The Hidden Virtue of Victim Blaming

‘Victim blaming’ is a phrase associated with now antiquated views of sexual assault. In previous decades those now infamous ‘she was asking for it – esque’ attitudes haunted the victims of sexual misconduct, as they were dismissed as either liars or whores and shame was inevitable to follow. Naturally, allegations were often not pursued and victims were left alone and unable to seek justice.

Fortunately, we have progressed in our attitudes about gender and sexual assault. For the most part, reasonable people recognize the moral blindness that these horrendous dismissals of sexual assault unambiguously possess. Thus, victim blaming itself has now become a serious allegation, and those who are the recipient of it will find themselves shamed and reprimanded by society. It is safe to say that being accused of ‘victim blaming’ is something people try their best to avoid.

But in recent years, the attitudes accompanied by the phrase have grown exponentially. Victim blaming no longer exclusively refers to those jukebox era attitudes we all identify immediately; rather, it has come to encompass a wide range of attitudes and statements that are entirely reasonable. Victim blaming, as it is used to today, is an allegation hurled at anyone who even suggests that rape is something that can be prevented.

This attack on preventive attitudes is occurring because such attitudes hint at a certain amount of personal responsibility. These attitudes (specific examples will be given later on) tend to point out what is likely to increase the probability of a rape occurring, and thus seem to scorn victims of rape who find or put themselves into those situations. These preventive attitudes are now stigmatized because they attribute ‘blame’ to the victim, and seem to say ‘you should’ve known better and it’s your fault you were raped’. Presently, anything which does not completely admonish the victim of any part of the causal process is now considered victim blaming.

This new attitude also declares that all cases of rape should be treated and looked upon exactly the same. It argues that if we dwell on the specifics of cases then blame is inevitably administered, and rape victims will continue to be hesitant to come forward. If this viewpoint could be universally adopted and all rape cases were looked upon in the exact same way, it would certainly make victims of rape feel much more comfortable getting the help they deserve. However, if such an egalitarian investigative process were to take hold then we would lose our ability to actually prevent cases of rape from occurring in the first place.

In demanding that we stop finding a minimal amount of fault with the behaviour of some sexual assault victims we lose the essential tool that a) helps us predict sexual assault and b) helps us prevent sexual assault. Namely, the tool to identify contexts that increase rape probability.

With this essay, I will not be attempting to draw a definitive line in the sand about what is and isn’t victim blaming. I am simply trying to unshackle reasonable assessments from unreasonable stigma. To compare cases of rape and examine and critique the behavioural processes is not blaming the victim, rather, it is giving people the information they need to make informed decisions.

Actions and Consequences

To begin, a simple two part concession must be made. A) you are the author of your own actions, and B) your actions have consequences. Unless this essay turns into a metaphysical examination of free will, this concession should be one in which everyone is in agreement. If you are a smoker and you get lung cancer, it is reasonable to say that that consequence is a result of your actions. (determining the specific level of responsibility might be impossible, but there is responsibility nonetheless).

Relevant information is a variable which should certainly be included as well, as information is always playing a part in your decision making process. Being a smoker in the 1940’s is different than it is today; now we have a much more comprehensive understanding of the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. Though the smoker who acquires lung cancer in the 40’s and today did the same thing, their decisions varied in how much information they had.

So what we can conclude is that you make decisions and your decisions have consequences. Knowing this, informed decision making is superior to uninformed decision making because at least in the former you have some inkling of the impending consequences.

Gradations of Blame

Blame is a concept that is inherently tied to this discussion. Blame is defined by Merriam Webster as,

  1. To hold responsible,
  2. To find fault with,
  3. To place responsibility for.

The only thing clear about this definition is its ambiguity. It seems to cover the entire spectrum of responsibility; these three definitions don’t elicit a clear and specific concept of blame, but rather they cover any attribution of responsibility or fault. This is a problem, because there is a significant difference between a ‘sole responsability’ type of blame and a ‘minimal criticism’ type of blame, yet this difference is not captured by the uniformity of ‘blame’. If you fall down some stairs because you missed a step, you can be blamed for that consequence. If your friend who is texting you back falls down some stairs, you can also be blamed for that consequence. The difference in the amount of blame, however, is significant. In the former case, you are solely responsible, whereas in the latter, you are minimally responsible.

And blame, though it is a cousin of the word responsible, is the cousin that nobody likes to see at the family dinner table. It is a concept that is inherently linked to negative events and decisions. People will always say “Mike was responsible for his company’s recent success” instead of “Mike was blamed for his company’s recent success” even though they mean the same thing.

