Chelsea King: Life and Death in a Rape Culture

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.


  1. thank you for writing this~!!
    i am a hiker and i agree it is my human right to be able to walk alone and enjoy the silent beauty of nature without fear or being jusged by the rape culture
    thank you thank you!!

  2. 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.
    so important

  3. I strongly agree with this article. I am constantly shocked at how many people tell me that I should not run alone at night. I live in a small town with a fairly well-lit path along a busy road near my home, and people still warn me about the dangers. If I were male, no one would give it a second thought. Evening is the time that fits best in my schedule to run. I refuse to rearrange my life out of fear or expect that something bad will happen to me.

  4. And it is because of our society that more than half of sexually assaulted women do not report the crime (myself included) – because our society has already blamed them, because she ran alone, because she went to the club and had a drink, because she wore that skirt.

    Fantastic article, thank you for writing about this taboo topic. I’m saddened to see that only 4 others have commented on the article and can only hope this article receives the recognition it deserves.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. I am glad to hear that others feel we should not be policing women about when/where they can hike/run/walk. These comments remind me of the fact that I don’t feel comfortable having my daughter walk our dog alone even though we live in a “safe neighborhood.” She and I have discussed the unfairness of this — that she has to change her own habits due to the high rates of violence against females. I am torn on this one – am I teaching her the wrong message by expecting her to not walk alone as a young female? But, as her parent, I can’t help but try to do everything I can to cocoon her from harm – and the fact that a number of young females have been kidnapped/raped in our “safe neighborhood” vicinity doesn’t make me prone to encourage her to walk alone. So frustrating and sad.

  6. Jaclyn,
    Thanks for your comment. The piece has received quite a few comments at the Ms. facebook page – 19 so far. I am glad it is furthering conversation about this very important topic.

  7. Society, the media, the sagging economy, violent video games — you can blame all of these factors on the violence that perpetuates the very foundation of our communities. The number of registered sex offenders in the Unites States alone is shocking, and if we know how many predators were out there who have managed not to get caught, we would most likely want to lock our doors and windows and never leave home again. But most of us feel the opposite by letting our guard down, putting our head in the sand and believing it could never happen to me. Violence only happens on television or in the movies or to other people — never me. I don’t believe anyone was blaming Chelsea King for her own tragic murder by commenting “she should never have been running alone.” It’s a factual statement, and it is unfortunate that women and girls don’t have the freedom to run or walk solo wherever they want at whatever time, but that is the reality of the 21st century. Of course, John Gardner SHOULDN’T have attacked her, but even more importantly, our Justice System failed us and let free and vicious sexual predator who violated his parole time and time again with no retribution. If the law isn’t going to protect us from these monsters, then women and girls need to be taught that their personal safety is critical and to be taken very seriously. If you want to run alone in a rural isolated area, then you better be prepared, have your wits about, carry a pepper spray, a personal alarm and know some basic self defense techniques. The law needs to enforce harsher prison sentences to convicted sex offenders such as life imprisonment because it is a known fact that these animals cannot be rehabilitated. Every time the system paroles a sex offender, it’s an injustice to the American people who deserve to live without fear of these predators attacking their mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. But until tougher laws are in place, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and teach our children that personal safety is as important as hygiene, good grades and social behavior.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Amen to the article and Susan Fredericks. We must stop believing the myth that our society is just and that only “aberrant” males rape and murder women — most rapists are not sociopaths or psychopaths, they show up as normal on psychological tests. Why is this? Because it is allowed in our society, violence against women is, dare I say it, encouraged. By all the violent depictions on television of women being beaten or raped by men to the less violent, but still effectively intimidating verbal assassinations of women of power (i.e. Hilary Clinton) or feminists (who are often referred to as feminazis). It’s not okay to blatantly be a racist, but it’s okay to be a sexist or a misogynist. Former Senator Hilary Clinton could be called a bitch at a presidential-race event with Senator John McCain and he can let out a chortle — would he have done that if he was at an event where someone shouted a racist slur at former Senator Barack Obama? A woman is overwhelmingly likely to be murdered by a lover, husband or relative rather than by a stranger and ditto for being raped. It is not the man hiding in the bushes (although it could be him), it’s likely any man we know and we must accept that this is the current reality and arm our girls against the misogynistic culture in which we are immersed. It’s not that men are inherently evil, it’s that they are allowed to exercise any violent urge they have against women without recourse. Catharine MacKinnon calls this the “male bond” — I don’t look or prosecute you for doing harm against women and you give me the same pass. The whole “she asked for it” thing, is true, in a sense, because the society believes that as a woman you’ve asked for it, simple by being a woman. It’s what MacKinnon calls hiding “coercion behind consent.” Instead of focusing on the coercion or violence that a man exhibits when he commits an act of violence, they shift it to say that somehow the woman consented (or “asked for it”). They use this trick in other scenarios — for example women who “opt out” of working in a male-dominated profession because they want to take care of their family — did they opt-out or did the daily digs about being a woman or the scrutiny which a woman’s work is examined compared to a male counterparts or “micro-inequities,” as one researcher has titled it, add up and they just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore — was it consent or coercion? Why don’t school-teachers quit their jobs in droves when they become mothers? Because that career allows for the reality of being a woman, it allows for maternity leave and does not punish women for taking time to deliver a child into this world. In male-dominated professions, men are allowed to serve in the military and their career does not take any hits, they aren’t held back, they are glorified and patted on the back for serving their country — what about when women serve humanity by promulgating the human race by having children? Where’s that pat on the back — what’s more important – war or the creation of human beings? It’s all a seamless web that points back to male power and male-patterned violence (often directed at women), which is a necessary ingredient used to keep us afraid, locked up in our houses and leaves us afraid to speak out for fear of recrimination and afraid to run in the park (without a male protector) for fear of being raped and murdered.

