The Victim-Blaming Culture

A lethal mix of laziness, stupidity, wingnut reactionism and just plain cruelty: 

The process sounds simple: Go to a courthouse, file a form, and get a private hearing within a day or so. If the judge—who usually holds the hearing in his or her chambers—denies the petition, a minor has a right to a speedy appeal. A pregnant teen, according to standards defined by the Supreme Court, must show either that she is mature enough to have an abortion without her parents’ involvement or that an abortion is in her best interest. “The way most laws are written, if you follow the statute, Jane Doe wins almost every time,” Hays says. But in practice, girls are at the mercy of whichever judge they happen to draw, says Anne Dellinger, a retired University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor who has studied the bypass system. “If a girl wanders into the wrong [court], she doesn’t have a chance,” Dellinger says. With few checks on the system, Hays adds, judges are free to impose their beliefs on the girls who appear before them: “It’s the law of bullies.”


IN SOME WAYS, these girls were lucky to have made it to court at all. They had to get out of school, and in some cases to another town, for the hearing (and the procedure itself). They had to keep the whole process a secret—some attorneys with Hays’ Texas group use Snapchat, a smartphone app that deletes messages after they’ve been viewed. But for many girls, the biggest obstacles are the court employees who act as the gatekeepers of the bypass system. For her 2007 bookGirls on the Stand: How Courts Fail Pregnant Minors, Lafayette College law professor Helena Silverstein and a research team called court employees across three states. They found more than half of the courts “proved absolutely or materially ignorant of their responsibilities” under bypass laws. Many court employees, and one judge, told the researchers judicial bypass didn’t exist. Some court staff lectured callers about abortion or referred them to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. Others warned that their judge had a blanket policy of denying petitions.

True story time: I did not have sex in high school because I was so terrified of getting pregnant. (Hilarious, now, because I could have been the school doorknob and apparently it wouldn’t have mattered.) Getting pregnant was the worst thing we could think of, even in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

And this was in the days of abortion clinics being able to call themselves that. This was before personhood, and 20-week bans, and transvaginal ultrasound rape. This was when things were easier and safer, and getting pregnant was still the absolute worst thing I could think of happening. We all said it to each other, girls, even the ones who were having sex: If I get knocked up my parents will kill me.

Some of us meant it, in ways others of us didn’t. Some of us found out which way we meant it, and some of us never knew. Never had to know.

What do they get out of it, the people who either never faced down a situation like this or never thought about it? What do they get out of telling terrified teenagers that they need to talk things over with a priest, or interview more doctors, or just go away because we can’t help you here?

What is the point of this essential meanness, this dismissal of someone else’s tragedy as the cost of doing business? As the actual consequence of maintaining someone’s figurative superiority? What do we as a society get out of punishing people in desperate straits, besides some momentary high of denial?

Spin it outward: This is about teenage sluts having unauthorized sex. Next door to this lives the wrong brand of cereal bought by people on welfare, which is down the block from students should have saved up for college and not taken out loans, and around the cul-de-sac from shouldn’t have been out at that hour, wearing a hoodie, carrying candy, reaching for a cell phone or a wallet or a license or nothing at all.

Our entire culture right now hinges on being able to push everything away. On being able to maintain a clear enough head to make everything somebody else’s fault. On being able to shrug it all off, because we just can’t right now, okay?

We can’t afford to save everybody. We can’t make everybody safe. We can’t pay everybody what they’re worth. We can’t take care of teenagers and babies and old people and young people and workers and people with disabilities and every other goddamn thing, because compassion is a bowl of sugar and there’s only so much available. Our money isn’t a bottomless pit, don’t you know.

(Unless we’re at war with you. Then it’s unpatriotic to question and nothing is too much.)

So too bad, so sad, we can’t care about you. We can’t treat you with decency and we can’t make sure you’re okay when you’re not okay. We can’t tell you what your options are:

In March 2012, students at the University of Michigan replicated Silverstein’s study, calling each of Florida’s 67 county courthouses. “Our results…were even worse than we had suspected,” they wrote. “Over two thirds of courts were unable or unwilling to provide callers with the correct or complete information.”