Thus, the problem I am facing is clear and formidable. The word blame covers the entire spectrum of causal responsibility. Though the different parts of the spectrum can be accessed through careful deliberation, the broad ambiguity of the word ‘blame’ makes it easy to misinterpret just which part of the spectrum is being discussed. Furthermore, I am dealing with this concept of ‘blame’ in the context of an incredibly horrendous personal violation. Thus, if misinterpreted, my association with the word blame can seem heinous and despicable. Clarity of writing on my part, and carefulness of reading on your part is therefore required if we wish to traverse this tightrope together.

Minimal Criticism

So, when discussing blame, what we are dealing with is a troublesome vocabulary. However, we clearly have the capacity to navigate this problematic environment. Until recently, victim blaming has only been associated with the “place responsibility for” type attitudes; the ‘she was asking for it’-esque mantras were distinguishable from the minimal criticism type of blame.

This distinguishment has been lost with the recent push to admonish victims of all responsibility, which is prima facia a just thing to do. But this loss takes away our ability to analyze and compare situations, and to critique and discourage certain behaviours. Though it may seem harsh to criticize the behaviour of rape victims, such minimal criticism is necessary to prevent it in the future. If at any point it seems like ‘sole responsibility’ is being attributed, it is most certainly not. To make it quite clear, let’s examine two distinctly different cases of a girl being raped by a stranger while blackout drunk.

Case a) Sarah, by herself, goes out to a rowdy, drunken frat house with a notorious reputation for sexual misogyny. She proceeds to get blackout drunk and is raped.

Case b) Katie stays home by herself with the doors locked. She gets blackout drunk watching her favorite TV show. In the middle of the night, a burglar breaks into the room and rapes her.

Just to make it crystal clear; in neither of these cases is the victim solely responsible for her rape. The fact that they (Katie and Sarah) were blackout drunk does not change the fact that someone else had to make the decision to rape them. They did not decide whether or not they were raped. That was an uncontrolled variable.

It is clear, however, that there is a controllable variable in both of these stories; this being the context in which Sarah and Katie placed themselves.

It’s important to be very careful here.

Let’s evaluate these cases as according to the spectrum of responsibility encompassed by blame. Imagine a straight line; on the right side of the line is ‘sole responsibility’, and on the left side of the line is ‘minimal criticism’. We can imagine this line as ‘amount of blame’ increasing the farther right you find yourself.

In comparing these cases, we are not dealing with the right half of the line. The girls are not majorly responsible for their rape in either of these cases. However, they are not in the exact spot on the line either. If the left side of the line is the ‘minimal criticism’ or “find fault with” definition of blame, it is clear that one case can be criticized more strongly than the other.

It is reasonable and empirically true to say that your chances of being raped by a stranger increase when you leave your house; they increase again when you go to a frat house; and they increase even more when you get blackout drunk at said frat house. Thus, Sarah committed actions that increased the likelihood she was going to get raped, whereas Katie committed actions that decreased the likelihood she was going to get raped. The independent variable is the same, but the dependent variables are incredibly different.

Victims and Blame

Now let’s connect everything we have said thus far;

  1. You are the author of your actions and your actions have consequences.
  2. The more information about the possible consequences of your actions the better.
  3. Some consequences are uncontrollable, (ie rape)
  4. But some variables are controllable.
  5. Some controllable variables are more likely to lead to certain consequences than others (ie rape)
  6. So comparing the controllable variables and informing people which ones are more likely to lead to which consequences is good information to have.

Now that we near the end, you may be wondering why it took 6 pages to explain why telling your daughter to not get blackout drunk at frat houses is a good idea. To most of us that is just common sense and hardly worth the time I dedicated to it.

But this common sense opens up the ability to administer blame to victims of sexual assault, and throughout history has been horribly abused to dismiss the most heinous of crimes. As soon as what I said becomes true, the ‘she was asking for it’ type arguments are given the tiniest shred of validity, and this alignment is not a comfortable one. Everything I said in this essay which seemed reasonable has most certainly used in the past to justify those despicable dismissals discussed in the introduction. It is important that we are aware of this. However, if we sacrifice the tools needed to prevent rape in order to make the victims of rape more comfortable then we have already lost the fight.

It is completely understandable why this topic is so vehemently avoided by most people. In a politically correct culture, any minimal attribution of responsibility to people who have survived the most horrible assault can be grossly misrepresented. And, indeed, the argument I have been putting forward does not have a happy ending. If what I said is true, then that means it’s likely that Sarah will receive less sympathy and more scrutiny than Katie, even though they both suffered the same thing. Thus, knowing that a terrible situation might get even worse, Sarah might be inclined to not come forward about anything at all.

But the truth is tragic and does not capitulate to feelings. The fact of the matter is that there is a difference between the cases of Sarah and Katie, and the differences are certainly significant. It’s an incredible burden to shoulder, but it is a necessary one.  If we refuse to talk honestly about the choices people make and the consequences they can experience then we are creating a much larger injustice. In order to prevent rape, we have to make informed decisions and that means asking the hard questions.

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