I think about Eurydice Dixon when I walk home at night. I think about her rape and murder and the conversation that emerged in the wake of it, both good and bad.
‘Unfortunately, evil acts like this do occur …’
In a press conference given by Victoria Police, this oblique platitude was the only reference to the crime. The rest of the discourse was full of the impotent pragmatism that dwells on victim’s choices—women were told to ‘take responsibility for their personal security’, exercise ‘situational awareness’ and crucially, if they had a mobile phone, be sure to ‘carry it’. Like many women, when I first heard ‘situational awareness’ being advised by Victoria Police, it felt like hearing my second nature posed as a novel suggestion. Like most women, I am well versed in the art of exercising ‘situational awareness’, a survival instinct activated around age 12 when I first remember being catcalled by a group of men on my way home from a school mufti day. Revelling in my incredible outfit—stylish pink velour track-pants from Supré paired with Etnies skate shoes—I was on top of the world, as you are when you’re 12 and you feel cool on mufti day.
It is a vivid memory, because it is the last time I unabashedly felt that my body belonged to me, and the first time I was shown that the world might not agree with that. At least not in practice. I felt the rush of self-consciousness and fear that would become unfortunately familiar as I got older. Incidentally, it was at this age that my parents also gave me a Nokia 3315 for safety reasons, and so I would stop asking to play Snake on their phones. This was well over a decade before Victoria Police advised us to carry them. Girls feel the looming potential of violence well before they understand the nature of this violence.
It’s clear where Victoria Police were coming from, and how deeply they want people to be safe. However, in a post-#MeToo world it should be well and truly clear that suggesting that women’s behaviour and vigilance can mitigate the threat of male sexual violence is not only unjust, it’s inexcusably naive.
‘Unfortunately, evil acts like this do occur …’
‘Evil acts’ do not simply occur—they are committed. This kind of language matters greatly. In the example above, there is no subject, no actor. The tendency to distance perpetrators from their choices is exposed through this kind of rhetoric, but it has ramifications far beyond discourse. When men’s behaviour is abstracted into a sort of weather, an environmental force, an inevitability, we forfeit any meaningful attempts to govern it or hold men accountable. This rhetoric says men aren’t making choices, they are just being and women must adapt. Failure to adapt incurs punishment, followed by blame, and this too is manoeuvred by language.
Inequality of power means that dominant groups have always been able to control narratives, on an individual level and a structural level. Eurydice’s rape was inevitable because she was out late, not exercising ‘situational awareness’. Rape is inevitable because ‘boys will be boys’ and they can’t help themselves, and it’s up to women to keep themselves safe. The first statement isn’t true, and the second statement wouldn’t be true if we stopped making excuses and started raising boys to equate strength with empathy. We are on our way, but victim blaming is so deeply woven into the tapestry of oppression that we have to take every opportunity to grab its loose threads and pull.
I think about Eurydice Dixon and the man who raped and murdered her, and how it’s an embodied crime that violently signifies the power structure they both inhabit. I think about how every act of violence or abuse points to something bigger than itself—it reveals its own context, its own conditions. When an Indigenous person is killed in custody, their individual death is another devastating example of white Australia’s colonial disregard for Indigenous lives, and symbolises the erasure of Indigenous autonomy, culture and existence within the infrastructure of white supremacy. When someone dies in offshore detention, whether by suicide or neglect, their life and death point to how easily xenophobia and racism are used to corrode empathy. When a person who dies from abuse or neglect in disability care, they have been failed by an organisation, within an industry, within a power structure, and it reflects the wider cultural neglect of people with disabilities in a world that privileges able bodies. Injustice reveals inequality, and language reveals how we process it.
These inequalities are woven together in a tapestry. Violence or abuse that occurs across these intersections should make these structures visible and expose them to interrogation, but victim blaming interrupts this. It is not new, or coherent, but it is effective. It has franchises across gender and sexuality, race, class and disability. It emerges as a narrative derailment, performing some crisis management and damage control. It aggressively maintains the status quo, and stabilises the moral and emotional equilibrium of bystanders. Its immediate goal is to exonerate the individual perpetrator; its long-term goal is to protect and conceal the power structure that produced them. It snatches up threads and weaves them back into the tapestry that hangs across intersecting power structures, naturalising and concealing them. It is a view that is more readily available to privileged groups, which have the luxury of ignorance when it comes to structural oppression.
