Blame transfer gives abusers a pass – and it’s a dominant feature of American culture and law


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Simply by being, a woman can activate our blame impulses.

The third annual Iowa Women’s March inside the Iowa State Capitol Rotunda in 2019. (Phil roeder / Flickr)

When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, women are routinely held accountable for controlling men’s urges, making the misconduct the fault of the victim rather than the abuser. Of course, the survivors are accused of dressing provocatively, smiling, failing to find a way to stop the assault or harassment, etc. Even women who to do hardly anything can be blamed for their abuses, however, since their very existence is considered a sufficient temptation. Simply by being, a woman can activate our blame impulses.

The law on sexual harassment reinforces this cultural fixation on women who invite their abuse. The leading judgment on the “unwelcome” is Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1986. The story begins more than a decade earlier, when 19-year-old Mechelle Vinson was hired to work as a trainee cashier at a small bank in Washington, DC Vinson , who is black, had grown up poor and surrounded by violence.

A few months after Vinson started working at the bank, his manager, Sidney Taylor, asked him to have sex with him. She later recounted that when she refused, Taylor threatened her. “I said, ‘I don’t want to sleep with you.’ And he said, ‘Just like I hired you, I’ll fire you. Just like I did to you, I’ll break you, and if you don’t do what I say, then I’ll get you killed ‘… And that’s how it started.

Over the next two and a half years, Taylor subjected Vinson to “repeated outrages upon sexual attention,” including “40 or 50 episodes” of forced sex. On several occasions, she said, he raped her so violently that she consulted a doctor. Over and over she asked him to stop.

Vinson chose not to file a formal complaint because she couldn’t risk losing her job. She remembers thinking, “My God, I need my job. When the stress of harassment and assault forced her to take sick leave, she was fired. She then sued the bank and Taylor – and everyone completely denied the charges.

The judge in the case allowed the defendants to present evidence that Vinson was wearing “low-cut dresses” and “extremely tight pants”. The judge also allowed a colleague to testify that Vinson “had a lot of sexual fantasies” and “talked a lot about sex.” The judge heard from Vinson and several colleagues who have witnessed repeated incidents of his abuse and have themselves suffered similar misconduct.

At the end of the trial, the judge ultimately ruled that any “intimate or sexual relationship” between Vinson and Taylor was “a voluntary relationship by the complainant having nothing to do with her continued employment.” Put simply, Vinson “was not sexually harassed and was not sexually discriminated against.”

Why was Vinson not credible when she claimed that Taylor’s sexual advances and abuse hurt her? The evidence admitted at trial about her dress and her sexual fantasies exploited long-held myths about the promiscuity of black women. Vinson was presented as a woman who deserved to be mistreated “because she asked for it, we know she asked for it, because she is a lascivious woman,” her attorney had objected.

The Vinson case went to the Supreme Court, questioning whether sexual harassment in the workplace violates federal anti-discrimination law. In a historic victory for victims, the court ruled for the first time that sexual advances constitute a form of unlawful discrimination when they create a “hostile work environment”.

The Court wrote: “The basis for any allegation of sexual harassment is that the alleged sexual advances were ‘unwelcome'” indicating that the ‘right investigation’ is whether Vinson “by his conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome.

The creation of the intrusive character test tempered Vinson’s victory. The focus would now be on her and all the accusers in the future. What mattered was Vinson’s way of showing Taylor that his sexual overtures weren’t welcome. To this end, the Court blessed a thorough investigation into the conduct and appearance of the victim. Vinson’s “sexually provocative speech or dress” was considered “obviously relevant” in determining whether she found the sexual advances unwelcome.

That legal framework, which the Supreme Court passed on to the lower court that resolved Vinson’s claim, remains in place today.

It is a framework that disadvantages some women more than others. Regardless of what they wear, black women are more likely to have their clothes considered “inappropriate” for the workplace. This cultural bias is compounded by the Sexual Harassment Act, which links what courts commonly refer to as “sexually provocative speech or dress” to the idea that an accuser welcomed the advances.

The final phase of Mechelle Vinson’s litigation (which was ultimately settled out of court) was shaped by the new unwelcome standard announced by the Court, which her lawyer immediately realized would impose an unfair burden, not only to Vinson, but to countless victims in the future.

The question for a jury, if a case goes this far, is whether the victim’s conduct is sufficient to show that it is unwelcome. This investigation lends itself easily to a dismissal of blame. Particularly when the relationship between the stalker and his target is hierarchical, an accuser may not be able to do enough be seen as a victim rather than a facilitator.

When victims are particularly vulnerable, they are unlikely to meet the legal burden imposed on them. Without power in the workplace, a woman will find it difficult to confront her abuser about her unwelcome behaviors, leaving her a prime target for whatever comes her way.

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Blaming the blame gives abusers a gigantic pass – and it is a dominant feature of our culture and our law. A main function of what I call the credibility complex is to hold accusers accountable for their abuses while releasing the offender from all responsibility. This preserves familiar yet hierarchical structures in which the collective, mainly its most powerful members, is deeply invested.

From the book CREDIBLE: Why we doubt the accusers and protect the aggressors by Deborah Tuerkheimer. Copyright © 2021 by Deborah Tuerkheimer. Posted by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

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