By Guila Benchimol
While Donald Trump has claimed that focusing on his comments about sexual violence are “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today,” I beg to differ. This moment demands practical suggestions as to what we can do differently so that we can do better. While other issues affecting the Jewish community are equally as pressing, this moment is one where many victims and survivors of sexual violence are reeling from the results of the election which has communicated to them that their pain and experiences do not matter.
One place to start is by educating ourselves about how to read and understand the many stories about sexual violence that are now being shared. I have written in the past about how the techniques of neutralization, which are the strategies that are used by perpetrators and others, neutralize victims and dilute their claims of injury and suffering. These strategies allow us to ignore or disbelieve victims and justify such a response.
Gresham Sykes and David Matza introduced their theory of neutralization in the ‘50s to explain that youths who committed crime used specific techniques to push aside the feelings of shame that would generally accompany their criminal acts. The five techniques are the denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemner, and an appeal to higher loyalties. Three of these techniques, the ones in which responsibility, the injury, and the victim are denied, are particularly salient when it comes to victims of sexual violence in general, and even more so when the offender and victim are acquainted, or when the victim is female. They are known as rape myths and have a similar effect as the techniques of neutralization.
Rape myths are a tool that is specifically used to shift blame to victims of sexual violence and exonerate the perpetrator. They also establish the terms for who can be considered a legitimate or ideal victim, such as outlining the ‘appropriate’ behaviours and reactions of a victim. Examples of rape myths include believing that a victim’s silence is a sign of consent, perceiving rape as a trivial event, and holding the victim responsible for her victimization.
We can learn what the techniques of neutralization are, understand why they are so damaging, and learn how to recognize them. One can turn to articles or comments posted about sexual violence and see the ways in which they are littered with the five techniques. The explanation of each technique below provides a keener understanding of the secondary victimization that those who have been victimized have to endure and how easy it is to push empathetic thoughts about victims from one’s mind.
Trump explained that he is “automatically attracted to beautiful” and anyway, “when you’re a star they let you do it.” Denial of responsibility ensures that social disapproval is ineffective to stop or curb the offending behaviour because the act was beyond the offender’s control. It is used to absolve perpetrators of responsibility for the crime with justifications such as childhood trauma, being overwhelmed by uncontrollable desire, or claiming to have misunderstood the situation.
Trump insisted that his comments were simply “locker room talk.” In denying the injury, offenders evaluate whether anyone was harmed by their behaviour. It is used to blame victims who do not meet the expected notions of how a rape victim behaves, for example when she is not shaking during her testimony. It is also used to redefine the assault into something that was not harmful, such as claiming that what took place was simply a bad date. Trump’s comments demonstrate that he does not understand that, not only his words, but the way he portrayed them deny the injury and the pain of the millions of survivors that were triggered by his remarks and their repeated airtime throughout the campaign.
Trump claimed that he could “do anything” and he apologized to ‘anyone who was offended.’ These deny the humanity of the very people he is talking about. Denial of the victim entails the insistence that in light of the circumstances the offender’s behaviour was not wrong. He may even transform the victim into the wrongdoer. This denies the existence of a victim and presents them as deserving of or instigating the crimes committed against them. This technique is used to deny the existence of particular types of victims, including victims of marital rape, sex workers, intoxicated women, homeless victims, LGBTQ victims, aboriginal women, and black female victims. The insistence of so many of his supporters that his comments were not about sexual violence further denied the victims and survivors who were harmed.
Trump explained that the media attention (“self-righteous hypocrites”) his comments received was a way to get him “out of the race.” When condemning the condemners, the offender deflects the attention away from himself and shines a light on those who disapprove of his behaviour. This changes the conversation and obscures his wrongdoing. As we saw, this technique may be used to imply a victim, or their supporters, are out for revenge. Another example is his attempt at forcing Hillary Clinton to take responsibility for the misdeeds of her husband.
Finally, when appealing to higher loyalties the offender explains that he acted criminally because he found the norms of his group to be more important than the norms of society. Serial sex murderers have used this technique to justify their crimes by saying it was Satan’s work. One can also turn to Rudy Giuliani’s dismissal of Trump’s comments because “the fact is men, at times, talk like that.”
Many of us are wondering what we can practically do to make a difference right now. One suggestion is to let your congregants, students, campers, colleagues, board members and others know that you stand with victims and survivors of sexual violence. Tell them that you are committed to educating yourself about how you can be an ally to them. Ask them what they need. Reach out to boys and men who have been victimized, as well as women and make space for their stories. Read claims of innocence with a critical eye and let victims and survivors know that you will continue to hear and amplify their voice.
Guila Benchimol is a PhD candidate in Sociological Criminology at the University of Guelph focusing on crime in religious communities and on sexual violence. She is also a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and a consultant on community safety and protection policies.