Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Women are partially responsible for being raped"

A woman is totally or partially responsible for being raped if she “behaved in a flirtatious manner”, “is drunk”, “is wearing sexy or revealing clothing”, “has had many sexual partners”, “has failed to say ‘no’ clearly to the man” or “is alone and walking in a dangerous or deserted area”.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Amnesty International, a significant proportion of British adults consider a woman partially responsible for being raped in each of these contexts. The details are summarised below.

The publication of these statistics was widely covered in the media on Monday, both in the UK and internationally, generating headlines such as “Women ‘to blame’ for being raped”, “1 in 3 Brits blame rape on women”, and “Rape victims were ‘asking for it’ - Shock Report”, but it is far from obvious that this emphasis on 'blame' actually constitutes a fair interpretation of the views of the survey’s respondents, an interpretation that was almost universally accepted in the media and which has its origins in the original press release issued by Amnesty in which their UK director Kate Allen is quoted as saying “It is shocking that so many people will lay the blame for being raped at the feet of women themselves”, referring to it as a “sexist blame culture”.

The wording of the questions featured in the survey leaves the views of respondents open to a number of interpretations. By holding the victim (partially) responsible in a particular context, some of the respondents might have meant that she deserved to be raped or that the rapist should receive a more lenient sentence. Others might have meant simply that a woman is more likely to be raped if she puts herself in the stated situation. But a respondent is very unlikely to interpret ‘responsibility’ in terms of deserving to be raped if they consider it unthinkable that this depends on the context. Why would the survey be asking about the level of responsibility if it didn’t vary from condition to condition? Given this, it is plausible that a significant proportion of respondents interpreted ‘responsibility’ in terms of whether the woman had placed herself in a situation in which she was more likely to fall victim to rape. This is regardless of any attribution of blame that might go along with that. There is an empirical question about whether there is actually an increased risk of rape in the contexts examined in the survey. Indeed, there is a distinct question for each scenario. But if there are measures that a victim could have taken to reduce the risk in a particular case, would that justify “lay[ing] the blame for being raped at the feet of women themselves”?

Taking measures to prevent becoming a victim of a crime is normal and uncontroversial in other domains. We take precautions when using our credit cards online, we ensure that valuables aren’t visible through our car windows, we leave a light on at home if going on a holiday. It is therefore not grossly implausible that there are things that a woman could do to prevent becoming a victim of rape. She can for instance, refuse to accept a drink from an unknown man under conditions where he could have drugged it (go here for more advice on date rape drugs).

Most of us would of course prefer a world in which there were no criminals so that we wouldn’t have to take such precautions. When we compare this ideal world against the reality, the person who takes no precautions is behaving exactly as we would all like to be able to, but the criminal is not behaving as we’d want. This is why we attempt to deter the criminal with threats of punishment and not the victim even if the victim could have prevented the crime by behaving differently. Our desire to change the behaviour of the criminal is motivated by idealism, whereas our desire to change the behaviour of potential victims is motivated by pragmatism. The notions of blame and punishment are only compatible with the former.

As for the specific claims in the survey, it would be deeply irresponsible for Amnesty to give the impression that these factors do not carry any risk if they in fact do. On the issue of drinking, studies do support a strong link between rape and alcohol use both on the part of the rapist and the victim [source, source]. There is also a correlation with the number of sexual partners a woman has had [source, source]. On the other hand, the risk associated with walking alone in a dangerous or deserted area may not be as large as many assume. According to UK Home Office statistics, 92% of rapes involving female victims are committed by people known to the victim (45% by current partners). Given this, it is unsurprising that more than half of all rapes (55%) actually occur within the victim’s own home, with a further 20% occurring in the perpetrator’s home. 13% occur in public places, often in the vicinity of licensed premises [source].

The extent of risks associated with dressing provocatively, flirting, and sending mixed signals are more difficult to quantify because of their subjectivity. It is often suggested that rape is not carried out with a motive of sexual gratification, but rather a desire to have power over the victim. If so, the way a woman is dressed would be irrelevant. To make this case convincingly, it would be necessary to show why perpetrators choose sexual means to this end rather than other conceivable forms of degradation. There are also difficulties reconciling this view with many cases involving date rape drugs where the rapist’s intention appears to be to get away with the crime without the woman having any clear indication that it occurred. There is some sense in which the rapist has power over the victim in these cases, but the victim is not necessarily aware of being subjugated.

While there are certain kinds of behaviours that appear to be correlated with rape, a rational response is not necessarily to avoid these behaviours, since a woman may judge these activities to be rewarding enough to warrant exposing herself to the associated risks. Being informed of the risks allows a woman to make this choice. The British Crime Survey estimate for the year 2000 was that approximately nine in every thousand women between the ages of 16 and 59 is the victim of some form of sexual victimisation every year, four of these involving rape [source].

Amnesty International also used the publication of their report to publicise the fact that the conviction rate in rape cases is extremely low, citing the “sexist blame culture” that the survey allegedly highlights as the reason that juries fail to convict. However, there are genuine difficulties in demonstrating guilt in rape cases that could at least partially account for the low conviction rates. Demonstrating whether consent was given often comes down to one person’s word against another’s. It is also far from obvious what the optimal conviction rate should be since there will be some presumably small proportion of cases that are based on fabricated charges that should not result in convictions.

Amnesty’s report could have a number of serious negative consequences aside from giving the false impression that women are powerless to reduce the risk of being raped. Publicising how low conviction rates actually are could plausibly embolden rapists, who now believe their chances of getting away with it are much better than they previously thought (I won’t repeat the statistics here). It might also discourage rape victims from reporting incidents, victims who are now convinced that they will be treated unfairly by the courts. If so, it would be grossly irresponsible for Amnesty International to do this, especially if the low conviction rate has nothing to do with a “sexist blame culture”. It would of course be equally irresponsible for the media to repeat these claims uncritically. Due to the difficulties inherent in convicting rapists, it may be more practical to reduce the incidence of rape by focussing on changing the attitudes of potential perpetrators.

By making casual claims about prejudice, we run the risk of generating cynicism about similar claims that are made in a more measured way. The potential damage that reports like Amnesty’s can do therefore extends well beyond the reputation of any particular organisation.


  1. What a great blog page. Can I suggest doing a piece of fair trade and multi national corporations, a bugbear of mine!

  2. Thanks Rosie! Sounds like you should write something about fair trade yourself if you feel so passionate about it. All I have to say about the subject is that it's good that the level of awareness about trade imbalances is now great enough for there to be a market for fair trade products. Even corporations like Nestlé which have been severely criticised for their trade practices are hopping on the fair trade bandwagon. There's maybe only a cynical profit motive, but sometimes people and organisations do the right things for the wrong reasons, which is at least better than doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

    How's your cat?

  3. I think the more awareness there is that low cost means exploitation somewhere for somebody or something, the sooner more people will shop responsibly and buy fair trade goods to support a different way of trade. Right now there's a lot of negative feeling towards the quantity of stuff made in China but people often don't think about the living conditions of those people making all the cheap bargains that people in the west love to buy. Cat's fine!