Victim-Blaming in Georgia (or, stop telling women not to be “too friendly”)

Recently, a woman posted on a Georgian expat facebook community that she had been sexually harassed on three separate occasions during her brief vacation in Georgia.  Surprisingly, most of the comments were sympathetic and supportive.  Predictably, there were also a few cultural narcissists who criticized her for failing to acknowledge all of the men she met who didn’t harass her (the #NotAllMen argument) or for focusing too much on the negative aspects of what otherwise must have been a fantastic vacation (the “Mrs. Lincoln” argument, aka “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”).

But in this post I’d like to focus on the third group of responses – those which contained advice on how to avoid being sexually harassed/assaulted in Georgia.  This is problematic, for reasons I’ll explain below.  Notably, it seemed to be mostly expats dishing out this advice, although I have seen similar comments from Georgians in the past.

On the one hand, realistic advice about how to travel safely is good and helpful.  I regularly seek out such advice when I travel to a new country, and I think it is valuable for people to provide this advice.  On the other hand, when this advice is a) directed only towards women, and never men, and b) sets unreasonable expectations, like “never smile”, it really starts to smell less like advice and more like victim-blaming.

Here’s some advice I’ve seen given to women visiting Georgia on how to avoid sexual harassment/assault:

  • don’t smile
  • don’t be “too friendly”
  • don’t be “too chatty”
  • don’t drink alcohol in public
  • don’t smoke cigarettes in public
  • don’t travel alone
  • don’t sit in the front seat of a taxi
  • dress conservatively
  • buy a fake wedding ring for 5 lari and wear it every time you go out
  • have a male chaperone at all times

Sounds like a great vacation.

Note that I’m not necessarily questioning the accuracy of this advice.  Some of these things will definitely decrease (but not eliminate) a woman’s chance of being sexually harassed.  Having a male chaperone at all times is probably the most effective, but I wouldn’t even count on that.  I once had a taxi driver hit on my wife, in front of me, because he thought that she was a tour guide and I was her “guest”.

What I am questioning, however, is whether this advice is crossing the line into victim-blaming.  Men are never told any of these things, so it fails test a).  I think pretty much all of it also sets unreasonable expectations.  Who wants to go on a vacation and not smile, not meet locals, not drink, and have a male chaperone every time you go out in public?  There’s a reason why people aren’t flocking to spend their holidays in Saudi Arabia.  And as all of this advice inevitably shows up in response to a woman complaining about a case of harassment, it definitely has the air of “your harassment could have been prevented if you’d just done a few things differently”.  Which, I’d like to add, might not even be true, because as I said, none of those preventative measures are 100% effective.

This may be obvious, but it bears repeating: when a woman is sexually harassed, the problem is not with her behavior.  The problem is with the behavior of the person who harassed her.  All of the advice about how to behave to avoid sexual harassment may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it is not addressing the actual problem.

And a consequence of that is that victim-blaming tends to take energy and focus away from solving the problem of sexual harassment and the underlying dynamics of power and sexism that produce harassment.  Victim-blaming deflects the kind of criticism that is needed to effectively address the cultural and social factors that lead to harassment.  Victim-blaming perpetuates and reinforces the idea that harassment is women’s fault and that men are justified in harassing women who “step out of line” or behave in a certain way.  Victim-blaming tells men “you can harass women and no one will do anything about it and some people will even defend you”.

Viewed in that light, advice like “don’t be too friendly” is not just bad advice – it’s harmful advice.  It’s not just the fact that it’s deeply unfair to tell women not to make friends with locals when they go to another country.  It’s also the fact that it tells men that if they see a woman who is “too friendly” – whatever that means – she’s fair game for sexual harassment or assault.  It’s also the fact that it tells Georgians that they don’t need to try to change their own culture’s attitudes towards women, because the problem isn’t in their culture, it’s that some women just don’t know how to behave.

I think that Georgia has made progress in dealing with sexual harassment and assault in the seven years that I’ve been here.  The problem certainly has a lot more public recognition.  I was gratified to see that not a single comment accused the victim of lying or inventing the story (although one guy tried to imply that she may have just misconstrued normal, friendly actions as harassment), and a large proportion of the Georgians on the thread acknowledged that there is a problem.  The discourse around sexual harassment has definitely improved.

I would like to see it improve further, though, and I think that the next step is to get past this culture of victim-blaming.  I think it’s fair to warn women about the possibility and likelihood of sexual harassment in Georgia.  I don’t think it’s fair to advise women to try conform to vague, unreasonable standards like “don’t be too friendly”.

I would like my daughter to grow up in a society that rewards friendliness, rather than punishing it.  I would like my son to grow up in a society that doesn’t tell women that they need to be guarded and suspicious around him just because he is male.  We only get that society by teaching men not to harass – not by teaching women not to be friendly.

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One Response to Victim-Blaming in Georgia (or, stop telling women not to be “too friendly”)

  1. Having also read (and spent way too much mental anguish) on that thread, I am 99.99% with you. However, I disagree slightly on some of the advice that comes off as victim blaming. I agree some of the “advice” is victim blaming just polished up, but I think some of it is important. For many Americans who aren’t well-travelled yet, it would never even occur to them that smiling at everyone wasn’t the way to go. I certainly didn’t realize that when I was new in Georgia, and have had to work on my Resting Post-Soviet Bitch Face. My previous experience had shown me that people would think I was “bad” if I wasn’t smiling, while coming to Georgia, smiling made me “bad” in a different way. (Of course the assumption that women should be smiling is another big issue, but that’s moving away from your point here.) I think the taxi thing is also in this category.

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