Sunday, December 13, 2015

Pragmatic rape reduction proposals are not always victim blaming

A common feminist refrain is that any attempt to bring the actions of a rape victim into the discussion about his or her rape is “victim blaming”, because nobody is to blame for rape except the rapist. That last bit is certainly true, and in most cases, I agree that suggestions that women alter their behavior to avoid being raped are unhelpful and sexist. In the face of massive misogynistic pushback against rape victims for so long, it’s easy to understand why the term has become an instinctual response to shifting the topic away from why men rape.

But in recent years, allegations of victim blaming have expanded to encompass genuinely feminist, good faith attempts to creatively reduce the incidence of rape, in ways that are counterproductive to the feminist message and objectives. There’s an illogical a line of thought in the feminist community positing that because only rapists are to blame for rape, proposals to address rape which involve anything other than culture change (aka, an increased societal willingness to hold rapists personally accountable) are at best merely a distraction, and at worst a veiled form of victim blaming.

For example, the people who created that nail-polish that changes color in the presence of roofies were criticized for placing the onus on the victim, not the perpetrator, to prevent her own rape. And recently, I saw a proposal to decrease the drinking age to 18 criticized by a prominent member of the Hopkins Feminists group in the same vein: since alcohol does not cause rape, addressing its role in campus nightlife was said to divert blame from the culprits themselves, and so deemed “not the right kind of change.”

I wholeheartedly agree that only rapists can be faulted for rape, in the same way only murderers can be faulted for murder and only robbers for robbery. But when we consider how to reduce the rate of murder or theft in a given city, we do not limit the scope of our conversation to moral culpability; we very often look at broader social conditions that may influence those rates indirectly, like poverty or access to weapons. Are policies which attempt to lessen crime by influencing those external variables also “not advocating for the right kind of policy change”? Or does it make sense, in most other contexts, to address violent crime on a pragmatic level as well as a moral one?

Surely many on the feminist left advocate for stronger gun control laws as a means to reduce gun violence. Such proposals are not designed to address whatever root cultural issues prompt some people to go on murderous rampages; rather, they are designed to bring about the desired social outcome indirectly, by denying the people who want to kill the means to execute their plan. In this context, liberal reformers seem to agree that fighting purely cultural battles in an attempt to dissuade evildoers from doing evil is an insufficient response to an epidemic of violence.

Gun control places the onus for change not on the would-be perpetrator, but on the peaceful remainder of society. Yet nobody interprets this as denying that crazed mass shooters retain full moral responsibility for their actions, and nor should they. Why are pragmatic proposals to address college rape any different?


In both cases, indirect causation is not the same as culpability. To use another analogy, the United States is not to “blame” for 9/11. Only the men who plotted to drive planes into buildings full of innocent people can be held morally responsible. But culpable or not, it would be silly to pretend that US foreign policy played no role whatsoever in bringing about those events – bin Laden himself repeatedly said and wrote that our perceived injustices in his region of the world were his primary motivation for the attacks. When we brainstorm ways to minimize terror attacks in the future, it does not suffice to point out that terrorists and rapists are evil people. Forging national security strategy involves figuring out how to prevent terrorists from operating in a far more immediate way than encouraging Middle Eastern culture change, even if that’s also a worthwhile long-term project we should dive into simultaneously.

Rape is little different. Nobody and nothing is to “blame” for rape in a moral sense except rapists. Eliminating ineffective policies that accidentally make rape easier to commit does not implicitly condone rapists or deny they are the ultimate source of the problem. What it does is erect structural barriers that make it tougher for those abhorrent, evil, very bad no good rapists to get away with the crime.

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