Feb 18, 2010

In all the excitement about victim blaming, good old-fashioned rapist blaming is a sadly declining activity

There's been a predictably large volume of online response to a recently published report about attitudes towards rape, in which close to 2,000 Londoners were surveyed about same, and which threw up the uncomfortable fact that women are more willing to blame a woman for her rape than men. I'm happy to say that the responses have on the whole been intelligent, measured, realistic and insightful. Cara's riposte in the Guardian is my personal favourite, and a bit of an instant classic on the general topic of victim-blaming.

One problem: it's all bullshit. I've gone and read the actual report, and guess what? Despite being called "Wake Up To Rape" (charming) it's not about rape at all. It's about the victims of rape. Here are the headline questions from the survey:

  • Are you keeping safe?
  • What would you do?
  • What have you experienced?
  • Who would you believe and whose fault is rape?
It's the last one that contains the provocative statement that "Women are less forgiving than men". Shocking, right?

Um, wrong. Because there is nothing to forgive. We would not even contemplate asking respondents to surveys about other crimes whether or not they are willing to "forgive" the victims of those crimes. Do people who have their cars nicked need your forgiveness? No. How about little old ladies who are conned out of their life savings? Didn't think so. Children run over by careless drivers? Nuh-uh. What about murder victims? Does the question "in what circumstances would you blame a murder victim for their death" even compute?

(As an aside, I thought the survey was extremely badly designed - by asking repondents to think about what precautions women should be taking against the possibility of attack, it primed them to consider potential reprecussions if the hypothetical woman didn't follow these instructions. In addition to that it concentrated entirely on the vague concept of "blame" rather than on actual culpability. If you asked people "what prison sentence should be given to a woman who gets into bed with a man but then refuses to meet his specific sexual demands" you'd get very different statistics.)

The reality is that it's nonsensical to talk about what any victim of crime can do to stop the perpetrator perpetrating. Short of taking violent action to stop them mid-misdemeanor, it's simply not under your control, because other people are not under any of our control. A survey, therefore, that starts with the question "what are you doing to stop other people from being criminals?" and ends with "how much do you blame people against whom criminals have committed crimes?" is not interested in preventing rape (or "raising awareness" of it, a phrase which has recently fallen flat out of favour with me), it's simply revelling in misogyny, celebrating some of the many subtle and sophisticated ways that women can be humiliated, hurt, degraded and then punished for it. Big whoop.

Well, enough about the survey, and enough about the victims already. Rape is something rapists do because they like to rape, and if they didn't go about doing that, there would be no rape victims for us to either blame or forgive. Simple.

Encouragingly, this seminal post from the excellent blog Yes Means Yes cites two studies strongly suggesting that it is only a small proportion of men (between 4% & 8%) who perpetrate the majority of rapes, which means we don't have to start advocating the preemptive incarceration of all post-pubescent males. (Yet. =))

More research is surely needed in this area, but even at this early stage some fascinating conclusions emerge. For example, each self-reported rapist (both studies asked men to self report about sexual assault without using the R-Word, making the data pretty reliable) raped more than once. On average they raped 6 times. This means that these guys are predators, they enjoy having sex with reluctant or resisting women, and they are pretty good at doing it: six sexual partners for any man is a decent enough number, but six rapes (and the definition of rape in the studies was pretty narrow - there could be more assaults there that didn't get counted) is a lot. Rapists obviously know what they get off on; this is not some drunken one-time misunderstanding of the "why would you want to ruin a nice boy's future" variety, but something almost approaching a sexual preference or a lifestyle choice.

Whicn leads to the second fascinating thing about these results: hardly any of the repeat rapists use violence to rape, many more of them relying on drugs and alcohol. In other words they deliberately orchestrate the circumstances in which they can rape with the highest degree of impunity. They don't want to get caught, and they're not impulsive - again, these are not crimes of passion, in-the-moment misunderstandings, or any of the other myths we're constantly fed about acquaintance rape (which accounts for the overwhelming majority of all rape).

This has interesting implications on at least two aspects of rape prevention: identifying rapists and identifying rape. If the majority of persistent rapists eschew violence, then we need to completely rethink how we investigate rape allegation. Rape kits (to the best of my knowledge, but I am not a rape expert and so don't quote me on this) look for signs of violence, contusions and tears to the vagina etc. Police officers also have a tendency to look for signs of forced intercourse. In which case it is not even remotely surprising that so many rape cases never get anywhere - if you're set on finding evidence that doesn't exist, your investigation is doomed to fail.

What about identifying rapists, though? True, one of the studies did find that self-reported repeat rapists have a high correlation with other forms of domestic violence, but only for the violent ones. What about the other guys, the ones who aren't into punch-ups, but just like to get their rocks off hurting and humiliating women sexually? Well, to be honest I don't know how you would codify that into a police procedure. But in our private lives, YMY has the following advice to give:

Listen. The men in your lives will tell you what they do. As long as the R word doesn’t get attached, rapists do self-report. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. He’s telling you how he sees it.


Rape jokes are not jokes. Woman-hating jokes are not jokes. These guys are telling you what they think.

Think about it: do you know any men who don't tell rape jokes? Who don't regale you with hilarious stories about how drunk and passed out the girl they shagged last weekend was? Who don't make a competition out of how many women they've fucked? Who don't think all women are evil scheming bitches? I'm sure you do. I'm sure most of the men you know are not like that. And you have to ask yourself: how come? How come, if it's true that men are these animalistic, uncommunicative, autistic, evolutionarily driven sex automata, are most of them actually not like that at all?

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it doesn't seem outrageous to at least check whether it has a beak. But as far as I know there is no survey out there asking people about their attitudes towards rapists: under which circumstances would you forgive a rapist for raping? How do you protect yourself from becoming a rapist? What would you do if you found out someone was a rapist? What advice would you give them?

As long as we're not asking these questions, there are two injustices being perpetuated: blaming the victims of rape for the crimes of others, and potentially tarring all men with the same brush as only 4%-8% deserve to be painted with. Since it doesn't seem as if anyone but a bunch of feminists is getting too wound up about the former, maybe talking about the latter will help shift some attitudes and delegitimise rape as the calculated act of cruelty it really is.

ETA: Via Pandagon, check out this interesting post about how criminals choose their victims - the research reported neatly explodes all of the myths about the revealingly dressed, extroverted partier being a rape risk.


  1. Great post! Seems exactly right to me..

  2. interesting post - I read Julie Bindel's article on it, which I guess you saw: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/feb/19/blame-the-rapist

    Women blame themselves too much... for everything. I read recently that Cheryl Cole was blaming herself for her husband's infidelity. The same phenomenon?