Blaming and shaming

The feminist left-wing blogger, It’s Mother’s Work, wrote a thought-provoking piece about “victim-blaming” in the case of rape, in which she posits the campaign from the Welsh police anti-rape campaign which features this poster, seeks to put the blame for rape upon victims as opposed to perpetrators.

Eamon Holmes inadvertently stumbled into this row this week, with his comments to a rape victim during an interview on yesterday’s This Morning, during which he asked “why were you tempted to walk home”  and concluded with “well I hope you take taxis now”.

There’s now been a flurry of complaints into ITV as a result of Holme’s “misogynistic victim blaming.” This was an interview, therefore Holmes, in common with all interviewers was attempting to empathise with his interviewee. He wasn’t saying the attack was the woman’s fault, but acknowledging the unpleasant and unsavoury fact that, women tend to be more at risk from sexual assault than men. On the whole women are more physically vulnerable than men, I was in the CCF at school, I’ve completed several self-defence courses and yet I know that on a dark night if a man stole up behind me, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Generally speaking women are more likely to be the object of sexually related violence from random strangers, than men, which is one of the factors that renders the issue of male rape so taboo and one of the reasons why so many instances of it go unreported.

There can be no justification for rape and Its Mother’s Work is correct when she states that young men need to be educated to respect women and as Alison noted in her post, featured in the Telegraph this week, we need to have a serious think about the effects of pornography upon our young people. Education may only go so far however.  Education is not mooted as a solution for the crime of murder, we know that motivations of murderers are far more complex than a simple unawareness that what they are doing is immoral and that they ought not to be doing it.

Rape is equally psychologically complex. The cases of premeditated stranger rape are fortunately rare, but they do happen. There are some psychologically damaged individuals out there, who are determined to perpetrate atrocious crimes, the products of a broken or twisted psyche. For some people it really is a case of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like it or not, people walking on their own late at night are more vulnerable to attack. Both men and women walking alone are likely to be targeted by those with malign intentions, for a variety of reasons, be they racist, homophobic or sexist. For the attacker who is bent on attacking a person of a different colour, or targeting a homosexual, or raping a woman, there are a variety of factors that will determine whether or not a particular person will be that particular victim, one of which will be how easy it will be for the attacker. A rapist is far less likely to pick on a group of women walking down the street, or a woman accompanied by a friend, than he is a single woman on her own. Her location and the preponderance of passers-by will also play a factor, as will things like street lighting, CCTV and cars passing. It is not blaming a woman who is targeted in this fashion, to note that a woman walking on her own is vulnerable to attack. This is not a new phenomenon, twas always thus. Women in seventeenth century London, frequently dressed up as men when going about their business in the city, not to make any specific point about gender, but because it was safer, they were less likely to be accosted.

Most men who are guilty of rape however,  have not deliberately set out with the intention of having sex with a woman without her consent. Alcohol is usually a factor in cases of rape, the heady and intoxicating nature of alcohol blurs boundaries, renders one less risk averse and makes signals more difficult to interpret and communicate. There is no doubt that being on your own and drunk dramatically increases your vulnerability and thus susceptibility to unwelcome sexual advances, you may not be able to understand what is implicit until it is too late, or perhaps more pertinently you might not be able to adequately physically defend yourself.

In either situation, there is a way to mitigate risk, in the first case, by individuals endeavouring not to walk alone at night, or if they have absolutely no other choice, to put in place various safety measures. In the second case, it is wise for women who don’t want to risk an uninvited sexual encounter to which they can neither consent nor defend themselves, to be prudent about drinking in certain situations.

That is not to say that cases of rape will dramatically decrease, but it certainly will diminish an individual’s risk of attack. The Welsh police campaign was not seeking to cast blame on a woman, its slogan explicitly mentions the word “victim” which is an acknowledgement of that rape is an uninvited crime. It does not seek to blame, but to ask women to take responsibility for their own personal safety. In an ideal world, rape would not exist, along with a whole host of other crimes. In an ideal world, I would be able to leave my house unlocked, or my children fast asleep in bed whilst I popped down the road for a drink, but we don’t live in such a world. We have to engage with the world as it is, instead of how we would like it to be.

