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Guest entry: Can we learn from VOCM’s survey misfire?

I was working last week at one of my other avocations, staffing a booth at a gift and craft fair in Mount Pearl, when VOCM posted a controversial Question of the Day at its website. It flared quickly into a mini-controversy before VOCM removed the question and apologized to those who were offended by its mistake.

I received a handful of messages from readers, asking if I was going to write about it. The issue was interesting but I just didn’t have time, so I contacted Sarah Smellie, a media friend who I knew to be quite upset about the matter, and offered her a guest column. She agreed.

Smellie is a freelance writer and journalist who has been published in The Scope and The Telegram. She is also the Communications and Publicity Manager for the St. John's International Women's Film Festival.

This is her guest entry:

October 30, 2012 - On the heels of an announcement from the RNC that sexual assaults linked to date rape drugs were increasing, VOCM’s Question of the Day last Friday asked: 

“Do you believe that women and young girls do enough to ensure that they don’t become victims of the ‘date rape drugs?’”

Facebook and Twitter pretty much exploded as soon as it was posted.

VOCM took the question down and issued an apology, saying it had been worded in an “insensitive manner.” (At the time the question was removed, the response was 944 saying No, 257 saying Yes, and 149 Not sure.)

Before it came down, I phoned VOCM to ask them what the deal was.

They didn’t see my problem with the question. I mean, hey, who the heck would blame the victim of a horrible crime for being the victim of a horrible crime?

They were really just wondering if women were putting themselves in danger.

It came from genuine, well-meaning concern. Even the majority of the respondents – most of whom voted “No” – probably had the best of intentions. Maybe they just wondered if we were leaving our drinks unattended.

We grow up with friends, family members and even the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women ( http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2012/10/26/nl-linda-ross-1026.html ) telling us how to protect ourselves from everyone who might want to rape us. We’re told to keep our drinks with us at all times, to never walk home alone, and to stay in groups whenever we might be out and about the bars.

We grow up in a society that deals with sexual assault by teaching girls to watch their backs, behave properly, dress modestly, and not be out there asking for it. And if something happens, we question the victim’s role.

I’ve done it, too – I’ve wondered what a friend was doing drinking with sketchy dudes.

It’s what we’re conditioned to do. And it’s shitty.

Women will be sexually assaulted even if they wear nothing but tracksuits and drink in armies of ten. Unless we can “ensure” that people stop drugging and assaulting people, there is no way to “ensure” that we won’t become victims of it.

The onus should not be on women to keep drugs out of their drinks.

We should be asking why people plunk pills in drinks and sexually assault people.

We should be asking if our culture’s attitudes towards sex and gender are messing with people’s heads, and people’s safety.

We should be asking whether we really understand that everyone has a right to wear what they want, go where they want, and live how they want without being drugged or sexually assaulted.

We should be asking if our questions implicitly blame victims of date rape drugs and sexual assault for what happened to them.

And we should probably talk about this a whole lot more.

- Sarah Smellie

Here is the full text of VOCM’s apology:

The VOCM News Question of the Day on the topic of the Date Rape Drug was, in hindsight, worded in an insensitive manner and has since been removed from our website. It was not the intention of the author of the question to attach blame to females or imply in any way that those who are most often victimized by the use of date rape drugs should change their movements and patterns.

The Question of the Day is one component of our website meant to appeal to the masses, and occasionally we may appear to be insensitive. VOCM assures we make every effort to address each topic raised in our Question of the Day in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

VOCM apologizes to anyone who was offended by today's question.




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Recent comments

  • anonymous
    October 31, 2012 - 23:52

    Thanks to the people standing up for the victims. I don't think people realize how common it is to be raped by someone that has gained your trust and that rape can happen in relatively safe environment. I was raped with 2 other people in a room nearby. My best friend and I were hanging out with two other guys we'd known for months. I wasn't drugged but I was fed a lot of alcohol very quickly. I was young I didn't really know my limits. It was late in the night and after the shots, I was so sleepy and drunk and not feeling very well (though everyone else seemed to be having a good time) so I laid my head down on the table where everyone was talking. I woke up on a couch as I was being raped and sodomized, no less. Yes, I suppose I DO think that doing those shots wasn't a very good idea. But it doesn't make what he did right. My friend was shocked and took me to hospital right away. They made me take off my clothes and stand there naked. Kept my panties. Pulled hairs from my very nearly virginal place. Swabbed everything. Police came. It was humiliating. They gave me pills so I wouldn't get pregnant and I had to be tested for HIV and STD at 3 and 6 months and one year. The preliminary trial ended up to be on my birthday. It wasn't a very good day at all. Even though this was a long time ago I still don't trust people very easily. In fact, it even still does cross my mind any time I go anywhere with a guy whether I would be okay if he raped me. Haven't thought about this for a while and I do manage not to dwell on it but this is true. Rape is not good.

