Rape and Blame Games

This is perhaps the most potentially volatile post I have ever risked. I fear it will be misconstrued or not read thoroughly, and that I will anger many women (and some men). But it’s been on my mind off and on the past few months, and stories I’ve read recently on rape and victim blaming has finally set me over the tipping point to post.

First off, let me be crystal-clear before I begin my thoughts, rants, etc. …Rape is a reprehensible, horrible act and one of the most heinous crimes around, sharing the top slots with such acts as child sexual abuse, torture and murder. Rape is a crime, and victims of that crime are victims—they didn’t ask for it, they didn’t provoke it, they didn’t deserve it and they shouldn’t be blamed for the crime perpetuated against them in any way. Given the percentage of women who are sexually assaulted in life, which is frighteningly high, the number of women who “invite” rape is so vanishingly small one might as well consider it zero percent.

That said, I don’t like the trend lately for people speaking out against rape to lash out at articles, campaigns, online interactions or other efforts that provide caution and advice for women to lessen their chances of being raped and/or to survive the crime.

I realize there can be a fine line between good advice and victim-blaming, but I don’t think that rape-minimization tips (for lack of a better term…obviously, one cannot really avoid or prevent rape, though those two words are often used) are by nature the latter. While the line may sometimes be thin, it still exists, and I don’t like the increasing tendency to cast all (or nearly all) such advice as a subtle form of blaming the victim.

I comprehend why the protesting voices do what they are doing, because it is only when we stop seeing women as being a cause of their own rape that we will start to put more force behind actually charging and punishing rapists appropriately and working toward fewer rapists being created to begin with.

So, when well-meaning advice is offered, the critics often see it as an attempt to say “You could have prevented your rape if you did this” even when such isn’t the intent. They complain that even suggesting that a woman might have been able to do something will fill her with feelings of failure, shame, self-loathing and more.

But I can’t support the kind of thinking that says: “Don’t warn people to be cautious lest they end up being blamed or blame themselves somehow.”


Because common sense isn’t so common.

For decades, criminals have stolen cars, broken into cars to take things or simply reached through an open window to grab a purse or a stack of DVDs. Why? Because people insist on doing things like leaving their doors unlocked, windows open and purses inside while they’re somewhere else. People will still leave the doors to their homes unlocked even though there are robbers, rapists, killers and more aplenty out there who love not having to climb through a window. There are tourists and business travelers who still insist on drinking and then wandering down little-traveled streets in neighborhoods they don’t know and get beaten, mugged, raped, killed or all of the above. People still drive on the roads not paying attention to the other drivers, as if their own driving is all that matters…or they drive doing unsafe things assuming they are such good drivers that they can do what everyone else is warned not to do for safety’s sake.

And I have seen many an article warning people of all those types not to do those things. Not because it will guarantee their safety but because it will reduce their risk.

No, there is no woman who can prevent a rapist from attacking. But if the woman looks like she might put up more of a fight or seems more aware of her surroundings than the average woman, the rapist will be more wary about picking her as his chosen target.

The advice that is unwarranted would be things like “don’t dress sexily.” That’s the biggest piece of idiot advice, because it’s pretty much been shown that rapists don’t attack women because they look sexy but because they simply want to overpower them and force them into sexual situations against their will. Age and appearance of the woman are often irrelevant.

But advising women to keep track of their drinks so no one slips them a roofie is good advice. Hell, I don’t let my drinks out of my sight for fear of some numbnut spitting in it or slipping me some acid as a prank, and I’m not at much risk of being raped unless I get sent to prison for some reason.

Reminding women that they should probably avoid being alone in unknown places or should refrain from getting totally wasted when out alone at bars isn’t bad advice any more than reminding people not to drink and drive would be. You remind them of these things because people like to think they are invulnerable, especially teens and young adults. When my wife, who knows I’m a very good driver, says “Be careful out there” when I head out to drive, especially at night or on a drink-oriented holiday, I don’t snap at her: “I’ve been driving for nearly 30 years now; I know what I’m doing” or say: “It doesn’t matter how safely I drive if some other idiot isn’t paying attention.” No. I say “OK” or “thanks” or “I will.” Because it does matter if I’m cautious and it does reduce my risk and getting a reminder sometimes makes me more mindful and less complacent.

