Written by Catherine Clack

In The News

Victim blaming rears its ugly head again

When the Thai Prime Minister addressed the recent murder of two young Brits in his country, he appeared to blame Hannah Witheridge, one of the victims. Really, asks Catherine Clack, this again?

Victim blaming rears its ugly head again

Thailand’s Sairee beach. Picture by Catherine Clack.

Having recently spent a few months backpacking around Asia, I naturally took the usual safety precautions before leaving. I gave an approximate itinerary to friends, bought decent travel insurance, had a medical check-up and got vaccinated. Unfortunately, I forgot to do one key thing to ensure my safety: leave all my bikinis at home and only pack full-length trousers and long-sleeved tops.

At least, that’s according to Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who, when addressing the issue of attacks on tourists in Thailand after the murders of two young Brits, said: “Can they be safe in bikinis…unless they are not beautiful?”

As you can imagine, I felt quite the fool, given I’d been swanning up and down every Thai beach in the smallest of beachwear, not realising I was making myself susceptible to murder at any moment. But, of the countless men I shared transport and accommodation with, travelled with and even walked past in the street, none of them tried to murder me. The only explanation then, surely, is that I am not beautiful. Let the bikini wearing continue…

Thailand’s economy relies heavily on its annual flow of tourists – affected significantly by the recent coup – so how best to protect that? Apparently, by blaming those foolish enough to get themselves murdered.

Victim blaming has long been associated with violence against women. One of the first cases I studied as a doe-eyed student was from the early ‘90s, where a unanimously convicted rapist was placed on probation and ordered to pay his victim a nominal £500 so she could have a nice holiday to get over all the nasty rape business.

Unfortunately, this type of institutional victim blaming is not a thing of the past: the NHS’s Know Your Limits campaign ran from 2005-2007 with the tagline ‘One in three rapes happens when the victim has been drinking’, placing responsibility on potential victims to avoid rapists as opposed to making it the responsibility of the rapist not to rape.

This advice is about as helpful and progressive as advising backpackers in Thailand “One in Two Murders Happens When You’ve got a Bikini On (and…err…the other one just happens anyway…)”

There has been a long and systematic creation of a societal norm of ‘boys will be boys’ who can’t control their actions, while girls must be considerate of that. So, girls, when standing in front of your wardrobe pondering what to wear before a night out with your male friends, always ensure you pick a nice sensible outfit that, should you have the odd cocktail too many, ensures you won’t be sending out ‘OK to rape’ signals.

But, don’t worry, in case you accidentally do, as Todd Akin, US Republican Congressman, gave us some pretty useful advice in 2012. “If it’s legitimate rape the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down”. So what exactly does he mean by ‘legitimate rape’? Is this the type of rape that only happens to white, middle class women in cardigan twin sets who are neither drunk nor wearing bikinis at the time of the attack? And, since our bodies can apparently shut the ‘thing’ down, does this mean people without this anti-rape superpower actually wanted it?

This latest statement from Prayuth Chan-ocha shows victim blaming is still alive and well and, even in cases of brutal unprovoked murders, the blame will still come to hover around the victims. But, he went further, to express that only girls who are beautiful need be cautious, suggesting attacks occur because men cannot control themselves around scantily clad women, thus the only way to ensure rape and murder is avoided is to be sexually undesirable.

As Thailand is notorious for its sex tourism, doesn’t this mean we should be wading through the bodies of sex workers on the streets, given the general attire and physical appearance of that group? No. Violence against women is about control and power, not sex. Furthermore, men are not an intrinsically violent and murderous species who lack all self-control, which is how I, like millions of others, managed to enjoy my holiday safely in the company of a variety of men. All while wearing a bikini.

So where does this leave the male and female victims in the recent case? The PM provides justification for the female murder, but what about the male? Bad company? Being alone late at night with a woman susceptible to attack? Should they have thought about the implications of attending a party while on holiday and consuming alcohol late at night? No they should not.

There is no arbitrary, influencing factor in their deaths; they were murdered because the perpetrators made the decision to attack them. No ifs, ands, buts or bikinis.

The PM has since issued an apology for the statement reading: “I’m sorry it hurt people”, which feels a bit like a mum-forced handshake at the end of a fight with a sibling.

Is it too much to expect for the incumbent leader of a nation, a nation known for welcoming, supporting and thriving from its flow of tourists, to publically condemn the brutal killing of two young travellers and not try to suggest they contributed to their own grizzly fate?

Could we imagine what outrage would follow if David Cameron tried to attribute blame to a pensioner murdered at home with a statement such as, “Can they be safe if they forget to lock their doors…unless they are not rich”?

Prayuth Chan-ocha should have immediately condemned the actions of the perpetrators, without any aspects of the victim’s behaviours, attire or physical appearance being questioned.

By not doing so, he has not only reinforced the culture of victim blaming, but achieved the exact opposite of his intention. He has created an undesirable atmosphere for a principle category of tourist – carefree young travellers who do not want to be overly conscious of their arbitrary decisions, and, more importantly, should not have to be.


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Written by Catherine Clack

Small town Anglesey girl with an interest in International Law and conflict, the UK asylum system and travelling (and eating...)