He had “a really bad day.”
And with that statement, the shooter of eight people was exonerated.
I had a very bad day earlier this week. As a survivor of rape, and a vast collection of other acts of violence that have been committed against me by men, it has been a heavy couple of weeks. I had a very bad day filled with sadness and anger and tears and screaming into the void. I had a very bad day and I managed to not murder eight people.
Our society works overtime to exonerate perpetrators of violence against women*, and to shift the blame and responsibility onto the shoulders of women. Even the phrase ‘violence against women’ does this, rather than us saying, for example, ‘end male violence. Our society was built by men, for men. Recognising the impact of this on the elimination of violence against women is crucial. Historically, it was men who wrote the laws around violence against women, who established cultural norms, who determined how to stop it. Societal norms and precedences have included the mass exoneration of perpetrators by creating a culture that looks to blame victims for violence committed against them. We are taught to exonerate the assailant while implicating the victim. Even in the horrific killing of Sarah Everard, what made the headlines is that she did everything “right.” She was the “ideal” victim in the eyes of the public, someone who didn’t “deserve” what happened to her. Sarah wore bright colors. It wasn’t too late, it was 9 PM. She walked on a busy road. She called a friend. She was alert. She did what we have all been told to do to stay safe, and still, she wasn’t safe. And still, people took to the Internet to shift responsibility onto her, to say that she shouldn’t have walked home alone in the evening. You only have to look at the FGRLS CLUB comments to see this.
When my friend Becky Dykes was raped and murdered by a taxi driver in Beirut in 2017, she too had done everything “right.” She wasn’t drinking because she had a flight the next day. She left early in order to be responsible. She was in her work attire. She ordered an Uber in order to get home safely and not walk at night. And the worst still happened. And still, individuals looked to shift responsibility onto her, saying she should not have been out after dark and that she should not have taken an Uber home alone. In the cases of Sarah and Becky, the exoneration of the perpetrator was conducted by finding ways to blame the women for violence. They shouldn’t be out in the dark, they shouldn’t walk home, they also shouldn’t take an Uber. As if any of these things are the real problem.
In the states this week, a white male shooter’s rampage in the Atlanta area left eight dead, the majority of which were Asian women. The suspect has told police that he had a “sexual addiction,” and wanted to “eliminate” temptation. The sheriff’s deputy labeled the shooter as having a “really bad day.” This rhetoric actively gives the public ways to exonerate the perpetrator, ways to sympathize with him, and ways to look for avenues to blame the victims.
In all the cases of male violence against women I can think of, our society searches for potential exonerations. Take the Brock Turner case in the U.S. in 2015, which was riddled with popular rape myths and attempts to let Turner off. This included blaming drinking and “party culture.” It also included his father’s infamous defense that his son should not have to go to prison for “20 minutes of action”. This shows how easy society can flip the role of the victim when it comes to rape cases. In no way was Turner a victim. But still, some argued that because he was a Stanford student — and a star swimmer no less! — he should be valued for his role in society, not punished for his rape.
There is a tendency for people to regard the world as “just,” which bolsters assumptions that a victim must have done something to “deserve it,” and ultimately works to exonerate perpetrators. Questions such as, ‘What was she wearing?’ ‘Was she drinking?’ ‘What time was she out?’ ‘Why was she alone?’, all work to excuse assailants for their actions, and look to the victim to justify what happened to her. It should never matter whether a woman did everything “right.” Women should be allowed to live their lives without fear of being attacked or murdered. Yet for, well, all of time, women have had to shoulder the responsibility of preventing violence. Then, when this violence happens, we are handed the blame, still. The intersection of racism and misogyny cannot be overlooked. The stereotypical “ideal” victim is, typically, white women who did everything “right.” Ignoring this erases the realities of violence. Violence conducted against white cis women garners more sympathy and attention than violence conducted against Black women, brown women, or Asian women. The same goes for violence against trans women. Take for example the shooting of the Asian women in Georgia. Many have tried to overlook the intersection of racism, misogyny, and fetishisation in this crime.
Victim-blaming myths are so deeply entrenched in our modern culture from centuries of male exoneration. These myths are relentlessly recited whenever violence is committed against women, whether that violence is street harassment, catcalling, domestic violence, assault, rape, or murder. These myths, and the way they have permeated society, demonstrate the immense cultural sympathy for the violent man and the inclination to do whatever it takes to blame the victim. What victim-blaming and general exoneration of perpetrators teaches men in our society is that they can act with entitlement and impunity. Men who commit violence against women feel entitled to the women whom they violate. Survivors then face a judicial system that ultimately lets them down.
We want to believe that our society comes down hard on perpetrators of violence against women. We want to believe that only a crazed fringe commit these crimes. Ingrained misogynistic views have allowed our society to trivialise and normalise violence against us. Men want to believe instances of violence against women are rare. But women, through their lived experiences, know this not to be true. 97 percent of young women have experienced sexual harassment in the UK. Twenty percent of women have been sexually assaulted. An estimated 2.3 million adults experience domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020. Violence against women isn’t a rarity. It’s an epidemic. Treating it as a rare occurrence upholds myths that this isn’t a societal problem.
The infuriating, gaslighting hashtag #NotAllMen started trending following demands for change. Women are aware it’s not all men. But 97% of women are being harassed. That’s basically all women. So unless one man is just really, really busy — it’s a lot of men. As a society, we must understand the breadth and depth of violence against women in our culture. Only then can we work to eliminate it.
We must address the problem at its roots: We need urgent societal change to eradicate violence against women. We need a complete overhaul in culture, behavior, and attitudes around women, their body autonomy, and their safety. Every single person deserves to be safe.
Mary Morgan is a writer, artist and scholar focused on body politics. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @msmarymorgan.