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Why Are Women Blamed For Their Own Assaults? It's A Story We’ve Been Fed for Centuries

By Lauren Hutton


Many women are afraid to come forward with sexual violence allegations because responses from both acquaintances and officials often question their responsibility in the offense: were they drinking? Were they wearing promiscuous clothing? Did they agree to go home with someone? These questions place the blame on the survivor, rather than questioning why the assailant didn’t ask for consent.

There are many reasons people are inclined to blame women for their own assaults. Partially, they want to believe they live in a world where bad things only happen to someone who missteps, and it is terrifying to accept law-abiding, innocent people can suffer horrifically through no fault of their own. In psychology, this is referred to as the just-world hypothesis, and it focuses on a need to believe people deserve what happens to them. Additionally, some people don’t want to believe individuals they know could commit grievous crimes, and are therefore inclined to sympathize with perpetrators. Finally, studies show that media presentation can affect people’s tendencies to blame the victim and question what they could have done differently, rather than blaming the perpetrator. 

But it’s more than that. It’s more than human nature and psychology and poor reporting. It also comes down to stories. The stories we are told about women and the roles we expect them to play.

The seductress trope is one of the oldest archetypes in history. It embodies a woman who is beautiful, manipulative, often a sexual predator or villain, intelligent and dangerous. Iterations of this idea of womanhood span all of human history from the Bible to Bond movies. Folktales, ancient philosophies, and religions paint women as femme fatales, seductresses, sirens, and witches, creating an underlying conception about women that affects people’s abilities to empathize with those who find themselves in sexual violence situations; there is an insidious narrative that women are asking for it, bringing violence upon themselves with alluring dress and flirtatious behavior, and that men can’t resist.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam’s conception of women stems partially from the very first woman: Eve. The Bible’s portrayal of Adam and Eve presents Eve as extremely beautiful but a troublemaker, the first sinner, the downfall of man, and, ultimately, a temptress. She is the embodiment of temptation, leading Adam down a dangerous path he seemingly would not have embarked on himself. As the mother of all women, society insinuates that we are all a little bit of Eve. Later on, Salome dances for Herod and claims John the Baptist’s head, embracing her role as a femme fatale and bringing about her own destruction alongside the man lured to his untimely death. In many Bible stories, (Delilah, Jezebel, Bathsheba, Drusilla, and the list goes on) women function as temptresses to otherwise upstanding men, and often take the blame for proceeding transgressions. In cultures where so many people rely on religion to guide their understanding of human nature, it is concerning to see women portrayed in such an unsavory manner time and time again.

To proceed with western stories, archaic storytelling and medieval literature carry on this biblical trope. Odysseus is almost led astray by sirens, who use their sexual appeal and stunning voices to lure unsuspecting men in, making the journey home to their wives impossible and jeopardizing their commitment through no fault of their own. Roman myths are no exception with Medusa being seduced by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena and then punished with her classic snake-filled locks for breaking celibacy. While the gods blamed her allure for the transgression, many tales depict the interaction as Poseidon raping her. It would seem easy then to answer whether she is a temptress or a victim — but men wrote and passed down the story, and so we are only left with laments over her allure by male gods who were somehow seduced for the umpteenth time. In the Renaissance, Shakespeare provided us with Lady Macbeth’s ploy to manipulate her husband into committing murder for their increased wealth and power. In Irish folklore, the seductive Fairy Queen takes mortal men and entraps them for seven-year periods against their will. At the same time, in very real early modern Europe, women were being tried as witches across the continent in the likes of Germany, Sweden, Scotland, and later, in America’s New England. In 21st century pop culture, many of us grew up with the seductive vampire trope. Victoria in the Twilight series, lethal in her use of her sexuality to coerce men into doing her bidding, was the villain in half of the books, a constant counter to Edward, the good vampire perpetually devoted to protecting his spouse.   

But it doesn’t stop there. It is not just western society that sees us as a little bit Helen of Troy, as Sirens, as Lady Macbeth. The presentation of women using their sexuality to the downfall of man expands past cultural and religious boundaries. In Elizabeth Prioleau’s Seductress, she comments on the intersection of sexuality with spirituality, writing, “the core themes of sexuality were infused in the human libido with deeply mystical impulses,” partially evidenced by mortal man’s embrace of female angels in holy texts across cultures. In Vedic India, female sexuality was linked to goddess worship with devotion to the goddess of wisdom resulting in the “highest splendour of the yoni” (the vagina). The connection between female sexuality and the spiritual realm seems a universal story, twisted in many instances to create the archetypal seductive sorceress. This storytelling perhaps helps account for the western world’s tendency to control and demean female sexuality on the whole, as a source of danger. According to historian Ashley Cowie, female sexuality has been “de-powered by the patriarchal church in the western world” over the past 3,000 years. Stories paint sexually empowered women as close to the dark and supernatural, rather than as spiritually awakened, and seek to eliminate this threat. 

Later on in the east, more organized religions continued to contribute to the difficult narrative of female sexuality. Around 1,000 AD, “Tantra” developed concurrently in Hinduism and Buddhism. The term refers to the weaving of the instrument of the body and was seen as “a spiritual journey of self-development involving work with kundalini energy, chakras, yoga, and other esoteric areas. Putting elements of all these ideas together, women could raise, lower, manage, and control the flows and release of energies in themselves and their partners.” Notice that the idea of tantra involves the women doing the manipulating and lends itself to the narrative of coercion and deceit being an implicit part of female sexuality. The link between the sexual and the supernatural seems inherent to ancient storytelling, leading to its weaponization across regions. 

It seems that across cultures, we are being taught to mistrust women. We are being taught to believe they want to use their sexuality as a weapon to ensnare men. But are we not teaching men that it's not their fault if they can’t resist? That all women are seductresses after all. That all women must secretly want it. This is how the story goes. This is how the story has always gone. 

For most of history, stories have been crafted by men. Patriarchal religions and philosophical stances depict women as evil holders of their sexuality, bringing about even the most wholehearted of men’s downfalls. Intelligent women, political and artistic leaders, and even opinionated wives are rendered supernatural, evil, capable only of abusing their relentless sexuality. The story is one-note and, ultimately, a tragedy for women rather than men.

This is how the story ends: the burning of a witch. The suicide of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. The hanging of Helen of Troy. Victoria’s body being ripped to pieces. Eve’s subjugation and sorrow. The silence of survivors.

Women, we must start rewriting the story. It is time to move beyond the rituals in the woods, darkened rooms, fairly lands and treacherous cliff sides. It is time to accept the realm of folklore and supernatural deceit as fiction. The tropes don’t stand a woman can be clever, powerful, and driven without using her sexuality to succeed. Men bring about their own downfalls more often than not, and it’s time for literature to stop letting us take the blame. 

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