Dec 19, 2011

Why is it victim blaming to talk about rape and drinking?

I posted this a few days ago on a LiveJournal community, in response to a post that generated hundreds of irate comments but seems to have been deleted. In any case, a couple of people asked if they could have a non-locked link to the text, so here it is.

The context, very briefly for non-LJ users, was a post in which someone was defending the position that women should accept responsibility for sexual encounters when they are falling down drunk, rather than "use the blanket excuse" of rape / inability to consent. The discussion that followed fell very much along the lines described below - between those who said drinking has nothing to do with it, and those who took the superficially common sense approach that it does.

"That" thread has gone a bit newkular, and I just wanted to tease out one aspect of the conversation and highlight it separately so that maybe (if anyone is still left standing at this point) we could have a more targeted discussion about the issues around alcohol and victim blaming.

Quite a few people in the thread made the point that by drinking, women "put themselves at risk", because alcohol impairs your judgement and make you more vulnerable to abuse/exploitation. And quite a few other people have pointed out that it is only the case when a potential abuser or exploiter is around to try and abuse or exploit you. Booze is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for rape. Like, I've been shit-faced a bunch of times in my life, and every time I checked my pants during those (happy) occasions, there was a mysterious absence of an unwanted penis in my vagina. Fancy that.

But but but, rejoin the alcohol-is-a-risk-factor common sense advocates! You can't deny that there is a statistical link between alcohol and rape! Why are feminists being so pig headed about saying that women shouldn't drink because it increases their risk of being raped? You feminists are just illogical.

Well, yes. It is true that there is something of a correlation between alcohol consumption and rape incidence, especially the non-stranger rape that we (unsatisfactorily in my view) call "date rape". It's perhaps not as huge as people think (not a necessary or sufficient condition, remember), but it's there. There are two main reasons for this:

- We consume a lot of alcohol as a society. Almost no social occasion is routinely marked without some kind of tippling going on. So there is an extremely high likelihood that the sort of co-ed social occasion that brings women in physical proximity with rapists would also include some products of fermentation or distillation. That's just how we have fun - there was probably music there too, but we don't go around saying music gets you raped.

- Rapists know who to target. And no, I am not talking about targeting women who are too weak to defend themselves due to being incapacitated by alcohol. I'm talking about women the rapists know will not be believed if they report rape. The list of things that makes you a woman who will not believed is so long an exhaustive as to pretty much get any man off the hook for doing anything to any woman in the right circumstances - read this article about a man who drug-raped at least 21 women but the jury would not convict him of a single count despite overwhelming evidence - but there are a couple of things that top the list, and drinking (even moderately) is one of them.

Second to raping, what rapists care about most of all is getting away with it. Very few of your common or garden variety rapists have horns, or breathe fire, or jump out at unsuspecting virgins from sinister bushes. The overwhelming majority of rapists pass for regular guys, and they are very invested in continuing to pass so that they can continue to rape. And also, you know, stay out of jail. So they target women who they are aware will have credibility problems: drunk women, promiscuous women, women who have come out on a date with them willingly, women who are sex workers.

Aha! I hear the Protect Thyself brigade reviving. So you're saying there are things that clearly make you  a target for rapists! So you should avoid doing them, duh.

Well, not quite. Because the thing about this laundry list of get out of jail cards is that it's completely arbitrary. In our Anglo Western country and maybe a few other places in the West, booze and short skirts have the bad rap, but in other cultures the rules are different and equally nonsensical. In some cultures, if a woman is not completely veiled and covered head to toe, people say that she is risking rape. In Azerbaijan where I was born, it was a well known fact that getting in the front seat of a taxi will get you immediately raped, and serve you right for being stupid. A friend of mine who runs the amazing anti-FGM charity Daughters of Eve says that girls in her community are told that if they are not cut, and are raped, it would be their own fault.

There is a list as long as your arm of reasons why a woman has brought rape upon herself. Some are more subtle, some less. All of them have something to do with behaviours that are generally disapproved of for women in that culture, and rape is used as the stick to frighten them into compliance; at the same time the "obvious risks" are used to justify rape. Frankly the only way a woman could completely 100% avoid being blamed for her own rape is to not exist.

Well, I hear you say, but if these rules are completely arbitrary and not somehow built in to the innate male sexual instinct, then how do rapists know what they are, huh?

Because we tell them. We tell them all the time, by questioning women, criticising women and advising women. When we tell women - be it in an LJ post or a police campaign - to not wear short skirts in case their get raped, what rapists hear is "if I rape a woman in a short skirt I'm less likely to be blamed". Same goes for the anti-drinking tips, or all that "helpful" advice about holding your keys in your hands as you approach your car in a dark car park. A woman was raped in a hotel car park while putting her child in the car seat - and the hotel blamed her for "not taking adequate precautions". Why? Because we've told women to take adequate precautions so many times, every schmuck can now recognise that sliver of an opportunity where they can claim it's the precautions that were not precautionary enough. And probably get away with it.

And that's why it's de facto victim blaming to talk about alcohol and rape in this way. Because what you are saying - unless you're making the fantastical claim that alcohol consumption leads to the growing of spontaneous penises in hitherto unsuspecting vaginas - is that a woman who took part in a normal everyday social interaction is fair game. You're not saying it to yourself, or to the world at large - you're saying it directly to the only people who have ultimate and exclusive control over the number of rapes perpetrated in the world. You're telling rapists how they can target victims so as to avoid admitting responsibility for their actions, to themselves as well as to the world.

And this dangerous distraction has got to stop, because the longer we're on the "is it or isn't it victim blaming" merry-go-round, the longer we won't be doing any rapist blaming, which is where our energies should really lie.



  1. This is a fantastic post. Thank you so much.

    This passage especially:

    When we tell women - be it in an LJ post or a police campaign - to not wear short skirts in case their get raped, what rapists hear is "if I rape a woman in a short skirt I'm less likely to be blamed".

    It's also helped a little to finish the guilt I have surrounding my own rape. I wasn't raped because I was drunk. I was raped because my rapist knew that raping me was something he could get away with, because our culture tells him and people like him that drunk women are fair game. And, sadly, he did get away with it, because thanks to victim blaming it took several years for me to realise, properly, that I'd been raped.


  2. Oh, I'm so sorry Elly... :( I'd rather be wrong and not have rape happen to people at all. *sisterhood*

  3. Brilliant. This has reinforced all my beliefs concerning victim-blaming (or, more accurately, not victim-blaming). Thank-you.

  4. Excellent post, thank you for this.

  5. It was MY fault because I was stupid enough to be friends with three men that were 2 years older than me.

    1. It was not your fault. None of it was your fault. *sisterhood* :(

  6. yes and no. I agree with the basic argument about victim blaming. But I disagree with your argument that it shouldn't be talked about because the rapists might get the idea that this might get them off the hook. Well I'm not saying you are wrong. But we should be able to talk about what we damn well please without scumbags being able to use these excuses... because these stupid excuses that 'the woman wasn't protecting herself properly' shouldn't have any resonance in courtrooms and people's minds, and until we are able to talk this through with the people who believe these things we can't get past this.