Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Responsibility and Blame

I refuse to get into the particulars. Too much Monkey Dancing. Scott's written about it. Some other people I know have written and some are getting sucked into little vicious flame wars where nobody is really listening to anybody else.

I don't like seeing people get hurt. It makes me feel bad. That's probably petty and childish on some level, but for me it trumps politics or dreams or justice or wishful thinking. Maybe I should amend that to good people getting hurt, but you know what? Even when it was absolutely necessary, there's no joy in hurting others. There's a weird and intense kind of joy in taking the risk on being hurt, but that's for another time.

I don't like seeing people get hurt. No mi gusto.

Should, as the platitude goes, a woman be able to walk naked into a biker bar (no idea why everyone picks on bikers for this) and be safe? Sure. That would be cool. And it will happen when a wounded seal pup can swim through a school of sharks and not get eaten. It would require a change in the nature of sharks.

Rape is a pretty nasty crime. Whether it arises from nature or nurture, by the time someone can commit that crime, they've already gotten past the issues of the victim's rights and humanity and justice and the way the world should be.

All protests, all consciousness-raising aimed at violent criminals centers on the message, "This is wrong."

The criminals already know it's wrong. The issue is that they don't care. You can't fix caring through reason. It's a deeper part of the brain.

I don't want people to get hurt. So I place the responsibility to stay safe on the potential victim. NOT because it is just or because I want the world to be this way. I place it there because, faced with a violent bad guy, the victim is likely the only one there who gives a rat's ass about her safety. The rapist doesn't. If the bad guy knows what he is doing, there won't be any indignant bystanders (and god help the victim if it is a Group Monkey Dance situation) to care and get involved. Even if they would get involved, which might be doubtful.

There are some things that society has, can, and will slowly change over time. Our ethics have advanced so far that we quibble now over hurting feelings when 150 years ago it might not even be a crime to kill someone of a different color. That's good. But on this very day, if something bad were to happen, society can't do anything specific and the bad guy has already decided to be bad. That puts the victim in the role of the only one who will act on her own behalf. Absolute responsibility by default.

And this is totally separate from blame. If a criminal attacks, it is his bad act, his choice. Whether the potential victim took precautions which the threat overcame or took no precautions at all, the blame and punishment should fall entirely on the perpetrator. That's justice.

But even in a world of perfect justice I would still prefer that no one got hurt in the first place. It's a pipe dream and childish, just as much a platitude as walking naked into a biker bar...

But it's still where I'm going to focus my time.


Diana said...

A huge point to be made here, however, is that whether a woman wears a thick tracksuit, overcoat, and boots or a mini skirt, bellytop and heels, if she is around a rapist at the wrong time she will get raped.

Rape rarely, if EVER, has anything to do with how pretty the woman is, how she is dressed, how much make-up she has on. It is usually about power and dominance and gaining pleasure from hurting and humiliating someone else in a unique way.

Hence, it is not so much that I agree that a woman should be able to walk into a bar naked and not get molested. It's that frequently, in this day and age, in a trial in court, or even in the police station, the victim is dismissed and the rapist let off because they (the victim) were wearing a skirt, or make-up, or heels, or was pretty. And that's not right.

I'm sure you know too that a huge amount of rapes are committed by a man the woman knows, often well.

If your ex-boyfriend hates you enough to attack you and rape you, the fact that you happened to have a cute red dress on probably wasn't what made him do it.

If the psycho at work decides to follow you home and put a bag over your head and rape you as you fumble for your housekeys-does it matter if you wore long pants or a skirt suit to work that day? "It was her lipstick, your honour. I just couldn't help myself".

It's somewhat reductive to bring this whole complex issue to the level of a half naked cheerleader in a sleazy bar. No-one really thinks that is totally sensible and appropriate behaviour. It's akin to a man walking around alone at night in a drug dealing neighbourhood.

But dismissing the crime, or telling the victim they are to blame, or giving lenient sentences (or dismissing them altogether) based on the victim's appearance or attire should not be countenanced, and absolutely I agree a zero tolerance policy should be implemented towards this.

Jrant said...

I think you're right, we are all responsible for our own safety, but the "slutty clothing" thing is a red herring. Lots of things make us "attractive" targets: distraction, (talking on cell phones, listening to ipods, trying to open a car door), intoxication, isolation, LOOKING afraid, nervous or submissive (walking with shoulders hunched, eyes down, etc.) Avoiding these behaviors make us less attractive targets (to rapists or muggers), and they really have nothing to do with clothing. To borrow your earlier metaphor, we don't change the nature of the shark, we change the nature of the seal.

