuning of the discussion and direction for survivors of rape minus the “rape kit” that places the responsibility on the survivor and perpetuates an acceptance of rape culture. So I appreciated the learning I managed from the post.
        As for knowing the enemy, my father gave me the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu when I was 15 years old… so… ??? I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. And regardless of what some men have done to me, I don’t view men as my enemy.
        It’s best I know myself.
        It’s best I don’t allow fear to rule me.
        I’m not sure if I’ve addressed your comments, but I hope my position is clear now. 🙂

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