What if she SHOULD be able to run/walk/hike alone? Thoughts on the rape and murder of Chelsea King

(Cross-posted at Ms. blog here.)

Of all the news I have heard in relation to the recent sexual assault and murder of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old from my community, one quote keeps reverberating in my mind: “She should not have been running alone in the park.”

When my son shared that this was the message passed on to him during a teacher’s discussion of the local tragedy, I bristled. Why is it that we focus blame on the victim? Why are we suggesting she should have been more careful rather than emphasizing he should not have attacked her?

Yet I must admit that this quote reverberates  because it was one of the first things I thought when I heard a young girl was missing after going to run alone in a local park. Living in a rape culture which blames the victim, I recognize that even I, a feminist scholar and teacher, have had a “she should have” commentary beaten into my brain on a daily basis.

Chelsea King (and all humans for that matter) should be able to run in the park without fearing sexual attack. More generally, girls and women should not have to live via a rape schedule, which Jessica Valenti argues is “essentially like living in a prison—all the time.” But our culture does not seem to care much that females have to constantly worry about their safety. Instead, we question the victim’s actions and demeanor, while not focusing nearly enough on perpetrators.

That’s why, I surmise, so many  news stories emphasized that Chelsea was a straight-A student and great athlete. Such descriptions and accompanying photos stressed she was a “good girl,” thus suggesting that some other girls are not so good; some may even “ask for it.” Simultaneously, the perpetrator was framed as a “bad apple,” a repeat offender who should be locked up for life.

What about directing some focus on society itself? Is not patriarchy the underlying culprit here?  As noted in a 2004 Amnesty International study, “Violence against women is one of the most pervasive and ignored human rights violations.” Yet, rather than focus on this rampant societal problem, we might blame a 17-year-old for jogging alone and judge her assailant as a sick anomaly.

Sexualized violence is no anomaly, so displacing the blame from a patriarchal society that encourages and perpetuates such violence to the individual victims and perpetrators only guarantees that such violence will continue. Violence does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it the result of a few bad people (as the work of Erica Meiners, Angela Davis, Jodie Lawston and so many others makes clear). It results from the privilege/oppression matrix and a society that glorifies power. Locking up individual perpetrators and creating sexual offender registries does nothing to address these issues, instead it gives a false sense of security and furthers“stranger danger” myths. As Davis argues, our prison-happy culture is merely “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.”

The alleged murderer of Chelsea King, John Albert Gardner, no doubt is an individual manifestation of the rampant sexism in our society that frames women as objects. But his actions need to be considered in relation to a wider glorification of violence. Locking him up will do nothing to punish the larger perpetrator–the accomplice, the enabler–which is society itself.


4 thoughts on “What if she SHOULD be able to run/walk/hike alone? Thoughts on the rape and murder of Chelsea King”

  1. I find that you raise a lot of very valid points in this article. However, regarding the false sense of security created by locking up criminals and registering sex offenders, I’m curious to know what you would propose doing differently as a practical measure to prevent reoccurrence. Where would you target this problem? How would you, so to speak, punish society itself?

  2. I think the professor’s focus on rape culture is a very important “solution”. It isn’t the only one, but I am in agreement that we need to stop pathologizing assailants (in terms of viewing this as “weird” or “abnormal” behaviour; unfortunately, given the high percentage of crimes involving sexualized violence, we as a society condone, perpetuate, even allow this form of crime). I am reminded of the current media, often directed towards adolescent boys, that make rape “jokes”, show assailant behaviour as “okay” ways to obtain sexual contact (e.g. getting someone drunk), etc.

    As well, we need to stop blaming victims. Women should be safe in our homes, in our relationships, in the bars/restaurants/coffee shops/grocery stores we frequent, in our faith communities, at our workplaces and schools, when running alone, etc. But we aren’t.

    Given the rape culture we live in, I believe it is pretty typical to have the initial “why was she…” response. However, what is important is that we acknowledge that this immediate response is problematic, and do something about it (e.g. writing letters to the editor, volunteering for a sexual assault centre, talking to our friends and family, blogging).

    I can’t remember if I have mentioned it here, but I have spent a fair amount of time looking at research on the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention tips, including rape prevention programs utilizing physical responses (“fighting back”) to sexual assault situations. The sum of it is is that sexual assault prevention tips are based on myths and further blame the victim. They suggest that if we do certain things, we can prevent sexualized violence. But the fact is is that there is only one person who can prevent sexualized violence and that is the perpetrator.

  3. I wholly agree that the reaction to the Chelsea King murder placed the majority of the blame on Chelsea herself. I was disgusted by Logan Jenkins’ column wistfully sighing that she hadn’t been tough enough to fight back. I am frustrated by the community’s response: asking how could this happen here (without any acknowledgment of rape culture) and promoting self-defense classes for our daughters. It all strikes me as unproductive.

    What if our community spent as much time and energy fighting against rape culture to prevent future assaults as they did searching for Chelsea (and Amber)?

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