A Lesson in Victim Blaming

Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual harassment and rape

I am a big fan of football. I enjoy watching it at all levels: high school, college, and professional. It is a sport that captures my interest and attention more than any other. A quick look at television ratings will show you that most of American shares the same obsession.

Which is why it hurts when your sport shows its ugly side.

Earlier this month Ines Sainz, a reporter for TV Azteca, was sexually harassed at the New York Jets practice facility. While waiting to interview quarterback Mark Sanchez, several players purposely overthrowing each other so they could get close to her when they scooped up their errant passes, apparently encouraged by an assistant coach. Then later  in the locker room, a few players made catcalls directed at Sainz, who said on Twitter that she was “dying of embarrassment” and “would like to cover my ears.”

All of this is completely unacceptable behavior. Women are n0t sex objects to be oogled and objectified. All reporters deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of gender. This is basic human decency 101. The NFL did respond to the incident, forcing the Jets owner Woody Johnson to publicly apologize. Not the strongest of responses, but I’ll take it over nothing.
What I won’t abid is the response in the media to the incident. The first came from Peter King, who started off really strong in his Monday Morning Quarterback column, writing:

If I were Roger Goodell, I would have given the Jets a $25,000 fine, in addition to the good idea of having owner Woody Johnson fund a media-orientation program. Just funding the program makes it a little wrist-slappish. And I would write a letter to every Jets player and coach telling them it’s bush-league and beneath them to act like fourth graders trying to get the attention of the pretty girl in class.

Good right? Called out both the players, the coaches, and the owner for this behavior. Properly addressed the idea that it is behavior that reflects upon the entire organization, not just a few rogue elements. Then he put his foot into his mouth:

If I were the boss of Ines Sainz, I would tell her, “Dress a little more conservatively.”

That’s not a sexist comment. It’s a reality-based comment. I’ve been around NFL players who look at and make comments about attractive female reporters. It’s life. Young men are going to make comments about attractive women in the company of other men. There are attractive women who cover the NFL who present themselves as professionals doing a professional job, and dressing for business. Alex Flanagan, for instance, or Andrea Kremer, Rachel Nichols, Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber. Or many others. I don’t know Sainz, but I don’t think she helps the cause of women in the media by dressing for Maxim when she dresses for work.

This is what we like to call victim blaming. What he is saying is that “those football players did was bad, but it’s actually all your fault.” He states right in the middle that “young men are going to make comments about attractive women” as if it is a forgone conclusion. Because men MUST be that way, the only way to prevent it is for Sainz to dress more conservatively. This makes her completely responsible for what happened, and excused those who harassed her.

This victim blaming is used as the defense for rapist. In fact, if those players had instead raped Sainz, there would be headlines stating “Sexy Reporter Accuses NFL Players of Rape.” These articles would be accompanied by photos of her in a swimsuit or similarly revealing clothing. The defense would move instantly into explaining how Sainz  and her own actions caused the players to rape her. Because everyone knows that young men can’t resist the urge to have sex with attractive women. Victim blaming is NOT acceptable anywhere.

Peter King was not alone in this point of view. In fact, he wasn’t even the worst I read, though he did point me in the direction of the winner. That prize goes to Ashley Fox and her column “Professionalism is the priority for women covering sports. Here are a few choice quotes:

But Sainz, a television “reporter” from Mexico’s TV Azteca, is not without fault here. And frankly, she brought the Jets’ behavior on herself.

The NFL isn’t some out-of-control organization, but given that it is populated by egotistic, pampered 20- and 30-year-olds making inordinate amounts of money, things are going to happen. For females in the locker room, there is a way to limit the collateral damage if you are so inclined.

You also don’t walk into an NFL locker room wearing jeans that leave little to the imagination and a blouse that reveals your substantial cleavage. You don’t have to dress ultra-conservatively, but you have to be smart. If you want to be treated like a girl at a bar, dress like a girl at a bar. If you want to be treated professionally and without incident, cover up.

To be a real, professional female sports journalist in this country, you must know: Athletes can be pigs. They say things. You have to have a thick skin and be prepared to fire back at them.

You can easily see the same points as above, but she is completely blatant. She comes straight out and blames Sainz, saying that it’s her fault because of her clothing. She also completely excuses the players and the NFL for their bad behavior. She even takes a shot at women in bars, with the assumption that women dressed up at bars are free to harass as well. It is one of the most terrible examples of victim blaming I have ever seen.

Almost all the articles took this track. There weren’t many without victim blaming and even fewer who addressed the topic directly. I want to give credit to Ann Killion of Sports Illustrated and Jelisa Castrodale of MNBC for great articles about it.

Let me lay this out in plain language: the victim of sexual violence is NEVER to blame. It is only the perpetrators, the harassers and the rapists, who are to blame. They are responsible for their actions. As I’ve said before, no outfit permits rape. Nor does any outfit permit any other form of sexual violence. Nothing permits sexual violence, ever, end of story. To suggest any such thing is to succumb to the fallacy of victim blaming.