*This article will, unavoidably, feature potentially upsetting material relating to rape, victim-blaming, etc.*
by Anne Archist
Phil Sheppard’s article, published on page 14 of The Cambridge Student today, might easily have been a scorecard for ‘patronising bingo’. First he sets the tone by telling us that “discussion of sexual offences is marred by miscommunication”; presumably he believes that nobody could possibly agree with them, if only they understood! Next, his opponents in the debate are told to “cease taking offence”. After all, we all know how emotional women are, right? And they do get “offended” at the silliest things like men pointing out that if they didn’t want to get raped then they shouldn’t have worn that skirt! I’m going to try to deconstruct most of what’s wrong with this particular article, but it’s part of a wider attitude towards rape and personal responsibility, and many of the same arguments could be applied to other examples of this general attitude. Note: I’m assuming Sheppard’s article is only supposed to address a contemporary Western audience, so I’m pretty much responding in kind.
The article’s argument is basically that although victims should not be morally blamed for any actions that may figure in their being raped, such as walking around late at night on their own, they are still causally responsible in a non-moral sense, and therefore more rapes could be avoided if we focused more on encouraging people to take precautions against being raped. It prominently features equivocation; this means using multiple meanings of the same term in an argument as if they were interchangeable. For instance: “All rivers have banks. All banks have cash-points. Therefore all rivers have cash-points.” This example plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘bank’ in order to reach a clearly false conclusion. It should be evident this is a logical fallacy, meaning that all arguments of this form are invalid.
Sheppard’s equivocation is between two meanings of ‘responsibility’. First, he tells us that by ‘responsibility’ he means “situations in which … a person is a factual cause” (similar to what is known as ‘causal responsibility’ in the philosophical literature). He uses it accordingly when he writes that “If a homeowner leaves his house unlocked in a neighbourhood of renowned burglars, he is partly responsible for his losses”. However, he later writes that “Potential victims must be made aware that they have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”; here he uses ‘responsibility’ in the sense of an obligation or expectation laid on an individual to act in a certain way. He has therefore smuggled in the idea that women have some kind of behavioural obligations without attempting to justify this claim. After telling us he is using a narrow technical sense of the word at the start, he slips into a broader usage later on with no comment and no distinction maintained.
The claim of obligation looks justified, because the author seems to have followed a very rigorous, logical argument through to its conclusion. What he has actually done is use the same word in different contexts to make it sound like a logical argument, when in fact it is an illogical one. Being intellectually scrupulous, I should point out that his conclusion isn’t automatically false just because his argument is illogical. To illustrate: “My house is made of cats, therefore I have two eyes” is not a logically valid argument, but its conclusion is still true.
The article doesn’t rely entirely on this elision of meanings to reach its conclusion – Sheppard doesn’t just say that women have a “responsibility” to take precautions, but also (more reasonably) that perhaps it would be a good idea, purely from a practical point of view. There is certainly a difference here. To say that you are obliged to take precautions implies that you are held liable if you do not (i.e. that you will be considered “at fault” and therefore “blamed”, in Sheppard’s use of the word), and may justify less sympathy towards you, greater leniency towards the perpetrator, etc. To say that it would be a good idea to take precautions anyway is not necessarily to imply these things, in theory. This is the crux of the article – it says, in effect, “we won’t think any less of you if you don’t, but we’d prefer it if you wore a longer skirt”, etc.
There’s one obvious objection to this, which is more or less a recognition of the complexity of causality, the ‘butterfly effect’ model of causation. Yes, if the victim hadn’t walked down that alley, they wouldn’t have been raped. But similarly, if they had eaten a badly-preserved curry they found in the fridge the day before rather than throwing it away, they would have been suffering from food poisoning and not left the house at all that night. Or, if they had left the club an hour earlier they would have walked down the alley before the attacker arrived. Or…
The point here is not to be a smartass. The point is to say that responsibility in the sense of factual cause, which Sheppard says he is talking about, is highly dispersive – as you examine it, more agents become involved, more acts become involved, individual agents’ links become more tenuous and individual actions’ effects become harder to trace, etc. Even with a relatively limited frame of reference we can identify many potential agents and acts that could have changed the outcome in many cases.
Suppose someone takes a taxi to a party and rapes someone there. Is the taxi driver responsible for the rape? In the ordinary sense of the word, clearly not. In the technical sense Sheppard claims to be using, though, they are – their acts formed part of a chain of events that caused the rape. Of course the taxi driver has no idea that their actions will result in a rape, but this is irrelevant to their being a “factual cause”. The moment we start introducing judgements about whether someone knew or could have guessed the consequences of their actions, we have gone beyond the type of responsibility Sheppard is addressing; frankly, we are starting to draw a line between merely being a part of a causal chain and having some moral significance in the causal chain, which is precisely what we have agreed we are not doing when we say a victim’s actions may be preconditions for their being raped.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sheppard comes back with a response that goes something like this: “I’m not saying there’s any moral blame attached to the victim knowing their actions make their being raped more likely, I’m just saying that if they can see the consequences then they probably should act differently” – not in the sense of a moral ‘should’, just in the sense that you ‘should’ go to the gym if you want to lose weight (what Kant called “the hypothetical imperative”). This is the only way out of the dilemma that I can see.
This is where I really part ways with the article’s author. He comes across as entirely ignorant of the realities of rape and women’s lives. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as such, and it’s often difficult to know how little you know, so I don’t blame him for thinking he could write a well-informed and well-argued article. Perhaps he has actually studied rape statistics in depth and so on, but we can only go on the article, which puts across an impression of someone who still thinks that rape is something that happens only when a drunk woman in a short skirt walks down a dark alley on her own and a man leaps from a dustbin to violently assault her.