Power is preoccupied with its own preservation. It’s the governing motive that operates at a subterranean level, and its strategies are diverse and intimately stitched into how our culture is organised. Like an individual abuser, a powerful group can pick up a neutral tool and wield it as a weapon. Language exemplifies this, powerfully—as a mode of communication, it’s accessible to everyone; the oppressed and the oppressor, the survivor and the perpetrator, the refugee and the politician. But only when stories are linked to structural power are they able to assume the authority of the ‘truth’, because their tellers have the power to make them true—not true in a pure, factual sense but rather to count as true, to be enforced as true.
When the Department of Home Affairs consistently abdicates responsibility for the cruelty of indefinite offshore detention, it doesn’t mean they are not responsible, just that they have the power to behave as if they are not. Women are not responsible for avoiding rape, and yet the dominant social narrative, as reinforced by comments like that of Victoria Police, has always enforced this as a truth. This dynamic is part of a broader pattern where dominant groups are able to hoard power without responsibility for the damage, and much of this manoeuvring is done through their use of language and by determining who gets to tell the story.
Because of this relationship between language and power, we must be vigilant about language that naturalises oppression. Victim blaming operates through the suppression of story and the retelling of story. It rewrites the narrative and turns victims into scapegoats for their own violation, or less explicitly, attributes inequality to the characteristics of those who suffer from it. This is most visible in the discourse that follows violence or injustice perpetrated at the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, class and disability. Preventable death is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of marginalisation—to be pushed so far from the centre, from the locus of power, that even your right to life is taken from you. Oppression culminates in the erasure of individual lives, and this is usually preceded by the erasure of individual voices. To be oppressed is to be silenced, or to speak without being heard.
We are certainly getting better at recognising victim blaming’s greatest hits. The tracks that howl about what women were wearing, drinking, doing and thinking are finally becoming less socially acceptable. We should acknowledge that this brand of victim blaming and its rebuttals occur in the discourse around specific types of crimes—broadly put, the assaults that we hear about. We must interrogate why they are the assaults we hear about. Here, we pull the thread, remembering that the tapestry of inequality is woven with various oppressions that intersect. In the last decade, Australia has grieved the unjust deaths of Jill Meagher, Sophie Collombet and now Eurydice Dixon. The response is appropriate, but we should also acknowledge the characteristics that unite these three crimes—the victims were all young, middle-class white women, who were raped and murdered in public places by men they did not know. These women were mourned properly, but the further we get from this demographic of victim and this type of crime, the less the public is informed, and the more apathy is allowed to fester. Any narrative that does emerge tends to frame injustice as regrettable, but ultimately inevitable. If a victim’s choices cannot be blamed, some facet of their identity is introduced as a mitigating factor.
It’s worth celebrating that we’re much better at recognising the classic hits, but victim blaming has a lot of B-sides; slower ballads that insidiously shift the blame, that try to point to the mitigating factor of the victim’s identity. These narratives are less explicit than blaming a victim’s choices, but they are equally damaging. The pervasive sentiment is that if the victim had been different, or done something different, the crime would not have been committed—these are the narratives that naturalise violence against certain types of bodies.
In October of 2015, Mayang Prasetyo was murdered, cut up and boiled by her husband, Marcus Volke. A News Corp tabloid in Queensland referred to Mayang as a she male, a prostitute and a hooker wife. Headlines included ‘Monster chef and the she male’; ‘Ladyboy and the butcher’ and ‘Killed and cooked trans woman was high-class sex worker’. Many publications also ran images of Mayang in a bathing suit. When you use words like this to sculpt the victim’s identity in a headline, not only are you defining her by her difference from social norms, you are also linking that difference to the origin of the crime. It might be a dog whistle, but it’s there, buried underneath the flamboyant transphobia and sex worker slurs.
In September 2014, Geoff Hunt murdered his wife and children. His wife had an acquired brain injury. The Daily Telegraph ran with the headline ‘Geoff Hunt murdered family after years of stress following wife’s car accident’, and the Sydney Morning Herald ran with ‘Strains that grew in Geoff Hunt ended in five deaths on a farm’. Both are exculpatory; the former pinpoints his choice to murder his wife and their children to the strain caused by her disability. Language is often used to diminish the agency of the perpetrator, and this distances them from responsibility for their crimes.
