Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Rape Responsibility

A new survey commissioned by the UK branch of Amnesty International has drawn a lot of attention to societal attitudes about rape, but not necessarily in a good way.

The survey (and you should read it for yourself, it ain't exactly heavy lifting) found that British men and women, generally, hold similar views and misconceptions about rape. And it suggested -- or, at least, it seemed to suggest -- that a startlingly high percentage of Britons hold rape victims at least partially responsible for the crime. I'll explain why the survey was fatally flawed in its conception, but first, a breakdown of the most notorious findings:

...please indicate whether you believe a woman is totally responsible, partially responsible or not at all responsible for being raped if…

The woman is drunk (4% totally responsible; 26% partially)
The woman has behaved in a flirtatious manner (6% totally responsible; 28% partially)
The woman has failed to say ‘no’ clearly to the man (8% totally responsible; 29% partially)
A woman is wearing sexy or revealing clothes (6% totally responsible; 20% partially)
It is known that the woman has many sexual partners (8% totally responsible; 14% partially)
The woman is alone and walking in a dangerous or deserted area (5% totally responsible; 18% partially)
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, some of the most feeble journalistic writeups used provocative and unsubstantiated headline phrases such as "deserve it" and "ask for it." But the poor coverage of the poll isn't what I want to address. The poll itself is poorly constructed, but the outrage in response to it is misguided.

The poll is poorly constructed because the term "responsible" is vague and open to misinterpretation. It's quite possible, as the bad coverage demonstrates, to interpret "responsible" in this case to mean "morally at fault." If everyone polled interpreted it that way, this would be a tremendously troubling poll.

However, "responsible" could also be interpreted as meaning "causal." This conflation between moral and causal responsibiltiy has, I think, made it impossible for otherwise smart and rational people to have frank and open discussions about rape. Too often, discussions about causality are misperceived as discussions about morality; an unfortunate result, I think, of our truly warped notions about sex and the mistaken thinking that sex inherently has moral dimensions.

Every rape victim does something to make their rape possible. They leave the house. They go on dates. They get jobs. These decisions and actions put them in situations that increase their odds of being raped. That is, I think, a fairly innocuous observation.

It's only when people start to consider not whether a woman's behavior, but a woman's sexual behavior, increases the odds of her being raped, that we start to encounter problems. The reason so many people have trouble even considering whether rapists are motivated by a woman's sexual behavior is, I think, the fear that this knowledge will then be used to limit women's freedom to act as they choose or, conversely, to validate or excuse rape itself. These fears are valid. But shouldn't we also be afraid of missing an opportunity to learn something about why rape happens? Wouldn't the ideal solution be to learn more about why rape happens and simultaneously take steps to ensure that rapists are still held fully accountable for their crimes?

What if a woman's sexual behavior can affect the odds she'll be targeted by a rapist? Shouldn't we know that? Shouldn't SHE know that? When I'm told that pickpockets will be more tempted to try for my wallet when I carry it in my back pocket, I don't resent that information as an assault on my autonomy, or as an attempt to condemn my choice of wallet storage. Nor do I somehow become more willing to find back-pocket pickpockets less guilty than front-pocket pickpockets. I'm appreciative of information that I can use to increase the odds I'll keep my money. And, in fact, I do carry my wallet in my front pocket. I could, if I so chose, withdraw all my money from the bank in cash, and then tape hundred dollar bills (okay, maybe twenties) all over my body and go for a stroll through Times Square. I'd be within my moral rights to do so. But no one would be surprised if I came back a few bills light. And some people might go so far as to say I had been an idiot not to know the risks I took on.

And if anyone had told me my behavior wouldn't make me more of a target, wouldn't we condemn that person for misleading me?

Drunk, promiscuous, flirtatious, scantily clad women who are raped in darkened alleyways at midnight deserve our sympathies and support just as much as do sober, chaste, dour, parka-wearing women who are raped in Disneyland at noon. And both rapists deserve equally long stretches in prison. But are we really helping women when we tell them that the ODDS of each rape are identical?

It's not politically correct to suggest that anything but power dynamics motivates rape. In one of his books (Blank Slate, or How the Mind Works), Steven Pinker makes (or passes on) the argument that men use every tactic known to men in order to get sex, and that they've also been known to use violence to attain virtually every goal known to men, so why should it surprise us, then, to learn that at least some men are at least partially motivated by sex when they use violence to get sex?