Among Sheppard’s paternalistic pronouncements is the exhortation to women to “begin taking care”. I get the impression that he, like many men, has never considered what he has never had to consider – what might a woman’s life be like? By that I mean both the events that take place in her life, objectively, and her own subjective experience and internalisation of those events. I’m sure Sheppard means well, but perhaps he should think before he puts pen to paper about how much sexual harassment women may have to deal with on a weekly basis, how many women have survived sexual violence and desperately want not to go through it again, how much more attention women may pay to their drinks in clubs, etc. The fact that he literally tells women to be more careful is perhaps the most patronising aspect of the article – but don’t get offended, remember!
Still, people could always take more care, right? Nobody’s perfect. I should re-state Sheppard’s advice as clearly as possible: “[There is] a risk known to, and avoidable by, the victim [who therefore should] take reasonable steps to prevent being affected by crime”. There are several problems with this thesis: firstly, sexual violence is not as easily avoided as he implies; secondly, it is not as easy to determine the reasonability of steps as he implies; thirdly, regardless of the author’s protestations, it puts the emphasis on the wrong party.
Certainly, we know that there is a risk of rape. Some women feel this as practically ever-present, at least in the back of their minds. But the more you know about rape, the more you realise it isn’t something you can expect to protect yourself against. Multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of perpetrators are known by their victims, most commonly as a husband or partner. Around a third of girls have been sexually assaulted, often by relatives or other trusted adults. How exactly does one avoid these attacks? Should women stop entering romantic relationships? Should young girls lock their doors from the inside when they go to bed at night?
I know both men and women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. One took the “precaution” of getting a (licensed) cab home and was harassed by the driver, who then tried to attack her. One was an adolescent boy attacked by a trusted older male. One was attacked by a stranger in a supposedly very safe environment. There are more, in varied circumstances. The vast majority of these were in supposedly safe circumstances, with supposedly trustworthy people; in fact, I know of only one person who was attacked while walking around in public on their own.
So what would Phil Sheppard have women do? It also seems strange that he doesn’t suggest that men take any precautions – most victims of rape are women, but not all, and apparently we all have a “responsibility” to avoid being raped… And what exactly counts as a reasonable precaution? Once we confront the real trends in rape, rather than the ‘stranger in the bushes’ mirage, should women avoid relationships with men, going outside their own home at all, letting men into their home, etc?
Chastity belts might be some help, but even they have their limits. I’m inclined to think all of these things fall outside the “reasonable” camp. I take it then, that Sheppard is just encouraging women not to dress too sexily, get too drunk, or walk around alone at night, and hoping this will be enough to avert sexual attacks. I hope it’s evident by now why this is basically useless advice. In fact, the advice may be worse than useless.
By writing an entire comment piece about how women are really – after all – partially responsible for their own victimisation by rapists, Sheppard focuses the spotlight squarely on the victim themselves. Sheppard contributes to the overall culture of questioning women’s consent or non-consent in an accusatory manner. In other words, if you didn’t take reasonable precautions, then maybe you really secretly wanted it. This is akin to reprimanding women for not crying out loud enough (as Deuteronomy 22:24 does, condemning raped women to stoning to death as a result).
Sheppard says quite explicitly that the focus should not be on reducing men’s willingness to rape, but on increasing women’s fear: “Educating men about rape is laudable, but only insofar as it does not detract from personal risk-aversion”; women should act more afraid than they currently do, in other words. This renders the argument amenable to those who use rape as a tool of power, whether husband, father, soldier, teacher, politician or priest. Note the wording of the comment (surely not intentionally phrased this way). It would be one thing to say that it would be unfortunate if the focus on men’s responsibility led to women letting down their guard and then being raped. Instead, the wording used states that educating men about rape ceases to be laudable the moment it in any way detracts from (women’s) risk-averse behaviour.
Women’s fictional “responsibility” to take precautions (established only through equivocation) is given priority over men’s real responsibility not to rape (easily established by basic moral reasoning: rape is wrong and one has a responsibility not to do things that are wrong).Similarly, in a singularly unfortunate choice of words, Sheppard writes: “The continued drive against victim-blaming is having a detrimental effect”; in other words, all this feminist noise about how a victim shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their own rape is distracting us from the Real Issue, which is that women just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid being raped. The implicit trade-off here is having a relatively full life versus the threat of being raped, particularly for women; know that you run the risk of sexual violence if you want to go out alone at night, if you want to have close relationships with men, if you want to travel, etc.
For the record, I don’t think Phil Sheppard is an unreconstructed misogynist victim-blaming rape apologist. I think he’s a relatively intelligent person who’s trying to take an ‘objective’, ‘academic’ stance on a question of power politics that exists in the real world without letting the real world inform that stance. I think he’s got people’s best interests at heart, but I think his article is dreadfully-argued and counterproductive. It tells us nothing we can actually use – it has no actual suggestions of what people could do to take reasonable precautions. It doesn’t even acknowledge the areas that might be problematic, like how small the impact of “precautions” on rape may be, or the contested nature of “reasonable” precautions. This is compounded by the fact that he has worded some things very badly and adopted an air of patronising academia that has been abused to veil an invalid argument towards an empirically-ill-supported conclusion. Phil, I’m sure you’re not trying to blame rape survivors – I understand that, you haven’t miscommunicated it – but I do think you’re going the wrong way about supporting them and fighting rape.