The use of the word ‘ended’ is also passive, as though this was how this story was always going to play out. Both of these are devastating examples of domestic violence, but we are distracted from their similarities by the victim-specific narratives that follow. Mayang Prasetyo and Kim Hunt’s respective identities are deeply relevant to the discussion, but only in as much as they remind us that women with disabilities and LGBTQI+ people are at a higher risk of violence, not because of these identities, but because of the value stripped from them by structures that privilege able bodies and heterosexual, typically white bodies. Violence against these women will remain inevitable until structures change.
There is a pervasive atmosphere of inevitability when we look at Indigenous deaths in custody and the discourse that surrounds them. This is not surprising; victim blaming has always been a part of the colonial strategy. When an Indigenous person is killed in custody, their death represents the consequences of white supremacy and how power structures are not simply abstract concepts, but embodied hierarchies. The conversation that follows a death in custody often hums with the kind of inevitability that saps accountability from the state, its institutions and the individuals directly involved.
It reflects what Gomeroi poet and law scholar Alison Whittaker describes as the ‘blameless fatalism’ that has long underpinned Australia’s Indigenous policy. Whittaker researched the coronial process and the language of coroners—the language of those who decide whether to submit a case for prosecution, the language that precedes, and in many ways informs, public discussion. When coroners describe the death in custody of 22-year-old Indigenous woman Ms Dhu, who was being held for outstanding parking fines, as ‘unfortunate’ 25 times, as ‘regrettable’ 11 times, and ‘sad’ 12 times during an inquest, it matters greatly.
Ms Dhu was a victim of family violence. An autopsy showed that complications arising from a previous rib fracture contributed to her death. She was taken to the Hedland Health Campus three times during her detention after saying she felt unwell, and she died on her third visit. By her third visit, she was barely conscious. There is video footage of her being dragged along the ground by police, and then carried by her arms and legs like a ‘dead kangaroo’. At the inquest into her death, the coroner said that unbeknown to the people caring for her, by her second visit Ms Dhu was already dying from pneumonia and septicaemia. The court was told that police handcuffed Ms Dhu and took her to the health campus, where she ‘immediately went limp, slumped into the chair and her head and eyes rolled back’. According to the opening address, nurse Caroline Jones recalled that police officers told them Ms Dhu ‘was faking it’ shortly before she went into cardiac arrest and died.
During her research into why prosecutions and civil actions for deaths inside were so uncommon, Whittaker suggests that:
Coronors, in their long careers examining death, are trained to look for biomedical models. It is unremarkable that they find most deaths inside are from natural causes. What they and we often fail to see is how designating a death as natural commonly misrepresents how someone died, implying that nothing caused or contributed to it.
This language allows us to disguise violence as disadvantage or doom, with no precipitating factors external to the victim’s choices or identity. When state actors are blamed, it is for their failure to intervene in tragedies, not for being a cause of the tragedy. They are not blamed for purposely depriving people of care, nor for what Whittaker calls ‘weaponising indifference in circumstances of total control’.
This is also reflected in the preventable deaths of refugees in detention. When Salim Kyawning committed suicide on Manus Island in May 2018, initial reports in the Guardian indicated that an unnamed Rohingya man had died in a motor vehicle accident. Within hours the Australian had identified Salim, disclosed his apparent suicide, and tumbled over itself to describe him as ‘a troubled and aggressive man who had more than 60 incidents logged with authorities, including reports of assault and use of force’. The headline read ‘Mentally ill refugee “had violent history”’. When the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre contacted Salim’s family 29 hours after he died, they were shocked to discover they had not been notified of his death.
Although the Department of Home Affairs found the time to provide the Australian with details of Salim’s behaviour, they had neglected to notify his family of his death. The Australian prefaced the mention of his severe mental health issues and epilepsy with ‘refugee advocates say’, insinuating a lack of credibility due to their ‘agenda’. Salim was the seventh asylum seeker on Manus to die; the last three of those deaths, which have all occurred in the past 12 months, have been apparent suicides. The Department of Home Affairs issued the following statement: ‘The Department is aware of the death on Manus Island. Further enquiries should be referred to PNG authorities.’ Death in detention will remain inevitable as long as those in power allow it to be.
