Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yes, Virginia, It IS Victim Blaming

There has lately been a big stink raised about Amy Dickinson's advice to a college girl asking if she was raped at a frat party. I let most of it pass me by in spite of my antipathy for advice columns of late, because, frankly, faster and more precise fingers flew on the issue. But then, a friend was shown an article criticizing Dickinson's advice. And although I've already commented on the post itself, something naggled at the back of my skull. So, in the midst of rewatching A Love Supreme for review purposes, I was compelled to respond to my friend's response.

First, the letter:
Dear Amy: I recently attended a frat party, got drunk and made some bad decisions.

I let a guy take me to "his" room because he promised that he wouldn't do anything I wasn't comfortable with.

Many times, I clearly said I didn't want to have sex, and he promised to my face that he wouldn't.

Then he quickly proceeded to go against what he "promised." I was shocked, and maybe being intoxicated made my reaction time a bit slow in realizing what was happening.

We were soon kicked out of the room by the guy who lived there, who was pretty angry.

I guess my question is, if I wasn't kicking and fighting him off, is it still rape?

I feel like calling it that is a bit extreme, but I haven't felt the same since it happened.

Am I a victim?

-- Victim? in Virginia

Dear Victim?: First of all, thank you. I hope your letter will be posted on college bulletin boards everywhere.

Were you a victim? Yes.

First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment. Getting drunk at a frat house is a hazardous choice for anyone to make because of the risk (some might say a likelihood) that you will engage in unwise or unwanted sexual contact.

You don't say whether the guy was also drunk. If so, his judgment was also impaired.

No matter what -- no means no. If you say no beforehand, then the sex shouldn't happen. If you say no while its happening, then the sex should stop.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Web site (

"Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse -- or an alibi. The key question is still: Did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape. However, because each state has different definitions of "nonconsensual," please contact your local center or local police if you have questions about this. (If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.)"

Go to your college's health department to be tested for STDs and pregnancy. See a counselor to determine how you want to approach this. You must involve the guy in question in order to determine what happened and because he absolutely must take responsibility and face the consequences for his actions, just as you are prepared to do. He may have done this before.

My friend agrees with Dickinson's advice, saying:
In her letter, the alleged victim initially states that she "made some mistakes." And, based on her story, she's right. Despite what Dickinson's critics say, it is risky for a girl to get drunk at a fraternity party and go off with a fellow she doesn't know very well. This decision reflects poor judgment.
To say I disagree is an understatement. In the aftermath of a sexual assault, it is fairly normal to assume much of the blame. "I made some mistakes" is not an admission of anything more than the feelings of assumed guilt of someone who endured a traumatic experience. "I made some mistakes" is a qualifier for someone who is feeling ashamed and confused and violated. "I made some mistakes" is not, strictly speaking, the mark of mistakes being made. Is it possible she actually did make some mistakes? Sure. Are any of them outlined in her description of the event? Not really.

And why? Because trusting people is not a demonstration of "poor judgement". Because what Amy Dickinson, and my friend, is suggesting something that is not possible.

What my friend and Dickinson are suggesting is that it is poor judgement for women to drink, and for women to meet men while drinking. Sorry, but that's a whole huge swath of human interaction - especially in college - being denied to women on the basis that participating in this type of fun is an exercise in poor judgement.

Look, rape is a difficult crime. You can say that women (and men) should abstain from taking certain risks. But risk is a part of life, and interactions between women and men unfamiliar to them is how one gets to interactions between women and men who are familiar to them.

The same thing that makes rape a hard crime to get a conviction for is the same thing that makes simplistic "well, you shouldn't have gone there with him, and if you did you were a victim of your own poor judgement" absolute bullpucky. And that is this: women like sexual contact. Not always and not always all the way to sex, but a lot of women are attracted to men and a lot of women like to do things like kiss men, and fool around with men, and sometimes they even like to have sex with men. And in order to get to the kissing, the fooling around, and/or the sex, women have to meet men and spend time alone with them. And to be told that spending time alone with strange men is a product of our own poor judgement, but don't you dare think of all men as rapists because that is misandry at work, is such a piece of work.