Rob Lyman said...

To take rape off the table for a second, should you be able to walk into a biker bar with your very own homemade 3-piece patch on your back?

The bikers should bear the sole moral responsibility for what happens, and should get whatever the law can manage to give them. But on the other hand, you're still an idiot, and I'm not ashamed to say it to your face.

Not being an idiot is always a good idea.

Rory said...

That's the thing.
Diana, no one in this argument is dismissing the crime. Nobody. No one in the discussion, not here or anywhere, is actually blaming the victim. That's why it is so important to distinguish between responsibility and blame; to make a solid point that bad acts are morally and judicially wrong but doing what one can to prevent bad acts is common sense.
There are two minor points I disagree with, Diana. The first is that a woman around a rapist at the wrong time will get raped. Part of what makes a 'wrong time' is an assessment of his chances of getting away with it and the potential victims actions can influence that a lot. And I do think that the victim's dress is an important factor-- not because of provocation or some other bullshit factor but because many of the violent criminals I have worked with use a very cold math and ease of access/time is a part of many crimes.

Jrant. Absolutely, with the unique effect that it is a red herring on all sides. Which is why I had no intention of addressing the event that started all this.

Rob- I'd actually considered using a similar example and decided the post was getting too long.

Thanks, all three of you.

April Daniels said...

I think I agree with you, Rory, that the presence or absence of a rapist who thinks they can get away with it, is the only factor that determines if a rape occurs. And the calculus that a rapist makes when determining if he thinks he can get away with it isn't one I'm very familiar with (although I recently saw it in action, though I didn't recognize it for what it was until it was almost too late).

I'm concerned, however, that a victim-centric strategy to prevention has the effect of creating the social conditions in which a rapist might be excused for his crime, in effect tipping the risk calculus in his favor, and in turn making rape more likely.

Victim-centric rape prevention treats rapists like they're a force of nature, rather than people who make a decision to rape. Avoiding rapists becomes akin to avoiding trees in a lightening storm.

Pointing out that the victim had revealing clothing, for example, can be couched in a reasonable "ease of access" manner like you do here, or it can be used by the defense council to muddy the water with bullshit about "mixed signals." Plenty of "slutty" outfits are actually really hard to get in and out of, while a long, lose, modest skirt is super easy to flip up, and has the added advantage of being a ready made cloth bag to ensnare the victim's upper body in. That kind of nuance is never mentioned, and even if it was, it quickly transforms into some kind of anti-rape dress code that women are expected to follow or else they will be treated as having culpability in their own victimization.

As many times as you can say that the moral blame is the rapists alone but the responsibility for avoidance falls on the woman, and as deeply as you can truly believe that (and I have no reason to think you don't), it still creates and sustains a meme where the victim is the one who needs to avoid things, and if she doesn't follow the anti-rape code closely enough, well, rape is just what happens sometimes. In a nuanced discussion like this, we can see that such an argument is bullshit. But in a courtroom, where the defense attorney only needs to muddy the waters enough to create reasonable doubt, and where jurors may be thinking emotionally or empathizing with the suspect, this separation of blame from responsibility won't survive.

"She was sending mixed signals," "He misunderstood her," "Why didn't she fight back?" "He's a family man, he wouldn't do that," "And anyway, dressed like that she'd have to know someone would mistake what she wanted," and so on.

And the rapists KNOW this. They know that unless the victim is a nun in a chapel, they can claim ambiguous consent, or even an after-the-fact change of heart by the victim. They know that their friends will believe them when they say she never said no. They know their family will stand by them as they gamely soldier through this outrageous accusation, if the victim even bothers to tell the police at all (because the victims know this stuff, too). And if it does come down to a trial, and there is DNA evidence, well then his lawyer just points to her push-up bra and short skirt and talks about how they were a de facto invitation, or about how she allowed herself to be alone with him was a de facto invitation, or how if she wasn't interested she should have fought, and maybe she's just regretting being a slut.

And it will work. This defense works all the time.

So as important as it is to give people the tools and skills necessary to protect themselves, we can't leave it at that. I don't know what the solution is, but I know that it can't stop at a list of Do's and Don'ts for women to abide by, because if we leave it there, then any time a woman fails to live up to a perfect standard of prudence and caution, she will be blamed for her own rape.

Rory said...

April- Agreed, and, unless I'm missing something, I haven't and won't conflate physical consequences with legal consequences. Other than rant, I can't DO anything about the legal/social consequences.

But I can teach a little of the criminal calculus and help people make choices. It's not enough, but it's what I can do.

For know, the calculus (I love your phrase, BTW) has to be victim centric because there is no one covering. No one else will pick up the slack.