Eamon Holmes was trying to get into the psyche of his interviewee, he clearly felt that a woman walking alone at night following a night out was taking a risk and so asked her as to the factors that led to this decision. He wasn’t saying “it was your fault, you deserved it”, just wondering what it was that prompted her to take a risk. No decision in life comes without risk and we can learn lessons from others’ experiences without resorting to blame. Stating “well I hope you take taxis now”, is not blaming the victim for the horrifying assault, but more the statement of a concerned other. There may be an implied “well had you been walking home this may not have happened to you”, but that is not the same as stating that the girl was responsible for or invited her attack. It’s a statement of fact. Had the young woman not been walking home alone, she may not have been attacked in this way. It does not render the attack her fault, nor lessens the severity of it, but is a salutary lesson in safety.

Whilst we shouldn’t be living in a climate of fear and no-one is suggesting that women should neither go out, nor have a drink, it is not unreasonable to state that we all bear a level of individual responsibility. Had the woman not being walking alone, then she would have removed the factor that facilitated the rapist. Of course she should have been able to have been walking alone at whatever time she liked, just as I should be able to leave my house very obviously unlocked, but that’s not the world in which we live.

Rather than getting into a futile war of victimhood and wasting our energies bemoaning the fact we do not live in Utopia, or casting all men into the role of potential rapists and seeing a misogyny, which in this instance is not present, why not take steps to acknowledge that some activities are risky and take steps to neutralise the risk? Eamon Holmes and the Welsh police are not wrong to point out that there are ways of staying safer. There are no guarantees that the taxi-driver won’t turn out to be a rapist, or that staying sober will protect you from sexual attack and neither should women be eying every man up with suspicion, however wisdom and personal responsibility surely have to play their part, as they do in every single situation in life.

A consequence of walking home alone at night means that one is more vulnerable to attack. A consequence of getting drunk means that one might end up being raped, or being accused of rape. Why do women need to be absolved of the responsibility of the potential consequences of their actions more than men? Doesn’t seem very equal to me.

8 thoughts on “Blaming and shaming

  1. Thank you for the link. I agree it is also relevant to this sort of discussion sadly.

    Very interesting post. Close to my heart as it goes.

    But surely if there are no guarantees that the taxi driver won’t turn out to be a rapist and so on then men equally cannot complain when we adopt a strategy that essentially considers all men potential rapists or all men a risk? And yet we are told they are not …and then expected to minimise risks anyway. I understand your point about the latter but really do not feel it is right for this man to question a woman about her actions in this way before questioning the brutal actions of his own gender as paramount.

    Ten years ago I was sexually attacked, beaten, pulled off the street and more or less raped when I got lost in a new area of London one night searching for a doctor’s surgery in a residential street. I wasn’t planning on getting lost and hadn’t considered the short walk a risk. Nevertheless a young man took advantage. I was struggling for my life that night and it was sheer anger that stopped the man fully getting away with it but he got away with too much all the same and it has impacted my life. It isn’t always possible to stay safe. And I am afraid yes I do now resent men insisting we don’t consider them all as potential aggressors whilst expecting us to take often quite major precautions to avoid sexual attacks. It would have been good of the interviewer to raise questions about society, safety, male respect and so on before questioning why she hadn’t protected herself – which does rather imply she invited the attack. He would not have thought to immediately question whether a man who had been beaten up one night had invited the actions or minimised the risks.

    I do entirely agree with you that getting drunk is an issue. But again I see it as one in which young men who lose all self control, should also be made to consider the consequences of their actions.

    1. I am so sorry to hear of what happened to you.

      Is it fair for all men to bear responsibility for their gender? Probably not, but a fact of life. I don’t think anyone can afford to be naive. The effect of the (welcome) emancipation of women has been that women need to start taking responsibility for themselves.

      The attack itself is never a woman’s fault and always the fault of the perpetrator but I think there’s a difference between Holmes’ asking why she took a risk and expressing a hope that in future she stays safe (as do other women) and actually blaming her for the attack.

      I think women who put themselves in compromising situations (and I don’t mean what happened to you) need to accept that this entails risk. That doesn’t mean accepting responsibility for the attack but that getting very drunk and/or walking home alone in the dark in the small hours whilst out and alone is unwise.

      There is no shame in learning from a situation. I’m no saint, I have done crazy reckless things in my past, it’s a wonder I’m still alive all things considered.

