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.