Monday, February 15, 2010


Shocked even? This, from the BBC:

More than half of those of both sexes questioned said there were some circumstances when a rape victim should accept responsibility for an attack.

Now, that just shows both how difficult the debate has become and the wider issues surrounding "one person's word against another's" crimes - domestic violence, for example. And women who have been raped are appalled by the survey results.

It (the BBC article, the report, the questions in the research for the report or the questioned) also misses the fundamental difference between 'responsibility' (or as the subsequent comments have it 'blame') and 'contributory behaviour'. I would like to demonstrate with two much less emotionally charged or controversial examples:
  • I accidentally forget to lock my car when parking it in a city centre car park. Somebody steals the car, or something from the car. They are a thief and are criminally responsible for their actions. My behaviour in parking the car in the city centre is neither (unreasonably) contributory nor responsible. My failure to lock the car is significantly contributory. This should make no difference to the criminal case but might reasonably change the amount, for example, that my insurance company would pay out.
  • I am dismissed from my job for some heinous offence against good taste (I have a number of ties that should do the job.) My tie-disaster is so extravagant evil that they fail to follow the corporate disciplinary policy and summarily dismiss me with immediate effect. I go to Tribunal. It is, because of the failure to follow policy, automatically unfair dismissal. In a heroic devotion to justice and truth, one of the lay members of the panel asks to see the tie. As they are rushed away to Intensive Care, the Chairman declares that my behaviour contributed 99% to my dismissal therefore my compensation will be minimal.
'Blame' for criminal acts, whether life-changingly drastic like rape or trivial, lies with the criminal (unless they do not have the capacity for mens rea in an offence that requires it - in which case they need to be in, or under, some form of care.)

Yes, there are defences of, or similar to, provocation (e.g. self-defence) and there are pleas of mitigation - only the former of these shifts (or removes) responsibility. And I fail to see, under modern British law, how 'provocation' can apply to sexual offences.

Edited to add: Having reread this post, after reading Bella's comment, I can see how my two examples (where the contributory factor is high) might lead people to think I am excusing rapists or blaming victims. If you get that impression - please reread the third and second-last paragraphs of the original article, where I clearly didn't make it clear the difference between responsibility / blame on one side and low risk versus high risk behaviour on the other. No-one 'deserves' to be raped. Equally, if less significantly, no-one 'deserves' to have their car stolen. Regardless of the seriousness of the offence, 'high risk behaviour' is no excuse for the criminal.


bella gerens said...

Out of curiosity, could you give an example of a behaviour you would consider to be contributory to rape? Along the lines of your unlocked car example, perhaps?

Surreptitious Evil said...

Along the lines of an unlocked car door - a relatively minor contribution - difficult isn't it?

Having voluntarily (deliberately, even) got yourself into the condition of being passed out drunk in the street would be 'contributory' but hardly comparable - either from the point of the degree or the seriousness of the crime - to my example.

A puritan might suggest merely drinking - a Muslim not being dressed moderately in public (or not being dressed in a black 1 woman tent, depending on their degree of Wahhabism.) I am far less sure - but I am also sure that there is low risk behaviour, for this as for other crimes, and high risk behaviour, ditto.

The point I was clearly failing to make clearly enough is that there needs to be a clear distinction between blame or responsibility - where the woman's actions (or lack of) are (or, more correctly, should be) irrelevant in the criminal context - and contributory behaviour - which should not change the criminal sanction at all.

I really don't know. I am assuming you are asking this out of genuine interest rather than to just tick a "sexist pig" box so, what about drunkenly ditching your friends in a nightclub to go somewhere else with a stranger and his mates? It's very difficult to equate contribution for such a serious crime with those for a much more trivial one - much easier to contrast. Which is why I didn't try to do it in the post.

bella gerens said...

I was asking out of genuine curiosity, yes. Not trying to tick the sexist-pig label!

The reason I ask is because quite clearly there are behaviours one can adopt so as to minimise the risk of being a victim of crime - locking the car door, for example, or not going home from the pub drunk with strangers. But then we are basically saying that failure to minimise risk is contributory and putting some of the onus of preventing crime on the victim, rather than the criminal. And this is, of course, ludicrous, as quite often people who have taken all reasonable precautions are still victims of crime.

The problem I have with the opinions laid out in the BBC article is that so many people seem to hold counterfactuals as relevant: 'Oh,' they appear to say, 'if she had not been doing x, she wouldn't have been raped.' This is not logically false, but it's equally ludicrous. 'If Steve hadn't been on Main Street, he wouldn't have been mugged on Main Street.' Or, 'If Steve hadn't taken money out of the cash machine, he wouldn't have been mugged for it.' These are all true, but they imply that Steve mustn't go about his lawful business if that business makes him an attractive target for criminals.

In the same way, it is true to say that there are certain behaviours women engage in that make them attractive to rapists, and not engaging in those behaviours would make them less likely to be raped. But those behaviours are also lawful business: having a drink, wearing the clothes that one has bought, walking on public streets, etc. If the fact that Steve is carrying cash doesn't contribute to his mugging, why should the fact that a woman is vulnerable or scantily dressed contribute to her rape?

I know, of course, that this is not what you're saying. But the implication of the BBC article is that people believe rapists target women exhibiting certain behaviours, so to minimise risk, women should avoid those behaviours. This strategy necessarily curtails what women do, and quite pointedly ignores the fact that most rapes:

--are committed by people known to and trusted by the victim (husbands and partners most commonly)

--occur in the home or other 'safe' location.

Stranger-rapes are comparatively rare, and while it might be a valid point that such things can be prevented with the application of a bit of sense and precautionary measures, many (if not most) rapes are not preventable by any risk-minimising behaviour on the part of the victim.

Surreptitious Evil said...

Thanks - yes, I was trying to outline the missed dichotomy between "she's to blame" - most hideously seen in the stoning of rape victims in some of our more barbaric (or did I mean religious?) societies - which can also be unfortunately expressed as "it was my fault" on the woman's behalf - and risk behaviour. The latter not necessarily being sensible but certainly not any excuse for criminal behaviour.

While agreeing with most of what you said - I would suggest that Steve's being seen gently staggering away, alone, from an ATM would constitute risk behaviour - just how 'contributory' it would be would depend on the context.

To further extend the analogy between mugging and stranger rape (not wishing to diminish your point about acquaintance rape which is also much less likely to be reported) - in a lot of cases the criminal is looking for any victim, that they happened to pick Steve or Shirley could just be timing, could be due to some aspect of risk behaviour on the victim's part or could be due to some uncontrollable aspect (their colour, perceived religion etc.)

It's a difficult subject and one that, from the report, many people seem unwilling to actually think about (including the BBC!)

bella gerens said...

Very true, and of course police are always saying that, across the board, people who are aware and vigilant are less likely to be victims of any kind of crime.

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