We do know that rapists target women more than they target men. If woman-ness is a factor, shouldn't we also consider whether behavior that accentuates woman-ness might also be a factor? Because if it is, we might learn something that can help us both reduce how often rapists strike, and inform women about how better to guard against rapists. And if anyone is stupid enough to suggest that understanding more about why rapists rape whom they rape somehow absolves them even partially of culpability, maybe that will force us into a long-overdue dialogue about our underlying hypocrisies and double standards about sex and sexual behavior, and the mistaken notion that questions about sex are questions about morality.


Anonymous said...

The problem is that people try to make rape a black and white issue. Any reasonable person understands there's a lot of gray area when it comes to "rape." The problem is (as is with terms like "racism"), the word "rape" is thrown around too casually--which is very unfair to women who have actually been raped. For example, there is an OCEAN of difference between a college sophomore who gets ridiculously drunk at a party and is overly pressured for sex by her boyfriend, and the poor woman who's coming home from the grocery when a strange man jumps out from behind the bushes, hits her in the head, and then proceeds to viciously rape her. It NAUSEATES me when these two very different types of "rape" are lumped into the same category.

The bottom line is: no man should ever have sex with a woman if she's clearly saying "no." But...I must admit, when I hear a college girl being interviewed on some talk show and she recounts a tearful story like: "Well, I went to the frat party and umm... I did 19 tequila shots and then umm... I got up on a table and started dancing and lifting up my skirt and umm... (sniffle sniffle)... and then these boys asked me up to their room so I went with them and... umm... I got on their bed and danced some more and kept lifting up my skirt to show them my panties and umm... and then... and then... and then (tears starting to flow--sniffle sniffle)...and then... AND THEN THOSE BOYS RAPED ME!!! Wahahahahahahaah!!!! Booo hooo hoooo wah wah."

I have to admit, I really don't feel too sorry for her.

Does anyone deserve to be "raped?" No. But let me ask you this: if I go withdraw $1,000 in cash from my bank account, and then I go walk around by myself in the most dangerous, worst neighborhood in New York (late one Saturday night), waving the cash over my head and shouting, "Look everyone! I have $1,000 in cash here! Look!" Would you really feel too bad for me if I got mugged? You shouldn't. I'd deserve to be mugged...just for being so damned stupid.

Think about that, ladies. A vagina is a lot like a thousand dollars. Some are even like fifteen hundred. So be careful out there. ;)

Petty Larseny said...

Just for the record: No. Rape is not an appropriate punishment for stupidity. No one "deserves" to be raped. You've pretty much missed the point. The point is not that a victim's behavior mitigates the act of rape. The point is that dangerous, dumb arguments like yours lead victim advocates to oppose any discussion of what behaviors make women more likely to be raped. Every crime victim deserves our sympathy, no matter how naive, ignorant or stupid they were about the immoral behavior of others. We have to learn how to discuss the effect of victim behavior, without making the mistake of attaching moral implications to that behavior. And if you don't feel sorry for women who believe there's a difference between showing their panties and consenting to sexual intercourse, then you're part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

What you fail to understand is, since the 1980s, the word "rape" has been used far too frivolously by too many girls. If you don't want to admit that, fine--but nevertheless it's the truth. Sadly, the words "he raped me" have become synonymous with "I got drunk and let things go farther than I should have." When a college sophomore goes to a frat party, has a couple too many drinks, and then ends up fucking some random guy, THAT IS NOT RAPE (unless she's so drunk she's nearly passed out). I'm nauseated by women who claim "rape" when what they REALLY mean is "regret." A girl who REGRETS having sex has NOT been raped--and to suggest so is sickening. It's horrifically offensive to women who have actually BEEN raped. And by the way, I'm really not interested if you feel I've "missed the point" or not. I really don't care because I've just decided--this is the new point.

Anonymous said...

<< if you don't feel sorry for women who believe there's a difference between showing their panties and consenting to sexual intercourse, then you're part of the problem >>

See if your brain can follow this:

If a 17-year-old kid drag races his buddy, driving 130mph on public streets...and he ends up dead with his car wrapped around a telephone pole...I don't feel too sorry for him.

If a guy walks around a known bad neighborhood late at night wearing a flashy Rolex and waving around bunches of $100 bills...and he gets beaten and mugged...I don't feel too sorry for him.

If a guy walks up to a crowd of big black men and says, "I think black men are shiftless and dumb"...and the guy then gets his ass kicked by those men and ends up in a hospital...I don't feel too sorry for him.

If a women goes to a party full of rowdy guys, and she's wearing a mini skirt, getting drunk, making out with random guys and flirting like a slut...if she gets raped...I don't feel too sorry for her.

Sorry. But sometimes, people SUFFER CONSEQUENCES for their own stupid behavior (yes, I know that philosophy doesn't sit well with your ilk). Too bad. If you make piss-poor choices, bad shit can happen to you. And you're never going to change that reality.

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