By Claire Zillman
October 19, 2017

The Harvey Weinstein saga and the subsequent #MeToo campaign that has led women come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault have given people in positions of power—men and women alike—an opportunity to weigh in on the matter.

For better or worse.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–Texas) got her chance this week in a segment that aired Wednesday on a local NBC affiliate. She said women—who are typically the victims of unwanted sexual advances—deserve equal blame for such abuse.

“I grew up in a time when it was as much the woman’s responsibility as the man’s; how you dressed, what your behavior was,” Johnson said. “So I’m from the old school that you can have behaviors that appear to be inviting; it can be interpreted as such.”

It’s up to “the female” to ensure she’s not sending the wrong message, Johnson said.

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Johnson, a member of Congress since 1993, argued that taking such an approach to the problem is powerful for women since it gives them “control” of the situation. Women can report abuse to law enforcement, she said, or “refuse to cooperate with that kind of behavior.”

“I think many times men get away with this because they’re allowed to get away with it by the women,” she said.

Johnson’s remarks are a textbook example of what’s called victim-blaming, which absolves perpetrators of wrongdoing. Critics of Mayim Bialik accused the Big Bang Theory actress of holding similar sentiments last week after she wrote in a New York Times op-ed that she “make[s] choices everyday” that are “self-protecting and wise,” such as dressing modestly and being careful to not act flirtatiously. Bialik later defended herself against such attacks, but apologized in a statement on Thursday, saying, “You are never responsible for being assaulted…I am truly sorry for causing so much pain, and I hope you can all forgive me.”

Blaming sexual harassment and assault on the victim’s behavior or dress can factor into a woman’s decision to not come forward after she experiences abuse. A new ABC News-Washington Post poll out this week found that fewer than half—42%— of the roughly 33 million American women who’ve endured unwanted sexual advances at work have reported it to a superior. At the same time, 83% of victims reported feeling angry about the incident, 64% felt intimidated, 52% felt humiliated, and 30% felt ashamed.

Yet victim-blaming is an easy, simplistic way to think about the problem of sexual harassment and assault for those who want the epidemic to fit into their “just world” view, Sherry Hamby, psychology professor at the University of the South, told The Atlantic last year for a story on the psychology of victim-blaming.

“It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them,” she said. “There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”

But the last three weeks have illustrated that women of all ages, races, professions, and fashion sensibilities are subject to sexual harassment and abuse—a complex problem that has less to do with sexual drive than it does with the unequal power dynamics of an engrained patriarchy.

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