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Chrissie Hynde, sexual assault, and the blame game in rape

Hynde’s analysis of her experience boils rape down to an encounter between two individuals with equal social power. REUTERS/David Moir

Chrissie Hynde, sexual assault, and the blame game in rape

Chrissie Hynde, frontwoman of the English-American rock band The Pretenders, provoked outrage this week when, during an interview with the Sunday Times, she claimed it was her fault she was raped at 21.

The incident, which Hynde writes about in her autobiography Reckless (2015), occurred in the US city of Ohio. Hynde recounts being invited to a party by a motorcycle gang member, who instead took her to an abandoned house and forced her to perform sexual acts and threatened her with violence.

Hynde said:

technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing, and I take full responsibility.

I can’t be the only one who groaned with dismay when I read Hynde’s comments. Her experience must have been horrific, and it’s one no woman should ever be subjected to. But she’s wrong in claiming the incident was her fault; it wasn’t. And thinking that way plays into pervasive and enduring cultural myths about sexual assault.

She also said:

If I’m walking around in my underwear and I’m drunk … Who else’s fault can it be?

Debates around these issues flare up regularly, due largely to the fact that rape is a complex and widely misunderstood phenomenon. It’s far more complex than the kind of clothes a woman chooses to wear, as Hynde claims.

Furthermore, her analysis of her experience boils rape down to an encounter between two individuals with equal social power – a highly problematic assertion.

Thankfully, many women’s groups and victim support services have been quick to publicly refute Hynde’s message, highlighting that, regardless of the circumstances of a sexual assault, blaming the victim is a dangerous practice.

Victim blaming is a mentality that can prevent rape victims from reporting the crime and seeking help lest they won’t be believed. It is a discourse that perpetuates cultural myths around men’s inability to control their sex drives, and places individual responsibility on women.

Chrissie Hynde. PeterTea/flickr, Author provided

To suggest, as Hynde does, that women need to take personal responsibility for negotiating potentially dangerous situations buys into popular rhetoric that absolves male responsibility for instances of sexual violence.

As American academic Lynn M Phillips highlighted in her landmark study Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination (2000), young women often develop complex psychological strategies in order to negotiate their sexual encounters and the unequal power dynamics at play.

While these strategies do not always operate at a conscious level, Phillips suggests that they represent:

efforts to maintain somewhat tentative, but nonetheless important, feelings of control in situations that threatened women’s sense of agency.

For Phillips, a woman’s internalisation of her experiences is understandable in an individualistic society, as it allows her to “make the best of bad situations” while avoiding the confronting process of addressing her own powerlessness.

Indeed, Hynde’s comments can be read in light of recent feminist work which highlights the pervasive cultural privileging of women’s choices and agency at the expense of a broader structural analysis of the societal forces that shape female behaviour in male-dominated societies.

Hynde refused to engage in a discussion about male responsibility in the Sunday Times interview, stating:

you can’t f— about with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges … Those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do.

Chrissie Hydne. Peter Tea/Flickr, Author provided

Here male behaviour is constructed as beyond reproach – actions based on beliefs too ingrained to question or challenge – even as Hynde evokes the blatantly violent and misogynistic attitudes of her abusers. Despite the clearly asymmetrical power dynamics at play between a young girl and older members of a motorcycle gang, Hynde finally claims that, as a woman:

You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this?

But whose brush is it, really? Hynde presents women as being the writers (or painters) of cultural norms, able to wield as much influence as men. She fails to acknowledge a culture which equates women’s worth and value with how sexually attractive they are to men. A culture in which young girls in the music business are subjected to horrendous abuse and exploitation.

In a world in which sex trade is the largest and most profitable industry, it’s a fallacy to assume that women are equal authors of a cultural script rather than simply left to negotiate the terms and conditions already laid out for them.

Hynde’s analysis of her experience is an attempt to do just that, and in this sense she cannot be blamed any more than women in the entertainment industry can be criticised for using their sex appeal to sell albums (another of Hynde’s comments).

The process of female sexualisation under male dominance demands women dress and act in particular ways in the West for cultural capital, and then proceeds to punish them when they do. Ultimately, this benefits men, and keeps scrutiny comfortably focused on female behaviour.