  • Pablo Navarro
    October 31, 2012 - 10:53

    Were this an issue other than women frequenting bars and getting sexually assaulted, there would be little disagreement that blaming the victim is inappropriate and repellent. We do not ask old people living by themselves if they are doing enough to ensure that they don't become victims of telemarketing fraud. And we don't tut-tut Granny and Poppy when they do get ripped off and downplay the transgressions of the fraudsters. Instead, we educate seniors in a respectful and appropriate manner, we point the finger squarely at the con men and call them out for praying on the vulnerable, label them as being of the most vile and lowly form of humanity, and demand better investigations and harsher sentences for guilty. We do not ask sober drivers if they are doing enough to ensure that they don't become victims of accidents by drunk drivers. We don't tell the family of a drunk driving accident victim that the victim should have reconsidered driving on a Saturday night in an area known to have bars. We send a message to society with spot checks and public awareness campaigns, we hike up the penalties and lower the limits, and we make pariahs out of repeat offenders in our media. We do not ask young children if they are doing enough to ensure that they don't become victims of child sexual abuse. We know that one of the greatest risks of such abuse is that the victim will blame themselves for something they had little or no control over. We teach children about risks, but we accept that there will always be predators among otherwise trustworthy people. We send police officers under cover to root out the perpetrators, we spend large sums of money on dragnet operations and we condemn the guilty to a lifetime of public shaming. Yet, when it comes to women, alcohol and sexual abuse, we have a sliding scale. We assess her age, what she was wearing, where she was spending her time and what company she was keeping. We consider it acceptable to say "you should have known better" based on little else but the most superficial information, and then forget to muster the indignation over the assaulter's actions. We tell women they should accept living in fear, accept living with violence, take responsibility for the crimes someone else has visited upon them. And that is because, despite advances since the time it was legal to rape your wife, we remain a misogynist society. We may not mean to, but we do, and the way forward to making it better is to stop blaming the victims of sexual assault and to start doing something about the assaults. (I never like people who complain without offering potential solutions, so here are three easy ones: 1. Mandate that Rohypnol/roofies sold in Newfoundland & Labrador (or Canada) be in the new format that doesn't dissolve in cold drinks and will turn liquids blue. (http://is.gd/ssDfsT) 2. Encourage bartenders and bouncers to phone in anonymous tips for suspected sexual predators. (http://is.gd/z6E2rl) 3. Teach young men how to avoid sexually assaulting women. (http://is.gd/7LHkbe))

  • Colin Gibson
    October 30, 2012 - 20:28

    I am always amazed that this question is so controversial. The point is to minimise suffering and if that requires blaming the victim then so be it. To prove a moral point like this it is often valid to show something similar that happens in the real world. Should the victim of a landmine not be at fault for walking through a known minefield? He or she should have taken precaution to not do so? Or should we not tell him this because it will hurt his feelings? Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world and women do have to take precautions to prevent suffering. Unfortunately, rape is not a product of culture. It is a product of evolution. What is a product of our culture is the decline in rape. Perhaps one of the biggest contributed to that decline is abstract reasoning which is basically how, over time, society begins to think more scientifically. Our attitude toward rape has changed as well... it used to be okay as long as we married a person afterward. So, we know that rape is preventable and we may as well do everything we can to help prevent it. Even if that means what 'blaming the victim'. We blame the victim all the time when preventing suffering, but for some reason it is only acknowledged when it applies to rape. Why is this? The right to wear what you want is much farther down the list than the right not to be raped. We do ask why people put pills in drinks and assault and rape them. It has a great evolutionary premise that is not accepted socially because it offends people even though there is no reason to be offended. We tend to moralise nature with what is good. It's a fallacy. Every question needs to be asked whether it offends people or not. We don't refrain from asking a question that might reduce suffering because it might offend people. Until we do live in an ideal world we need to do everything in our power to reduce rape just like we do everything in our power to deter people from stepping on landmines even if telling them that walking through the landmines might offend them.

  • Tim
    October 30, 2012 - 18:59

    While I fully agree that the question was not appropriate as presented by VOCM, I do believe that the issue it *may* have been trying to address is too quickly being discarded. While this overall discussion as suggested above could begin from a number of entry points, I would like to point out that our culture - and media environment, by the way - wants to assign exclusive blame, perhaps because it seems like the easiest or profound way to resolve a problem - especially by those not fully engaged with the issue at hand. Therefore we have this dynamic of the blame game, complete with a single scapegoat and a remaining cast of complete innocents. Sometimes there is a difference between solving a problem, and making a problem go away. Now while this does not diminish - in any way - the responsibility or accountability of the would-be offenders, the truth is that there are a number of contributing factors which, though not having an equal level of impact, nonetheless serve to enable the problem to exist - or, at the very least, remove impediments that others may try to establish. I believe *one* significant contributing factor is the degree to which the collective culture accepts the amount of blatant sexuality that is thrust into our lives - think of the world of advertising as one example. Put another way, I do not believe there is enough cultural momentum to solve the problem as it need to be solved. When you combine a gathering of men from within over-sexualized culture (of which *some* will have ill-intent), and women who want to dress as they please (of which *some* will do so without acting responsibly or with common sense), these occurrences will continue. There is responsibility from all sides, and as much responsibility on the greater population to discourage parts of the culture which clearly lead to this kind of behavior. However, when it comes to being accountable for the specific act as committed, that should not be assigned to the victim, but solely to the offender - and any accomplices.