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Chrissie Hynde: How could you think you were responsible for that?

A Reckless interview with The Pretenders’ singer featuring her thoughts on where the responsibility lies when it comes to sexual assault has been held up as the latest exhibit for victim blamers. Helen Walmsley-Johnson takes a step back from the social media frenzy and has her say.

Photo by Harmony Gerber from Los Angeles, Orange County, USA via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Harmony Gerber from Los Angeles, Orange County, USA via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to know where to start with a piece on the distressing topic of rape.

‘Another week, another outrage’ just shows a certain flippant weariness felt by women of my generation about a subject guaranteed to provoke shrieking headlines and social media damnation every time anyone voices an opinion that doesn’t toe the party line.

The fall-out from remarks made by Chrissie Hynde in an interview for the Sunday Times last week is just such an occasion. If you managed to miss it, Hynde was referring to her own experience of sexual assault by members of a motorcycle gang when she was 21, which my inadequate maths places in 1972 and at the beginning of a decade where feminism and women’s freedom from past behavioural constraints was in a state of flux.

Should the feminism scene need explaining with greater clarity, then you need look no further than the infamous Parkinson interview with Helen Mirren, which still makes me gasp, but then that was the sort of crap we had to put up with back then.

The 70s were my formative years and I remember very well arguing passionately with my parents for the right to go out dressed as I chose, to go where I chose and with whom I chose, regardless of any considerations for my personal safety.

But it was a multiple personality decade in terms of gender equality and Helen Mirren is right when she describes the times as “perilous for women”.

Erica Jong wrote Fear of Flying about looking for a ‘zipless fuck’ (i.e. commitment free) and Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, which put us all on notice to take charge of our bodies and our lives. The rulebook for women was reinvented with… no rules.

“It wasn’t me who slipped myself a Mickey Finn on that work night out in 1976 and then took advantage of my drugged and incapable self.”

Having lived it, I feel some sympathy with Chrissie Hynde for saying, “…however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility… You can’t fuck about with people, especially people who wear ‘I heart rape’ and ‘on your knees’ badges.”

I agree with 50% of that statement.

The part I don’t agree with is that she should take ‘full responsibility’, although it should be borne in mind that she’s talking about her own experience and how she feels about it. This, I would think, is the way she has rationalised the event to herself. And don’t we all do that?

We pick over what happened, how it happened and what we could have done to stop it. Being women, and particularly women of our generation, we usually finish up blaming ourselves to some degree.

I’ve done it too but it wasn’t me who slipped myself a Mickey Finn on that work night out in 1976 and then took advantage of my drugged and incapable self. Nor was a work colleague at fault when she opened the door to her neighbour and woke up to find herself with a broken nose and both hands nailed to the floor. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the woman who parked at John Lewis in Stockport last week and found herself dragged from her car and attacked.

How could we possibly believe we were ‘fully responsible’ for any of that?

Where I do agree is with the “you can’t fuck with people” part. In this, Chrissie Hynde has a valid point. We are repeatedly warned about looking after our possessions, not leaving precious things in a car because they’ll get robbed, keeping an eye on our handbag/phone/child.

“Another thing I take issue with is the faintly Victorian notion that all men are ravening beasts who can’t be trusted to control their lusts in the presence of a woman showing an inch of bare flesh.”

To repeatedly ignore your own Jiminy Cricket persistently muttering, “this will end badly” is to tip the balance of probability and fate against you. We scream at the character in a horror film in flagrant contravention of the laws of survival (set out very nicely in the late Wes Craven’s Scream) and then do something stupid ourselves.

Would I walk down an unlit back alley in the West End of London at 3am? No, of course not. I call that taking responsibility for my own safety and shouldn’t we all do that, men and women alike? On the other hand, I believe grown-up women should be allowed to dress as they please without harassment.

Another thing I take issue with is the faintly Victorian notion that all men are ravening beasts who can’t be trusted to control their lusts in the presence of a woman showing an inch of bare flesh. We’ll be covering the sensuous curves of a well-turned table leg again at this rate. This is insulting and disrespectful to men, the majority of whom are perfectly able to manage self-control.

Chrissie Hynde with a pen

Photo by Charlie Llewellin from Austin, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, and despite my decades of admiration for Chrissie Hynde, let us not forget that she has a book to sell: Reckless, out this month.

Likewise the TV programme Loose Women and their sensitive poll asking if rape is ‘ever a woman’s fault’ – a month without a self-promulgated scandal is reflected in the LW viewing figures.

My radar twitched when “I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial, am I?” followed Hynde’s initial comments. Come off it, Chrissie, you’re not normally squeamish about stirring things up a bit. I might be cynical but no publicity is bad publicity after all.

@TheVintageYear

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear