Taking Personal Responsibility Too Far

As sick as I am of the whole Miley-at-the-VMAs thing, it has prompted some good public discussion, most notably on the question of why the hyper-sexualization of young women is treated as though it has nothing to do with men. The web is awash in headlines like ‘Don’t grow up to be like Miley’ and ‘Dear Daughter: Let Miley Cyrus be a Lesson to You.’ (I’m not going to give them linkjuice, they’re easy to find if you’re so inclined.) There seem to be a lot of people who are genuinely unaware that a) her performance, like any on an awards show, was largely the work of network executives, record companies, managers, publicists, producers, and the costume designers and choreographers they hired, and b) she was performing with Robin Thicke, doing a song that was criticized before the VMAs for propagating rape culture by way of trivializing consent and objectifying women lyrically, visually, and quite intentionally. Yet somehow, for many, it’s ‘shame on Miley, the end.’

So why am I talking about it if I’m so sick of it? Because the same kind of tunnel vision just resulted in 48-year-old convicted rapist Stacey Rambold getting just 30 days in prison after judge Todd Baugh said his 14-year-old victim, Cherice Moralez – who later committed suicide – was “older than her chronological age”, was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist, and that what happened to her “wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.” The judge has since apologized, but the sentence stands. There’s a petition for Baugh’s resignation, and a lot of powerful reaction, like this piece explaining that statutory rape laws exist in part because while a 14-year-old can agree to sex, that’s not the same as informed consent.

The link between the two stories is the question of how misogyny hides behind the proud American notion of personal responsibility. We’d like to think that we’re all in total control of our choices and actions all the time, and if we give up or misapply that control, we deserve whatever we get. It’s an appealing idea that finds its way into everything from right-wing politics to the self help industry. But in its brutal simplicity, the idea of absolute personal responsibility denies the existence of coercion – through abuse of power, threat of violence, manipulation of cultural expectations, or any other means – as in Cherice Moralez’s case. In Miley Cyrus’s case, it ignores the shared responsibility of her performance’s benefactors (mostly male music executives,) orchestrators and co-participants (the people mentioned earlier,) and enablers (the audience, whose market force dictates what gets made.) Once we’re willing to ignore all those other factors, it’s a short walk to the notion of a victim ‘asking for it,’ and the conclusion that force‘ is the only circumstance in which personal responsibility doesn’t apply.

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