Victim blaming knows how to pivot, adapting to each injustice seamlessly because it’s a premixed narrative framework that can be applied to any situation where we are confronted with injustice that requires a response. It can be understood as a psychological impulse, as well as a socially reinforced one. The first is driven by a desire to believe or to convince others that injustice and injury can be avoided by personal choices. A person who engages in victim blaming is not only privileging their internal equilibrium over empathy for the victim, they are also ignoring the reality revealed by injustice, which is that the world is not fair or predictable.
This subconscious belief that the world is fair is often known as the ‘just world fallacy’ or the ‘just world hypothesis’. Bystanders tell themselves that as long as they don’t do what a victim did to ‘deserve’ the abuse, they will be safe. If an event establishes the world as unjust, people put the victim at fault or try to convince themselves and others that no injustice has occurred. Although its manifestation is often aggressive and ugly, it’s a firmly defensive position, where people try to insulate themselves from their own vulnerability, or from the discomfort caused by the revelation that they benefit from the structurally determined vulnerability of others. It is about preservation—when directed inward, it conserves false security and the lie that people always get what they deserve. When expressed outwardly, it’s a corruptive narrative force that preserves the status quo. If it acknowledges injustice, it blames victims, and not perpetrators.
If this sounds too naive when dragged out of the subconscious and into the light, perhaps we can understand it as the crude expression of meritocracy. Because when you pull the thread of victim blaming and stumble through your own interior to explore what ‘just world’ theories you might hold, and when you emerge on the other side ready to engage with the outside world again, you’ll get to the tapestry of meritocracy; a magisterial, aspirational mythology hung across an infrastructure of inequality. You can arrive there and drop the thread; you can drink in the ideology and allow it to inflame the psychological compulsion to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, for better or worse. You can see your own flawed logic artfully rendered, and take it at face value, as confirmation. Or you can keep pulling the thread; pull until the tapestry stops reflecting you, until its false narratives unravel—pull until all that’s left is the power structure it was hung across to glorify and conceal. The more privilege you hold, the more comfortable you need to get with this process. We all need to get more comfortable with being implicated, with feeling others tugging at our threads. We need to join in and trace the origins, and commit to unravelling them.
The myth of meritocracy is the just world theory writ large. It inflames and validates the self-serving psychological compulsion to blame injustice on those who suffer from it. In the same way as the just world hypothesis conceptualises the world as neutral, the myth of meritocracy insists on structural neutrality—it legitimises inherited privilege as the outcome of individual talent, ingenuity and effort rather than the result of birth and education. When it’s not feasible to imply that we’re already in a meritocracy, the narrative pivots—if inequality is acknowledged, meritocracy is resuscitated as the solution. When you’re at the top of the hierarchy, you can pretend you live in a meritocracy.
When you’re in the position of power you can choose to listen to those below you, or you can choose not to, and the fact that a choice exists is at the very heart of privilege. The option to disengage belongs only to the powerful. You can listen to others detail their suffering, and consider it. You can ask them to go away and bring you evidence. When they come back with evidence, you can hypothesise that perhaps it’s due to something else? Perhaps it didn’t happen exactly as they said, perhaps they just misunderstood? You can wonder if perhaps they have a bit of a victim mentality now. You can invoke the great capitalist mythology of meritocracy. You could even concede that you agree with some of their points, but note that you find their tone alienating. You want to take their opinions seriously, but you wonder if fear and anger are overtaking reason at this point. You want to have a reasonable conversation, and you use the word ‘reasonable’ with nary a hint of irony, totally unaware that ‘objectivity’ as you know it is just your tribe’s subjectivity. They can even conform to your terms of expression: peaceful protest, long and thoughtful think pieces, they can respectfully indulge your devil’s advocacy, very gently challenge your false equivalences, participate in your delusion that you come to the table with an equal wealth of experiential knowledge on the issue, but ultimately you still have the option to move the goalposts, because you own the field. You can give them a microphone, because you still own the stage. Your inclusion is unconditional, and so you can set the conditions of theirs. And if something goes pear shaped, there’ll always be that insidious discourse of inevitability available to you—you did your best, what else could you have done?
I think I believed that we lived in a meritocracy until I was 12. Twelve was a big year for me—my ‘situational awareness’ was blossoming, I acquired a Nokia 3315 safety device, and one weekend my parents gently shamed me for my lack of empathy. It stuck with me ever since.
