Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I know that I'm going to get it for this. Such is the way of things.

So... I was reading around over at Slate, and found Amanda Marcotte's peice about this BBC piece about attitudes towards rape victims. In a nutshell, "A majority of women believe some rape victims should take responsibility for what happened, a survey suggests."

Of the women who believed some victims should take responsibility, 71% thought a person should accept responsibility when getting into bed with someone, compared with 57% of men.
Women say some rape victims should take blame - survey
Both articles contain the requisite hand wringing over this latest proof that people tend to "blame the victim," but when I read it, what occurred to me is perhaps we need new language to talk about such things. "Back in the day," as it were, blaming the victim was an affirmative defense - a man could win an acquittal in court if his attorney could manage to convince a jury that what was billed as a rape, was actually "consensual," with the target herself being the one in the driver's seat. (Unless, of course, the accused attacker was Black, and his victim White - but that's a tale of woeful injustice for a different day.) This is no longer the case - a man is unlikely to be able to beat the rap simply by casting a rape victim as a wanton. And the concept of blaming the victim has evolved along with it, seemingly to the point where anything other than casting the woman as completely helpless is somehow inappropriate. Marcotte goes so far as to insinuate that a woman who says that a rape victim bears some responsibility is excusing the rapist.

And that leaves us with a question - how does one say "I don't think that this is a safe course of action, and you may want to reconsider?" without appearing to "believe the victim had it coming" if she doesn't? Rape is nearly unique in this formulation. We accept, in many other situations, that a person my have a hand in increasing the risk to themselves, without, at the same time, absolving a perpetrator. Flashing a bit too much ready cash while in a sketchy part of town is considered a stupid thing to do - but a lawyer who presented that as an affirmative defense for a man who murders someone for their money would be laughed out of court. Not to claim an equivalency here, but Bernie Madoff's investors gave him their money willingly - we don't let that fact get in the way of understanding that they were deliberately defrauded by a criminal, nor do we allow that to lessen our understanding of his criminality - why would we for more serious crimes?

Whether or not it's logically possible to cast a woman as absolutely without responsibility and able to mitigate her own risk-taking behavior at the same time may be in question. But we can, and should, separate responsibility and blame. Doing something that carries a risk is not the same as bringing something down on one's head. We should be able to state that a behavior is risky, without having to hold someone who takes advantage of that as blameless or the victim of entrapment. We should be able to say that an absolute lack of any precautions doesn't lessen the culpability of a perpetrator, but at the same time, meets with our disapproval. That said, it's important that we don't see such a change as an opening to add insult to injury, or use words as a weapon under cover of "the truth hurts." The way we use English doesn't lend itself to such distinctions. Perhaps it's time to tweak it until it does.


Isonomist said...

This is a tough issue for me. I'm sure there are women who claim they were raped when they weren't, for various reasons. Sex itself, unlike murder and theft, isn't always a crime, so it's difficult to compare the way we treat each legally. There's no crime I can think of for which we just take the complainant's word that the crime took place. That's I think why rape is defined differently.

A cop friend told me that often, prostitutes use rape charges to get back at johns who didn't pay. I have no idea whether it's true, or just one of those things cops tell themselves. But I can't help thinking: if you agree to have sex with someone for money, and they violate the contract, that doesn't make it love.

On http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/ one of the writers refers to prostitution as pay-to-rape. I've been pondering that one.

Aaron said...

I don't know. In a lot of ways, rape, theft and murder are all about permissions and/or consent. Even homicide isn't always a crime. But you're right, rape is nearly unique in the fact that it's often the complainant's word that establishes that a crime occurred.

Keifus said...

Dunno man, it seems to come up in crimes that get the hate label over the course of our times. Emmet should never have whistled at that white woman. Matt shouldn't have acted so gay all the time. I mean, we can say that it wasn't wise to act in a way that gets negative attention, but at some point we have to think about what powers that proscription enables, and what liberties it takes away. We look back on the Jim Crowe south with some horror, thinking that of course black people should be allowed to act normally and freely among everyone else, with no special restrictions only they have to bear. So should women. Obviously. Haven't read Marcotte's piece, but I imagine the attitude comes from somewhere similar.

On the other hand, courts understand that assaults and murders can be aggravated, which isn't exculpatory, but might lighten a sentence. Aggravated sexual assault? Hard to imagine non-ridiculous situations for that to actually apply.

When I was in college, I used to worry sometimes that if a young woman were to falsely accuse me of rape, I would have no good recourse. It'd be a done deal. And I suppose the inability to escape a false accusation like that is unjust. But it rarely occurred to me back then that if I wanted to ensure against that sort of thing, then constantly hanging out with other drunken, irresponsible people doing everything possible to lower their impulse control might not have been wise.