Of all the news I have heard in relation to the recent sexual assault and murder of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old from my community, one quote keeps reverberating in my mind: “She should not have been running alone in the park.”
When my son shared that this was the message passed on to him during a teacher’s discussion of the local tragedy, I bristled. Why is it that we focus blame on the victim? Why are we suggesting she should have been more careful rather than emphasizing he should not have attacked her?
Yet I must admit that this quote reverberates because it was one of the first things I thought when I heard a young girl was missing after going to run alone in a local park. Living in a rape culture which blames the victim, I recognize that even I, a feminist scholar and teacher, have had a “she should have” commentary beaten into my brain on a daily basis.
Chelsea King (and all humans for that matter) should be able to run in the park without fearing sexual attack. More generally, girls and women should not have to live via a rape schedule, which Jessica Valenti argues is “essentially like living in a prison—all the time.” But our culture does not seem to care much that females have to constantly worry about their safety. Instead, we question the victim’s actions and demeanor, while not focusing nearly enough on perpetrators.
That’s why, I surmise, so many news stories emphasized that Chelsea was a straight-A student and great athlete. Such descriptions and accompanying photos stressed she was a “good girl,” thus suggesting that some other girls are not so good; some may even “ask for it.” Simultaneously, the perpetrator was framed as a “bad apple,” a repeat offender who should be locked up for life.
What about directing some focus on society itself? Is not patriarchy the underlying culprit here? As noted in a 2004 Amnesty International study, “Violence against women is one of the most pervasive and ignored human rights violations.” Yet, rather than focus on this rampant societal problem, we might blame a 17-year-old for jogging alone and judge her assailant as a sick anomaly.
Sexualized violence is no anomaly, so displacing the blame from a patriarchal society that encourages and perpetuates such violence to the individual victims and perpetrators only guarantees that such violence will continue. Violence does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it the result of a few bad people (as the work of Erica Meiners, Angela Davis, Jodie Lawston and so many others makes clear). It results from the privilege/oppression matrix and a society that glorifies power. Locking up individual perpetrators and creating sexual offender registries does nothing to address these issues, instead it gives a false sense of security and furthers“stranger danger” myths. As Davis argues, our prison-happy culture is merely “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.”
The alleged murderer of Chelsea King, John Albert Gardner, no doubt is an individual manifestation of the rampant sexism in our society that frames women as objects. But his actions need to be considered in relation to a wider glorification of violence. Locking him up will do nothing to punish the larger perpetrator–the accomplice, the enabler–which is society itself.