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  10. The culture of women hating is deeply ingrained in our psyche. A few years ago, while driving home from work, the man ahead of me at a stoplight got out and (for no apparent reason) called me a “stupid fucking whore” a “stupid cunt” a “dumb bitch” etc. I followed him into a parking lot (there were a lot of people around so I felt safe) and asked him what his problem was and what I had done to deserve that kind of abuse. I got his license number. He never told me why he was screaming abuse at me, simply continued to call me a bitch, whore, cunt and whatnot.
    After he drove off I asked some women standing around if they would be witnesses for me, they all said yes. I asked some men and they all said no.
    I phoned the police and reported what he’d said. I asked if it counted as a hate crime. They said “no”. I said, if he’d called me a dirty nigger or a filthy jew would THAT count as a hate crime. They said “yes”.
    So, long story short, abuse against women is A-OK in the eyes of the law.
    BTW he tried to press assault charges against me because I called him a fucking asshole and said it was not my fault he was an “impotent, dickless shitwad”.
    No legal action was taken. And Nothing has come of it. The incident has added to my fear of men and my (very real) fear that if a man does hurt me, the “justice” system will do nothing to help me.

    Funnily enough, in Canada, if a woman uses a weapon and hurts or kills a man who is trying to rape her or is otherwise physically assaulting her, she can be charged with aggravated assault. You want a catch-22? Try that on for size.

  11. Kelly B says:

    *She* should be allowed to carry a gun.

  12. A painting of murdered teen Chelsea King was unveiled in a Los Angeles Gallery Blum & Poe on the Anniversary of her death. Lake Hodges Indian Maiden Falls was also the same terrain where King was raped, murdered, and returned to the earth. Where the artist was a frequent visitor. There are paintings done by the ancient indians of Red Mazes symbolizing a girls first menses and the coming journey of womanhood.
    View the exclusive work at


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by cheryltz: RT @msmagazine Chelsea King: Life and Death in a Rape Culture.

  2. […] What if she SHOULD be able to run/walk/hike alone? Thoughts on the rape and murder of Chelsea King (Cross-posted at Ms. blog here.) […]

  3. […] unfortunate that we live in a country which supports a rape culture, where women are blamed for the violence committed against them. Women, in a sense, are being […]

  4. […] am focused on such so-called REAL monsters for reasons close to home. Last month, a 17-year-old female from my town was raped and murdered while jogging alone in a local park. This past weekend, on Easter Sunday, the attendance secretary […]

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