Not sure 'force of nature' is the best analogy, but one step removed. People who live around poisonous snakes or spiders or dangerous animals develop certain strategies and it does affect their lives. It is very victim centric. Until the tribe bands together and hunts the predators to extinction. Ahem.

April Daniels said...

I take your point. I like the poisonous snake analogy.

I guess it's not so much victim-centric safety tips that I mind; it's the fact that they take place in a societal context where they are often the fullest extent of rape prevention. Equipping women with the means to protect themselves is wonderful, but that can't be the only proactive step we take. I think there needs to be a broader societal shift in how we think and talk about sexual assault. We talk to women about how to protect themselves a lot, but in my experience we don't talk to men about the realities of rape, and that's a big problem.

I grew up as a boy (not a tom boy, but literally as a boy; I'm transgendered), and lived as a male in the United States for a quarter century. I saw, or heard of, many instances where a pastor, or a police officer, or even a school official would lecture a group of girls or young women on what they can do to protect themselves. From what I hear, most of these lectures are at least well meaning, and often genuinely helpful. (Although the story of the police sergeant who said shame on any woman who doesn't have a cellphone on her at all times to call for help is always good for a groan.)

But as often as this was done for women, not once were me and the other boys ever sat down by an authority figure and told exactly what rape is, why it is evil, and why we should never be friends with or cover for a rapist. Sure, we all learned, through one channel or another, that rape is bad, but there's a whole lot of misconceptions about what rape in the real world looks like, even among well educated men. This makes it easier for rapists to squirm out of the consequences if they get caught. I don't think that education would necessarily turn rapists into good people, but I do think it would make it harder for them to find support and cover for their crimes within their circle of friends.

To take the dangerous animal analogy further: if you're concerned about black widows in your garage, you can make sure to always wear thick gloves when you're rummaging around in there and other harm reduction strategies, or you can put the effort in to clean out the garage, remove all the webs, and then keep it clean and inhospitable for black widows to move back in.

Educating men about rape, and showing them why they should never say a woman deserved it, or was asking for it, or should have known what would happen, is like cleaning out the webs. Making an effort to create and maintain a cultural standard that does not tolerate slut shaming won't eradicate rapists, but it will make rape more hazardous because the social penalties will go up. (The social penalties for rape, if you're a white man of wealth and status are shockingly low.) The social environment which allows rapists to hide will be restricted, and hopefully shift the calculus in the victim's favor.

Benjamin Cheah said...

Hey Rory,

I've been following your blog for years now. Normally I wouldn't comment, but I'm one of those folks who wrote about the particulars or responsibility and blame...and one of those who got sucked into a flame war for it.

When I write about personal responsibility, I'm talking about getting people to take charge of their personal safety. When people accuse me of victim-blaming, I sense they're really saying that I'm not doing enough about the rapists and other criminals.

In my country, some people say there is a culture of victim-blaming. But I don't see any concrete proof of this. The closest I saw is a case in which four men were charged for 'aggravated outrage of modesty' instead of rape, because the circumstances surrounding it were so murky. I haven't seen anybody declaring 'she was asking for it!', not even on (comparatively) wild and woolly online fora. I'm wonder if the victim-blaming argument was imported from advocates in the West, and I'm also wondering just how real the phenomenon really is.

This post has brought me some perspective on things. Thanks for writing it. Mind if I quote you?

In your opinion (and, by 'your' I mean everybody here), what can realistically be done about the bad guys on the street?

April, you want to go one step further by educating men about rape. I can understand that. But couched in language like that, where I live (Singapore), you'll be accused of treating every man as a potential rapist...and the government will take you off the list of approved education contractors. Further, where I live, personal safety classes in schools are rare, if not nonexistent.

Responsibility to teach personal safety and sex ed here is devolved to the judgment of the schools here. So the school is free to hire, or not hire, contractors of their choice to teach pupils on specific topics. 'Civics and Moral Education' classes are supposed to teach both personal safety and sex ed, among other things, but in practice CME classes are re-purposed for everything but CME. What I know about self-defence I had to learn from American books and blogs. What sex ed lessons I got centred on the evils of pornography, and how pornography leads to murder, taught by a certain organisation that claims to be secular, but is really the Singaporean branch of a famous American religious organisation: Focus on the Family. And FoF - or private contractors here, for that matter - isn't invested in teaching young men why rape is bad.

I've been thinking instead of a comprehensive sex ed curriculum alongside a personal safety program. The former, among other things, teaches people of both genders to respect each other (the point being, telling boys not to force themselves on girls and dispelling myths about rape). The latter teaches people to look after themselves - and to deny social support for rapists and other violent criminals.

