Gadfly: On Victim-Blaming And Denial Of Causality

One of the more challenging aspects of taboo is the limiting effect it can have on discourse. Because people are naturally loath to talk about uncomfortable topics, dogma of some sort or other tends to dominate. If one examines the way much of the subject matter explored in this blog is dealt with in popular media and the blogosphere, a similar trend emerges: even where opposing views are given space, they tend to be a little less nuanced than usual; a little more strident.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the subject of rape. Its taboo status is perhaps at least as much due to the wider stigmatisation of sex as it is to the trauma experienced by victims (and accompanying need for sensitivity); whatever the case, it is a topic that those not toeing an established ideological line engage with at their own peril.

Many such sanctioned viewpoints could be said to fall within the broad domain of feminism. Given the movement’s strong focus on rape – perhaps the ultimate form of masculinised violence against women – it is understandable that it has devoted so much attention to changing the societal discourse on the issue; and, as a result, achieved significant results. In many ways, this shift has produced useful discussions: the poisonous and increasingly condemned phenomenon of slut-shaming, for instance; likewise, acknowledgement of the role patriarchal societies play in perpetuating ‘rape culture’.

Amongst these discourses lies the concept of ‘victim-blaming’. In its literal form, the term deals with the particularly pernicious phenomenon in which rape survivors are blamed for their own victimisation (or, worse, seen to have deserved it). Although this view is thankfully uncommon, it is quite rightly condemned by all reasonable people.

Like all ideologies, however, activist feminism is capable of overreaching. When it comes to the matter of victim-blaming, it has done so spectacularly. For many anti-rape campaigners, it appears to be deemed no longer sufficient to castigate those who chide survivors for not having done more to prevent assaults; rather, the imperative has shifted to denying any causal role in the victim’s behaviour whatsoever.

That may seem a subtle difference, but it is a significant one. First, it is simply incorrect that one has no agency in avoiding crime. Just as locking the front door reduces the risk of burglary and avoiding some parts of King Street on a Friday night reduces the risk of being physically assaulted, it should go without saying that self-defence techniques, discretion in selecting sexual partners or awareness of surroundings may in some cases help prevent rape.

If this is so, it would seem reasonable for authority figures to sometimes offer cautionary advice accordingly (particularly in specific situations; for instance, if a crime spree has occurred). It may be superfluous; it may, in some cases, be misguided; nonetheless, it would be entirely wrong to conflate this practice with victim-blaming. This, however, is exactly what much in the way of contemporary mainstream feminist discourse does.

The most prominent example of this was the ‘SlutWalk’ marches of 2011, rallies devised as a response to a Canadian police officer’s suggestion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. While this comment repeated the erroneous perception that choice of attire has a significant correlation with prospect of being raped – and, perhaps, offered insufficient support for the rather crucial right to wear what one likes – the primary focus of the organisers lay with what they saw to be institutional support for victim-blaming.

This was a strange conclusion. As ill-judged as they were, the officer’s words could not in any sense be seen to imply that women who dressed in a certain way deserved to be assaulted or that they were to blame for anything that might happen. How, then, could this widely-quoted comment have been misinterpreted by so many people?

The problem, it seems, lies in the confusion of causality with culpability. In Australian law, as with most Western jurisdictions, the culpability for a criminal act almost always lies solely with the offender. The fact that all victims play something of a causal role in their victimisation – from deciding to get out of bed in the morning onwards – does not at all imply a share in responsibility. Indeed, there are many legitimate activities that may play a causal role in victimisation, up to and including not following safety advice. This fact does not mean that we share in the blame for any harm that befalls us; nor is it likely to be a mitigating factor in the courtroom for our assailant. The right to

go about our lives without being assaulted is fundamental and must be protected.

As this is so, many argue, the focus would be better placed on policing rape and better educating potential offenders. “Tell rapists not to rape” is the oft-suggested alternative to preventative advice. But this is, to some extent, a non-sequitur. It cannot be reasonably said that we live in a society in which rape is tolerated: by and large, it is considered to be an abhorrent crime. Even if this were not so, informing potential rapists of the error of their ways can only go so far. If all that the eradication of crime required was for society to no longer endorse it, the world in which we live would be quite unrecognisable. The fact that no culture has ever successfully eliminated the occurrence of any crime – despite every effort to the contrary – suggests that education and stigma can only go so far.

As long as serious crime exists, it is necessary to find any means possible of preventing it. If we are close to exhausting our capacity to reach potential perpetrators, what else is left? Clearly, the acknowledgement that we are all potential victims of crime and can all do things to minimise our potential victimisation has to play some role. If we are serious about preventing rape, making preventative information accessible to the public should, if anything, be encouraged.

Whether that will continue to happen is another matter. If the backlash against the Canadian police officer’s statement has achieved its aims, health professionals, counsellors and teachers may begin to feel a little less willing to offer such advice. Some will see that as progress of some form or other, but at what cost? And will we see this logic being extended into the discourse surrounding other crimes?

Rather than advocating self-censorship, we would do better to foster a more open dialogue. Feminist anti-rape campaigners have much to contribute to that debate, and their defence of the rights and dignity of survivors is something that all reasonable people should support. Nevertheless, we should be wary of all arguments that abandon common sense in favour of dogma. There is way too much at stake.

David Heslin
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