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Austin Cline

Women to Blame for Being Raped?

By November 22, 2005

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There's an old myth that women who report being raped were actually 'asking for it' in some manner. Unfortunately, this myth isn't so old: a recent survey finds that a disturbing percentage of people in Britain believe that women do indeed bear at least some responsibility for being raped if, for example, they dress provocatively.

Amnesty International reports (via Feministing):

For instance, more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.

Around one in 12 people (8%) believed that a woman was totally responsible for being raped if sheíd had many sexual partners.

Similarly, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than a third (37%) held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say ďnoĒ to the man.

Nick Kiddle (via Pandagon) comments on the story:

The attitude that women have the responsibility to protect themselves from rape is, at the most generous reading, an uncritical acceptance of the idea that men cannot be prevented from raping. At its worst, it is yet another example of the way society makes women responsible for anything men dislike. And all the while, there is no acknowledgment that this is just the mechanism by which sexist men can benefit from rape without themselves committing it.

There is a valid point here, but we should take care in how we phrase it. Do women have a responsibility (note: not the responsibility) to protect themselves from rape? Of course ó just like every functioning adult has a responsibility to protect themselves from crime. It would be nice if we could act freely without having to worry about others taking advantage of us, but thatís just not how the world works.

Where we fall into the problem Kiddle describes above is when we imagine that having a responsibility to avoid becoming the victim of a crime means that we are, therefore, responsible for the crime itself. That just isnít true. We are responsible for our own actions and are thus responsible for acting rationally and intelligently; we are not responsible for how others act, though.

Consider a situation where a person acts in an obviously and unambiguously negligent, irresponsible, and stupid manner: a man is driving his daughter to day care and, along the way, stops at a convenience store for coffee. In doing so, he figures that he wonít be long so he leaves the engine running and the doors unlocked, but his daughter in her car seat in the back.

You can see whatís coming, right? Someone comes along and steals the car, with the daughter still inside. An awful crime, no question about it, but do we hold the father responsible in any way that exonerates the thief? Of course not. Weíll have all kinds of harsh statements to make about the father because, after all, what he did was really stupid. The penalty for the car thief will not and should not be any less because of that stupidity, however. The theft is the action of the thief and the father is not responsible for the theft; the father is responsible for his own actions, which were negligent because they made theft more likely in a way that he should have foreseen.

Hereís another hypothetical: a woman accepts a bet in which a coin will be flipped and if she wins, she receives USD $1,000 but if she loses, one of her fingers is cut off. Thatís not a very smart bet, is it? Even if she is desperate for money, itís not smart. Does the fact that she accepts the bet willingly somehow relieve the other person of all moral and legal responsibility? Of course not. Even if nothing illegal has occurred, itís the person offering the bet who has done something immoral. The woman who accepts the bet is responsible for her own actions, not the actions of the one who takes advantage of others for offering the bet or the one who harms others but cutting off their fingers.

Now, the relevancy for the above examples for cases of rape should be clear (note: Iím using these examples to illustrate the general issue of who is responsible for crimes, not to claim that rape victims are all negligent in ways analogous to the above victims). Women do indeed have some responsibility to protect themselves from crimes, not just rape, and some people who become victims of crimes do so after making poor decisions. Some women who have been raped made bad decisions prior to being raped ó but this does not and cannot in any moral or legal way mean that, therefore, they are partially or totally responsible for being raped.

This should be clear if we focus on the important fact that the woman is responsible for her own actions, but the rape is the action of the man. The man commits the rape and he is responsible for his actions; ergo, he is solely responsible for the rape. This is true regardless of how the woman dresses, drinks, or lives. The women is responsible for only her own actions. This may or may not include bad decisions. This may include choices that, in an ideal world, shouldnít lead to any increased risks. Regardless, the responsibility of the woman does not extend to the rape itself.

When people start blaming the women for the rape, even partially, they are holding her responsible for the actions of the man and I think that this bears closer scrutiny. People donít typically do it when it comes to other crimes, even crimes where a woman is the victim. Murders and thieves arenít allowed to get away with their crimes if the victim did something which made the crime easier or more attractive. Why are rapists and rape treated this way?

There appears to be a strong correspondence between this and traditional religious beliefs. We find exactly this attitude in Muslim nations today as part of the rationale behind forcing women to remain covered when in public. It is argued that uncovered women are too tempting for men and women must therefore take responsibility for not leading men astray. We can find similar attitudes among early American fundamentalists. In Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, Betty A. Deberg writes: Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism

In an article entitled ďManís Moral Machinery,Ē the Kingís Business ran a letter [in the 1920s] from ďa young college manĒ who described himself as mentally unclean because ďthe women I know will not let me be clean.Ē The ďbiggest stumbling block is the manner in which our women folks clothe themselvesĒ:

ďWhat is a fellow going to do? We donít go around looking for these things, but we cannot help seeing them. No matter how much one may respect a girl, it is an effort for him to keep his thoughts from straying when she exposes too much of her body. ... Why should they go on dressing in a way to aggravate the sex tendency? The young man who is trying his utmost to keep himself clean for the sake of the woman he will marry ... has trouble enough without his sisters throwing a monkey wrench into his moral machinery.

Itís not the responsibility of the man to control his thoughts and ďmoral machinery,Ē itís the responsibility of women to keep from tempting him ó men canít help themselves. Itís not the responsibility of men not to rape, itís the responsibility of women to keep from tempting him ó men canít help themselves.

Iím not sure where such an attitude comes from. Itís one thing to say that a person must be careful because some people canít be trusted; itís quite another to say that women must never do certain things because men are, by nature, unable to control themselves, thus placing all moral and legal responsibility with the women themselves.

Is this attitude more about the rape, or the women? If people take this attitude toward prison rape, where the victims are mostly men, then perhaps itís not all about women. If people donít blame male victims of rape in the same way that they blame female victims of rape, then we should look towards patriarchal attitudes for the source of the problem. It may be that this is used to simply control womenís actions and behavior.


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May 23, 2008 at 12:49 pm
(1) Charlotte R says:

Right on! I hear this sort of stuff all the time. The analogies were perfect and I’m sure to use them in arguments on this topic.

February 17, 2009 at 5:36 pm
(2) Jen E. says:

This really helped me. We are in a Bible Study at Church, and this came up and I simply do not agree with our teacher. She said the women is to blame because of the way she dresses. I can not find that to be biblical truth. Thank you for the assurance in the issue at hand.

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