Do you think this could be modified for your culture?

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

While society should strive to improve, we should look after ourselves as much as we can. I notice in discussions like this that "responsabilty", while intended to mean people should bo something to look after themselves, can lead people to hear, they are the ONLY ones who should, which isn't the case
Here in the UK the rise of "accident" compensation has grown. "Trip or fall anywhere, accident that wasn't your fault" is a general tag line. Personally if I trip on an uneven step or sidewalk I take my self to task, I should be aware of where I am walking, where I"m putting my feet.

However society is moving to putting the blame somewhere else and then looking to make money from it.

While black widows in the garage can be dealt with and as Rory said so could human predators. Such approaches generally involve extreme measures which are viewed as "too" extreme by the society we live in. We should also note that most dangerous animals we live in "close" proximity with don't see us as "prey"... human predators do.

Doing more to educate from an early age and change how people think and behave is vital of course. Will it completely solves the problem? Will it mean that no one becomes apredator?
Short of exterminating every black widow, there will likely still be black widows... we still need to know how they behave so that we don't get bitten, however clean we have made our garrage.

Wayne said...

This reminded me of the file "The Accused" with Jodi Foster, based on the real life rape of Cheryl Araujo.

What is sickening is the way she was treated in the community (many said "she was asking for it") to the pont she had to move out of state. Not to mention one of the rapists stating "It was worse for me than her" after he was released from prison.

I've had conversations with women on this topic, and agree with them that someone shouldn't think they are "easy" or rape them based on what clothes they wear. But at some point you have to look at yourself and the environment and make sure you aren't placing yourself at unneeded risk. Sad part is one lady that I have discussed this with has been raped twice.

Scott said...

Our society has been trying to create safe schools, with mixed results. We obviously don't agree on what steps to take or what exactly constitutes safe. After we come to a consensus on schools, we can move on to creating safe streets. The Japanese have done it, so can we.

Anonymous said...

For those folks who haven't seen victim blaming, two recommendations - Google Noirin Shirley, and then read the comments made on her sexual assault, both on her own blog and elsewhere. Or, you might check out the comments sections of the Seattle Times (I live in Cleveland now, but still often read my home town rag - and frankly attitudes in Cleveland are generally a lot scarier) whenever the subject of rape comes up. Those are right off the top of my head. I'm sure it's easy to find other sources.

I'm a big fan of personal safety. I just have to wonder if it's safety people are talking about when they tell women to wear a longer skirt or a higher neckline... rather than shoes you can run in and clothes you can fight in. It's the moralizing tone that turns my stomach.*

To me the slut walk was aimed pretty specifically at the victim blaming. Which is why you had a lot of women wearing exactly the clothes they were raped in. (Which were generally things like a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, baggy sweatshirts and the like.)

The whole notion that you can divide women into sluts and good girls and only the good girls should get legal protection freaks me out. Even more so considering that my younger sister was a stripper for ten years. And that's not what a lot of people are saying... but a lot of people are also saying just that.

* Personally, I may occasionally go dancing in little more than three spangles and a silk scarf, but I don't buy clothes I can't move in. And I also live a privileged life in terms of being female - I'm 5'11", take after my linebacker father, and spend an awful lot of time on the mat. ...and mostly I live a pretty boring life tied up with research and martial arts and don't spend a lot of time in places where actual violence is likely.

Jrant said...

April & Benjamin touched on a key point: sexual assault is very much treated as a "woman's problem," and frequently, the only message men get is "don't be a rapist." Most men don't need to be told that, because most men aren't rapists.

I'd like to see the anti-sexual assault movement come up with a more active role for men; talk about what men CAN do rather than just lecture about what they shouldn't do. Instead of role-playing "no-means-no" scenarios, it would be more productive to practice overcoming the "not my problem, don't get involved" impulse. So when a young woman gets falling down drunk at a frat party, the _standard_ response would be to find her a ride home and get her out of there, rather than averting eyes and thinking "THAT'S not going to end well." This isn't gender specific, we would all be better off if more men AND women were willing to intervene in questionable situations.

Thanks Rory, for keeping the comments open on this post, the topic has been pretty inflammatory elsewhere. And hats off to all the other commentators for keeping things civil.

Scott said...

Jrant, as long as the "standard-response" is to find her a ride home...we are tolerating rape. When a woman can go out by herself and get drunk without even needing to consider that she might be in danger, we will have reached the level of civilization they have in Japan.

Jrant said...

