Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Friday, November 25, 2005
Responsibility for rape is not a pie chart. I see that Amnesty has out a report deprecating the suprisingly high proportion (up to one third) of survey respondents who think that a woman who wears skimpy dresses, is drunk, promiscuous or flirts is partially responsible if she is then raped.

The first thing I thought when I saw this report was what I always think when I see Amnesty issuing reports on things unrelated to prisoners of conscience. I remember that when I joined, decades ago, prisoners of conscience were practically its whole reason for being. (It's true that I do remember it opposing the death penalty back then, as did I, but that issue was always treated as an afterthought. I always thought it was a distraction.) Amnesty built up a vast expertise on the subject of campaigning to free or at least mitigate the sufferings of prisoners of conscience. It has no particular expertise on the subject of helping victims of rape, or any of the other causes it has espoused since it decided to become a sort of watered-down political party, patron of audio-visual artistic "imaginings" and whatever else it does now. I look at these multifarious causes and I remember an old Jewish joke. Want to hear it?

In the East End - or it could be New York - an old shopkeeper lay dying. His sight dim, he said tremulously, "Sarah, are you there?"
"Yes, my beloved, I am here with you."
"Benjamin, are you there?"
"Yes, father, I am here."
"Sarah? Little Aaron?"
"Fear not, father, all your family are here."
"So who's minding the store?"

So I think: who's minding the store? Amnesty do still seem to have letter writing campaigns, but it seems to be losing its mastery of that trade in its efforts to be jack of all others.

Judging from this statement, Amnesty has not mastered the "trade" of contributing usefully to the debate on how to reduce the incidence of rape and help rape victims. In fact Amnesty seems to share some of the same faulty and worrying assumptions about responsibility for rape with those whose responses to the survey caused such concern. The questions asked in the survey (asking whether a woman was "partially or totally responsible for being raped" in various circumstances) pushed the respondents into assuming that responsibility for a crime works like settling the liability for costs relating to a road accident: a pie chart where the responsibility is split between the two sides, where for instance Driver A has to pay 75% and Driver B 25%.

Amnesty's view is that the rapist should get 100% liability - but it still implicitly accepts the framework that the more the woman is blamed the less the man should be. Here is the view of Amnesty's Kate Allen:

"This poll shows that a disturbingly large proportion of the public blame women themselves for being raped.

"It is shocking that so many people will lay the blame for being raped at the feet of women themselves and the government must launch a new drive to counteract this sexist 'blame culture'."

In some ways I agree with Ms Allen. Long ago I was shocked by a case (I think this happened in Oxford in the late eighties) in which a woman was raped after accepting a lift from a lorry driver late at night. I was outraged - still am outraged - to read that the rapist got off with a fine because of the woman's "contributory negligence." Are we animals, I thought, that anyone who makes themselves vulnerable becomes fair game? Are the laws suspended because a crime is easy to commit? It angered me that that this way of thinking seemed confined to rape. If a rich old woman is murdered by her daughter because the daughter wants to inherit no one says the old woman was guilty of contributory negligence because she foolishly trusted her daughter. If a rich old woman is murdered for her purse by a stranger who calls at the door no one says she was guilty of contributory negligence because she foolishly lived alone.

So the misogynist view denounced by Amnesty certainly does exist. However I am not convinced that this view is nearly as prevalent as Amnesty is claiming.

Before I explain why I think that, let me state my opinion: there is no pie chart. I see no contradiction between holding that the guilt of rape is not one whit lessened if the victim was drunk, or dressed in skimpy clothing, or has had many sexual partners - and at the same time holding that the woman in the case I mentioned was foolish. Being drunk in a city centre at three a.m. while wearing a miniskirt does increase your chances of rape, predictably so. We should work towards a world where women were as free in fact as they are in law to go where they like, when they like and dress as they like - but that world does not exist at present. One way of working towards it is to have severe penalties for rape and to denounce the view that rape can be excused.

I think my "there is no pie chart" opinion, or something like it, is fairly common. When doing surveys it often happens that none of the choices match what I think, so I just have to choose the least bad match.

I note that the Amnesty press release spoke of "blame" whereas the poll questions quoted spoke of "responsibility." There is a distinction. Personally, I don't think it's the right distinction to make. I don't like the "pie chart" model for responsibility or blame, but many of the respondents may have been trying to get across the point that in one perfectly defensible sense of the word "responsible", women should be responsible when it comes to the risks they take. If I am right these respondents are now saying angrily, "But I'd have answered differently if they had talked about blame."

Another point is that Amnesty's questions spoke of women being "wholly or partially responsible." The word "partially" covers a lot of ground. As I said, I don't think that woman can be even 1% responsible for her own rape in the sense they mean, but a respondent who thinks she is 1% responsible is saying something very different from a respondent who thinks she is 80% responsible.

Nowhere in the discussion in the Amnesty press release concerning the prevalence of rape did I see convincing evidence that Amnesty knew any better than the respondents how frequent rape is. (The rising number of calls to the South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre cited as evidence might just as easily reflect a welcome decline in the once-common attitude that to be raped brought shame upon the woman) There is no logical link between thinking rape very bad and thinking rape common. Some misogynists who wish to make light of rape might want to play down the frequency in order to suggest society need not make a strenuous effort to deal with a crime that affects so few - others might want to play up the frequency in order to suggest that anything so commonplace is really quite normal. Likewise two people who think of rape with equal horror might honestly hold opposite opinions as to how common it is. (I do not know how common it is, or whether it is increasing or decreasing.)

Nowhere in the Amnesty press release did I see evidence that what the organisation calls the "dreadfully low" conviction rate for rape actually represented injustice. If guilty men are getting off, that is bad - but if innocent men are getting off that is as it should be.

In fact the whole Amnesty statement failed to engage at all with the possiblity of false accusations. That is a serious omission. Many people, including many women, will suspect the organisation of being irrationally unwilling to admit that there are indeed women who make false accusations.

I had wanted to talk about that more, and about cases where consent was doubtful - but I've run out of time.