Monday, June 25, 2012

Medusa and Victim Blaming

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of rape and victim-blaming

The other day, I was watching this show on History Channel called Clash of the Gods, which while not at all like how it sounds, is pretty awesome.  Essentially, they look at a story from classic mythology (such as the Minotaur, or the life of Thor) and while telling the story, look into what elements came from the fears, practices and dreams of the real-life culture from which the myth came.

One episode of this show looked at the story of Perseus and Medusa.  It didn't start with Perseus, though; it started with where Medusa came from.  And her story made me profoundly uncomfortable, because of how familiar it sounded to some issues we still have today.

So this is Ovid's version of the origins of Medusa, the one told by the show: She was once a young woman, serving as a priestess of Athena.  As part of her duties, she had sworn to forever remain a virgin.  However, Medusa was incredibly beautiful; many were attracted to her, including the Lord of the Sea, Poseidon.  One night, Poseidon found Medusa in Athena's temple, and raped her.  Athena, to punish Medusa for no longer being a virgin, transformed her into the hideous corpse-like gorgon* with snakes for hair, boar tusks, and tight scaly skin.  Athena also cursed her so that anyone who looked directly upon her would be instantly turned to stone, dooming Medusa to being alone forever.  Medusa's only relief comes when Perseus, sneaking up on her by watching for her in his shield, beheads her.

The show told the whole story, both where Medusa came from and the tale of Perseus.  But after knowing Medusa's origins, I couldn't help but be appalled at her circumstances.

Athena witnessed her priestess being raped by Poseidon- she knew that Medusa hadn't consented- but her response was to blame Medusa for her trauma and curse her.  And Ovid agreed with her decision; Perseus in the story says that Medusa's punishment is "just and well-earned".


Does this all sound familiar to you?  If you were like me, certain phrases started floating through your mind while reading her story.

"She should have known better." "Look at that skirt- she's asking for it!" "That slut was so drunk- she deserved whatever she got!"

Say it with me, everyone: NOBODY ASKS TO BE RAPED.  EVER.

This idea that a woman is responsible for and should be blamed for her own rape is thousands of years old.  Even back when women were considered little more than property, women were blamed for their own violation.  Even a female goddess got in on the blame game.  Rather than punish Poseidon for raping her loyal priestess, Athena turned on Medusa.  I guess no longer being a virgin means you're scum even to the deity to whom you've devoted your life.

A woman is kinda lucky today if she doesn't get blamed for her own rape, whether by well-meaning(?) friends and family, a defense attorney, a pastor, or the rapist themself**.  And we're still lucky in this country that most people, even while blaming a woman for "letting herself be raped," are horrified by the rapist and want to see justice done.  It's pretty bad sometimes, though.  There are those (*coughcoughSANTORUMcoughcough*) who say that if a woman is impregnated by her rapist, she shouldn't get an abortion and try and move on with her life; instead, she should accept the baby as a "blessing" after a horrible event.  So something that someone forcibly puts into your body, for which you may not be able to provide, is a gift from God.  And that's still not the worst of it; in some countries, if a woman tries to get justice she ends up being charged with adultery and jailed, even executed.

Where does victim-blaming come from?  I think, with women at least, it's fear.  Women fear that, unless there's a certain set of precautions they can check off a list as taking every time they leave the house, they aren't ever safe from being raped.  Even though statistics show that the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the survivor knew, that there's no real common denominator in what "causes" a person to be raped, we need to feel like there's some way to avoid it.  So women, out of fear for their safety, engage in victim-blaming as a way to console themselves and promise themselves that it won't happen to them.

This is what needs to happen: we need to stop putting the burden of preventing rape on the would-be victims, and place it instead on the would-be perpetrators.  One way I read it explained was "How do you stop a rapist when he's 30?  Talk to him when he's 12."  Tell your kids and your friends that they don't own anyone else's body.  Not only does "no" mean "no," but only an enthusiastic "yes" means "yes".  A person who's barely conscious is in no position to consent, and no amount of sexy clothing and sexual behavior gives someone license to take advantage of another person.

It's by preventing people from becoming perpetrators that we stop rape, not by blaming the survivor for their own trauma.  The idea that a person is responsible for their rape and should be punished for it deserves to be left back in the time of Medusa.  It has no place in our time, in our world.

*Gorgons were inspired by human corpses.  This show is awesome!
**Women can and do rape.

1 comment:

  1. Love the article and I too have always found Medusa's story incredibly unjust. Let's hope society stops blaming the victim.