People “know” that they shouldn’t take up a habit of smoking but that doesn’t stop us from putting warning labels on packs and running articles about the unhealthy aspects of smoking.

I don’t like seeing victims of rape be blamed because they didn’t follow the “rules.” That’s not fair and it shifts the guilt to the wrong party. But neither does it serve anyone to blame people for giving what is, frankly, good advice that should be followed by people and often isn’t.

What also bothers me is when critics of rape-minimization advice to potential victims say, “We should teach our boys not to grow up to be rapists instead of telling women how to not get raped.”

Mind you, I’m not irritated by the notion we should teach boys and men to avoid raping folks. What bothers me is that in most of the cases I’ve seen people rail against safety advice to women, they spend a very small amount of time talking about reducing the number of rapists but spend gobs of time ridiculing the safety advice.

It seems to me that most of the energy should be spent on telling people why it’s good to educate male folks about not raping and explaining the positive benefits to society of doing so…as well as explaining to people why you don’t blame victims of crimes…rather than spending so much time blaming the safety tip providers for creating an atmosphere of blame. The safety tips don’t produce the toxic atmosphere of blame; people’s fucked up attitudes and twisted notions and evil tendencies do that.

The safety tips aren’t the problem in terms of vicitim-blaming, any more than porn is a cause of rape (in neither case does one lead to the other). Yes, safety tips can be used as guilt bludgeons and yes, a very small percentage of porn glorifies rape but that doesn’t make them the problems. The former is an example of misuse; the latter is an example that there is always someone who can eroticize anything. We don’t blame the cars for running down pedestrians or blame the knife for a stabbing.

We also need to remember that we can never, ever eliminate rape. Even when we tell our kids not to steal and not to be mean to others and not to use violence to solve problems, there will always be some who grow up to be thieves, bullies, killers and whatnot.

That said, we should do a better job of teaching boys and men that being a stand-up guy means not taking a woman just because they can and being a decent human being means stopping when she gives a clear “no.” It also means teaching men to remain in control of their faculties and not, for example, to get drunk if one is prone to violence when under the influence. We need to teach responsibility.

That is something we haven’t promoted enough. That is true. But it needs to be in addition to, and in conjunction with, good safety advice to women. Because the fact it that we do need to be careful out there.

And all of us need reminders of that.


7 Responses to “Rape and Blame Games”

  1. 1 Meghan
    February 18, 2012 at 4:38 am

    Exactly. It’s good advice for everyone, which is why targeting it specifically to women is suspect. It’s some pretty obvious stuff, stuff that male friends who’ve run afoul of drunken hooligans in the Old Port would recommend to their buddies, so if it’s just a friendly reminder of very basic safety lessons, why do women need the reminder more? And why attach it specifically to sexual assault, a type of attack where victim blaming either explicitly or implicitly is the norm, as opposed to robbery, where it almost never is?

    Further, suggesting to a group of people who have learned that by virtue of chromosomal fluke they will be ogled, propositioned and touched without permission often in their lives that they really ought to watch themselves because there are dangerous people who might target them is an insult to women’s intelligence. As you say, people often act against their own self-interest, but women as a whole are pretty intensely aware of their vulnerability in a number of situations, many of them a whole lot more prosaic than the ones suggested in this campaign.

    Using the better-safe-than-sorry logic when it comes to personal safety and rape, we might also remind women that the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, including, at times, boyfriends and husbands. If she doesn’t want to have sex, it would be safer for a woman not to be alone with a man. Maybe some aspirin would help.

    Obviously that’s a rather glib and extreme extrapolation, but it starts to get at how these campaigns are at best well-meaning but slightly misogynist and at worst a prelude to victim-blaming.

    You are exactly right that there are a number of other issues here, first and foremost the implicit attitude that rapists are going to rape, so the ladies best be on the lookout. But that’s where the victim-blaming comes in. It might be argued that it’s not a message to women that they can/could have prevented rape, but it does send a message to unenlightened young men that rape is just an unfortunate part of life and that women have a responsibility to stay out of the way of guys who just can’t help themselves.