‘Who’d want to live in a dump like that?’ I had asked obnoxiously, scrunching my nose up at a particularly dilapidated apartment block. I sounded like the bully in a children’s film. Both my parents spun around and looked at me with light horror and concern, and I knew I had said something bad. My mum looked at me searchingly and said, ‘Some people don’t have a choice’, and I still remember the inflection of her words, the shape of the sentence and how it pierced me. It was probably the first time I was forced to consider that the world is not fair—not simply that life isn’t fair, but that the world isn’t fair either. The world is like a scaffold for life but it has been built by hand, and historically these hands have been white, male, heterosexual, wealthy and able bodied. I am glad that the scaffolding and its attendant structures are being interrogated. The ground is shifting, and we are starting to shake these structures at the place where they pierce the soil.
The narrative is changing. Victim blaming has always been a powerful tool because it is psychologically convenient and socially reinforced, but it finally feels like the truth is gathering momentum. The immediate goal of victim blaming is to exonerate the individual perpetrator, and its long-term goal is to protect and conceal the power structure that produced them. It naturalises oppression by suppressing unwelcome voices and retelling stories that preserve power. We undermine the power of victim blaming by doing the opposite—we pull the thread of every injustice and ceaselessly interrogate what it reveals, by pushing back on inevitability narratives and asking who benefits from this perceived inevitability, and by amplifying the voices of those who have been oppressed and victimised by this lie. This is why it is exciting that women such as Rosie Batty are public voices on domestic violence. It is why #MeToo altered public consciousness around sexual harassment and violence.
It is why the voice of Kurdish Iranian journalist, poet and refugee Behrouz Boochani is so powerful—the intimacy and insight that he’s capable of outweighs that of even the most passionate advocate. The writings that would become his book No Friend but the Mountains were smuggled out of Manus through messaging services such as WhatsApp. It is the same reason why it is so significant when Jordon Steele-John, the first person with a disability to sit in the Senate, addresses parliament and names the people with disabilities who have died from severe neglect, those who had been killed by loved ones in mercy killings, and individuals who have died in group homes following sexual assault and other forms of serious physical violence. ‘These are the names that don’t get spoken.’ It matters, because he can ask, ‘why won’t the Prime Minister acknowledge the shared horror of the experience of disabled people, my people …’ Structural oppression is often ‘shared horror’, and victim blaming tries to obscure this by individualising each narrative, but hearing the voices of those who suffer under it—someone who can say ‘my people’, is as powerful as it is vital.
When I think about Eurydice Dixon, I imagine a new narrative being woven, one that makes strange the injustice that’s been framed as inevitable, even natural, for so long. Because while victim blaming is nothing new, the cohort of people ready to recognise it and call it out as unacceptable is growing. The ground is shifting as it gradually becomes more hostile to abuses of power. I have to be hopeful about what is on the horizon, and what could be achieved by a commitment to tearing down old power structures, and building a new infrastructure from scratch, a new world built from the ground up by many hands—not simply the white, the male, the straight, the able bodied and the wealthy.
I allow myself to imagine a world where everyone at the top of their hierarchy takes ownership of disassembling it. This is a world in which men care about sexual assault, not because they have daughters, but because they have sons. It is a world in which privileged groups recognise how limited their experience is, and take the time to educate themselves about issues that don’t directly affect them, and then get involved in supporting the work already done in these spaces by those who are better equipped to do it. It is a world that has figured out how to enact a philosophy well articulated by the Aboriginal elder, activist, artist and educator from Queensland, Lilla Watson: ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’
Sometimes this hope feels too vulnerable, and it gives way to cynicism. Though I am afraid of being considered naive, I persist with hope, because admitting that being hopeful about our shared future is naive is somehow more heartbreaking to me. I don’t think we are obligated to be hopeful, and I wouldn’t ask that of anyone who has had violence or injustice inflicted on them, though we so often do—we ask the victim to forgive, to teach, to educate, to rip open their wounds so we can decide whether or not we care, and whether or not we care enough to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. I know hope isn’t policy or legislation or compensation. Hope doesn’t redeem loss. It can’t breathe life into the past, but it is oxygen in the fight for a better future. You can only fight for a better world if you believe it’s possible. I have to believe that it is. •
Emma Pitman is a writer from Sydney. Her essays have appeared in the Lifted Brow and other publications.