      I too have been a victim of violent racially motivated assault which happened at 9pm at night, walking home from the tube station in a very distinctive uniform. I was lucky that a passer-by intervened and of course I would take issue with anyone who sought to place the blame on me.

      Objectively was it wise for me to be walking on my own in a uniform designed to flatter and attract attention (I was an air hostess) in an inner-city suburb? I thought I was safe, but it goes to show you can never eliminate risk. You can however take steps to minimise it, disgraceful and depressing though it is that a woman can’t feel safe.

  2. I completely agree with the thrust of what you are saying regards minimising risks. I believe women mostly do this instinctively because sadly we have to suspect all men of being potential rapists. We have to accept that there is this inherent risk which comes with being the weaker sex. So men should then equally accept that they are viewed this way and desist with the disingenius “but all men are not rapists” argument and learn to live with the reality of life also. They cannot have it both ways. In order to protect ourselves we have to walk out the house we the attitude that they all are and take appropriate care.

    I just get depressed to read when this issue is raised that the onus is immediately on the woman to justify her own actions as part of her problem. We simply do not question men who make themselves vulnerable, which plenty can and do. If he hadn’t made this issue into a gender issue then whether men should equally be made to question their general actions isn’t something I would instinctively raise. The reason I do this is because it does, unfortunately, imply she invited the attack which is pretty low, given how she suffered. Male rape is so prevalent these days – I very much doubt that the interviewer would think to question a victim in quite the same way no matter how vulnerable he had made himself.

    I think we can all agree with minimising risk and acceptng the realities of life. But also extend sympathy to victims and not minimise the actions of the attacker.

    Sorry to read about your experience, which is also incredibly depressing.

  3. Very well-written. Looking at the police poster, my honest gut impression is that I am not comfortable with it.

    “The Welsh police campaign was not seeking to cast blame on a woman, its slogan explicitly mentions the word “victim” which is an acknowledgement of that rape is an uninvited crime.”

    For me, the problem is that in our culture, the term “victim” has taken on a certain unfortunate derogatory meaning. In particular, the phrase “don’t be a victim” (which the poster uses) has an implied meaning of “if you’re not smart enough you’ll get into problems”. You are correct that, humans being what they are, some situations are always going to be more risky than others and people should be encouraged to take reasonable precautions. However, I fear that poster does indeed go down the road of blaming the victim at the expense of the rapist.

    Maybe the problem is to do with how the message is presented in that poster. There is the woman’s face, the big word “RAPE” and then the “Don’t be a victim, drink sensibly” text…something is wrong about that. It would have been better if they distributed literature talking generally about drinking issues, and mentioning personal safety as part of that.

    As for the Eamon Holmes interview, I haven’t seen it personally…but from what you describe, I can understand why it could have been interpretted as very insensitive.

    1. I think you have a point in terms of the derogatory connotations of the word “victim” which I had not considered.

      I think the difficulty is that as a nation we seem to like the victim status and it’s certainly a narrative that the press picks up on. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining why both gay and Christian activists seek to portray themselves as victims, both with some justification? It’s a narrative, that by and large, I prefer to steer clear of, but in the areas of competing views, one will always prevail.

  4. Thank you for this post. It and the one from ‘It’s Mother’s Work’ are both good and thought provoking.

    I have been reading Matt, Shelia and Dennis Linn recently. They have a very interesting take on victims. They look at some of the verses in the Sermon on the Mount. The verse about turning the other cheek for example, changes when you know the context. In a right handed culture, where the left hand was used for unpleasant tasks, to hit someone on the right cheek was to back hand them. A back handed slap was for inferiors, like slaves or children. Equals were always hit on the left cheek- a front handed slap. To turn the left cheek is to say “You treated me like an inferior but we are actually equal.” They talk about two hands in response, one to stop the abuse and one to offer the ‘opressor’ the chance to change.

    Maybe this means a rapist should face the full force of the law and in prison be given the opportunity to hear the impact of their actions and to work on why they acted the way they did. Also women who have suffered rape needed to be supported by us. Maybe we need to challenge stereotypes and dangerous images of women when we come across them- and that includes in the church- while at the same time providing good images and role models of men, women and respectful relationships. I think I need to think about this more but the debate needs to be changed, so thank you to Caroline and Alison for both blogs which help.

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