    That some people talking about this aren’t articulating their arguments in a way that fosters productive conversation is unfortunate, but it doesn’t invalidate the very legitimate, albeit subtle ways that these campaigns are detrimental to women.

  2. February 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    My point isn’t that these kinds of campaigns should be emphasized. Rather, I’m saying they shouldn’t be vilified.

    Any advice or campaign can be criticized but the problem isn’t the ADVICE. It’s the source of the advice, the intent, etc. And that is what can give it a negative spin. My concern is the amount of energy spent on saying how detrimental that advice is when that amount of energy spent demanding or creating other campaigns would be more productive.

    I’ve seen some great campaigns promoting the notion that men shouldn’t rape, aimed at men. Do they work? Well, hard to say since they’re not very pervasive. But THAT is the kind of thing women (and men) should, I think, be expending their passion and energy on.

    Think of anti-smoking efforts. People hammered campaigns over and over that relentlessly told people not only the risk of smoking but shamed them by suggesting how flawed they were for smoking. I have issues with how much those efforts blame smokers and ridicule them now, but I can’t argue with their effectiveness. Now anti-smoking people are emboldened to try to ban smoke ANYWHERE outside and within people’s own cars and things like that.

    Imagine if that kind of fervor could be turned toward anti-rape campaigns aimed at men and boys.

    I think it would go far. But it takes commitment.

    Frankly, I think there are too many people who find it more satisfying to ridicule rape-risk-reduction advice and to say “teach your boys not to rape” rather than to actually put effort toward a more proactive and far-reaching effort that might DO something about the root problem.

    I agree substantially with what you’ve said. Sure, assault prevention advice is very similar. But one must remember that women are at more risk, generally speaking, because most men can overpower most women. Man vs. man is more likely to be a “level” playing field. Also, a startlingly high number of women end up victims of rape. You make the correct point that a lot of that is within relationships or from relatives and acquaintances. But still, women are going to be targeted for things like mugging, assault AND rape, whereas men almost never have that last component.

    Ergo, aiming the advice at women makes sense from the standpoint that they (near as I can tell) will be targeted for violence more often, for a variety of unfortunate and unsavory reasons.

    Please understand that I’m not refuting what you’ve said. My concern is misdirected energy and aiming the blame at the wrong targets. It’s easy to get annoyed by something and then ignore or miss the core problem that needs addressing…not just with rape but a lot of things.

  3. February 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I think it’s fair to say that we’re working from the same text on most of these issues. My interest in exploring the potential ramifications from these campaigns springs from the current climate in which my concern about cracking the door for the howling lunatics in high places to explode well-meaning prevention programs into fodder for their own anti-woman agenda, but I definitely understand that the PSAs themselves were secondary in your argument to the weak response.

    You’re offering more good advice applicable to the general public: Maybe we’d all be better served spending a little less time on pithy retorts and hand-wringing on the interwebs and a little more identifying underlying issues and meaningful remedies.

  4. February 18, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Man, I’m tired. That first sentence was a lot of words and still missing important grammar structures. You get the idea.

  5. February 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    I got your gist. Sadly, I think this is one area of society where the liberal side has suffered from as much tunnel-vision and lack of perspective as the conservative side (for different reasons and in different ways).

    I suspect that has much to do with both sides still being largely driven by male leadership in the political, policy-making and public service realms.

  6. 6 Big Man
    February 29, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Good post. Had a very similar discussion about rape recently myself. Sparked by a guy getting roasted for victim blaming when he made some of the same suggestions you made.

  7. March 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    It’s always so risky to comment on volatile topics like this (race issues, abortion and many others are probably just about as volatile or close). Particularly when you’re seen as someone who doesn’t have a place in the discussion (as can happen if you’re not part of the victimized or potentially victimized group). That has a tendency to lead to people getting mad before even listening or trying to understand the person’s point.

    That’s a pity in so many areas of social discussion, and it’s why we’ve made so little progress on so many of them.

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Deacon Blue is the blogging persona of editor and writer Jeffrey Bouley. The opinions of Jeff himself on this blog, and those expressed as Deacon Blue, in NO WAY should be construed as the opinions of anyone with whom he has worked, currently works, or will work with in the future. They are personal opinions and views, and are sometimes, frankly, expressed in more outrageous terms than I truly feel most days.

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