Scott, I'm sorry, I don't follow your reasoning. I'm not arguing that women should be escorted out of every dangerous situation, (that _would_ be counter productive._ I was trying to give an example of the community taking an active role in the safety of its members. If you don't like the "put her in a car" course of action, fine. People intervening when some guy starts leading her to a back room illustrates the same principle.

The point is for people to do _something_ other than think "that girl is REALLY drunk and it's totally not my problem."
Criminals (rapists, muggers, vandals, take your pick) seek isolated targets. If a Community makes it difficult to isolate its members (by overcoming the "it's none of my business" mind set), it becomes harder and harder to find victims. And by making predators search elsewhere for victims, we come closer to a society where women (and men) can go out drinking by themselves, without fear of assault.

Maija said...

Rape prevention, like violence in general is a huge field with many different strands to it.
It seems here that the debate keeps coming back to the pulls in different directions between self defense and all the things that go into keeping yourself as safe as possible, and drawing attention to yourself to change society ... There is an overlap, after all saying: - 'No, I will not tolerate this' - is an important tactic for both causes. However often self defensive behavior is about not standing out - in this case as a potential target, where as trying to create change, by it's nature, means you ARE making yourself stand out from the current norms and perhaps making yourself a target ....
If I can keep myself the MOST safe by doing A,B and C ... BUT A,B and C by their nature preclude what I need to do to generate a bigger change .... which is the best self defense in the end ...? After all, as Scott pointed out, the best self defense in some ways is creating a complete environment that is safe (though of course the down side of this is cultivating a populace that take less and less personal responsibility for themselves and are ultimately easier prey when taken out of that environment ...)
Honestly, I think this is an enormous question, but one part of it is - If standing up puts you in more danger, is standing up good self defense?
And as all you 'sheep dogs' know - someone has to do it .... and wouldn't it be nice if more people did?

Anonymous said...

So is my mindset wrong?

My experience/reading about the behaviour of abusers highlights that many will *pick a target* and take their time to move in - I mean weeks or months, many may end up married to their 'target'. If the target attempts to avoid/move away at any stage they become what we call stalkers.
Under those circumstances, how can there be any talk at all about victim responsibility? Sure, the victim might have done something wrong, somewhere that made the situation worse (usually along the lines of conforming to society's expectations of behaviour rather than listening to gut instinct) but realistically, her own actions have little bearing on the larger situation.

I had the 'taking care' discussion recently with an older friend who worries, trying to explain my decisions in that line. Yes, I do things that most people would call reckless or stupid. But what it comes down to is this: when I was young my parents/teachers viewed me as a highly desirable target who would be lucky to stay alive for long. In consequence, I was not permitted to wander off the schoolgrounds, not permitted to leave the house surrounds once I was home. I decided while still a child that I wasn't interested in living in a world where I was virtually a prisoner and if I got murdered for my freedom, so be it.
I've lived that way ever since, over twenty years now.


Matt said...

Good to see this discussed without the flaming I have seen on other boards.

I worry about the word "responsibility" in this context because, in most peoples' language, responsibility IS blame. Clearly the context matters greatly: "take responsibility for your safety" (before the event) is very different from "you are responsible for what happened to you" (after the event).

And there ARE people out there who will use a victim's behaviour to minimise the culpability of the attacker.

I'm also not ready at this point to give the Toronto cop the benefit of the doubt. One the one hand, he could be making a clumsy attempt to make Rory's responsibility/blame distinction, fastening onto clothing in ignorance of the powerful points made by Diana. On the other hand, he could be letting slip his own distaste for the sexual mores and dress styles of the young women he encounters. The latter is certainly plausible - he wouldn't be the world's first socially conservative cop, and his use of the word "slut" (do many people say that in Canada?) makes me wonder.

Jrant said...

"I worry about the word "responsibility" in this context because, in most peoples' language, responsibility IS blame. Clearly the context matters greatly: "take responsibility for your safety" (before the event) is very different from "you are responsible for what happened to you" (after the event)."

Matt this is such a good point. I think you've found the essence of why this discussion has turned into a flame war in so many places.

Steve Perry said...

Responsibility is an interesting term, and obviously, there are different places people draw the line.

You have a keyring? How many keys on it. How many of them do you use? Lock your car? Your house? Why?

Because you want to make it harder for somebody to swipe your stuff or sneak up on you?

There are dangerous places, and if you know there are dangers there and you choose to go there, then you probably won't get the same level of sympathy you'd get if you were at home in a good neighborhood with the doors locked and somebody broke in an attacked you.

In a perfect world, nobody would blame a victim. Of course, in a perfect world, there wouldn't be any victims.