And then there's this. Say there was a second girl at this precise party. She meets a guy. They're drinking. They're laughing. She lets him take her to "his" room. She makes it clear she doesn't want to have sex. He makes it clear he isn't going to do anything she isn't comfortable with. And he doesn't. They don't have sex. They go precisely as far as she is comfortable with. They're giddy, and having a good time. Soon, they are kicked out of the room by the guy who actually lives there. She laughs at her companion, he explains that he just wanted to spend some alone time with her. She finds him sweet. They see each other again. They end up dating. Was she the victim of bad judgement? Or is the bad judgement of the first girl in the situation contingent upon the events that transpired after she entered the room? I think, it is the second option. I think we foster ideas about bad/poor judgement on women who have already been victimized, when if after 50 years of marriage, the second girl were to write into whomever was Ask Amying it up in the future to tell her "funny, romantic" tale, there would be no "And you were lucky he wasn't a rapist!" anywhere in Future Ask Amy Columnist's response.

Rape isn't like other crimes. We generally don't want our money stolen, our houses broken into, our noses broken, etc. We do, generally, want to converse and mingle and have sex with those who have the power to rape us. And there are no easy answers for why rape occurs or how we can stop it from occurring, if we want to be serious about either. Thomas from Yes Means Yes has written something in the past I find to be quite right, so I'm going to quote it now:
We will also surely see remarks from people who don’t want to be called rape apologists, and who may even think they are not rape apologists while they gyrate wildly to turn the focus on the victim instead of the rapists and their crowd of aiders and abetters where it belongs. These people will almost always start with some version of “of course I’m not blaming the victim and what the rapists did was wrong and all that …” And then will come the key word, BUT.

Then they will make their real argument. And their real argument is that they are unwilling to actually take rape seriously or do anything to hold rapists accountable. What they believe and argue (but will avoid saying outright) is that the rapist’s behavior is unavoidable, as much a natural disaster as a hurricane or an earthquake, and so the only sensible thing is to plan for its inevitability. The argument will proceed from the dreaded BUT to focus on what SHE did, and how wrong and stupid it was, and ultimately conclude that if women just curtailed their behavior in one or several additional ways, the problem would be solved.
My friend, who is a good, kind, and decent human being, is guilty of the same thing I myself have been guilty of, and will continue to be guilty of in the future when I first hear of these events. And that is the "but":
Rape is never the victim's fault, but that doesn't mean that the victim's prior decisions are always value-neutral.
The victim's prior decisions are, in many ways, value-neutral in that the value we assign tends to correlate to the outcome of the situation. And they are value-neutral precisely because those "risky behaviors", those exercises of "bad judgement", are living. Simply living. They are what men get to do, almost automatically. They are what women should be able to do, with the patronizing "Silly women, living's for men!" hanging over their heads. And they are in the course of normal human interaction. The "but" is easy, because it allows us to assign a certain action for a certain outcome. Of course, she was raped. She did X. Of course, she was raped. She didn't do Y. Of course, she was raped. She was wearing Z. She just shouldn't do X, should do Y, and should never, ever wear Z.

Except, that doesn't do anything to answer for why he did A. And why men rape is, I think, a more important question to answer than instructing women on how to not be raped. Because The Rules for that are arbitrary and dependent upon the situation. Because The Rules for that are limiting, and confine women too much. Because The Rules accept the inevitability that if a woman is "stupid" by the dictum of The Rules - that is, if she doesn't conform to what we would consider 'good girl behavior' - she is likely to be raped. Because if every women ever followed The Rules, mini skirts would not be the thing and women would barely be able to exit their homes without being accompanied by a male companion. I like my independence. I like my mini skirts. I like knowing that The Rules are more about the illusion of safety than the promise of ensuring it. What I would like is for more people to recognize that too.


John said...

Imagine if the guy in that scenario wrote in:

"The other night at my fraternity's party I got drunk and took a girl up to my room. She said she didn't want to have sex, but she was drunk (and so was I) so I ignored what she said and tried to have sex with her. We were caught by my roommate and had to leave. Did I do anything wrong?"

"No, of course not! You were both drunk, right? That's a free ticket to no-means-yes-town!"

It wasn't the safest of ideas to get drunk at a frat party and go make out with some guy, but nothing about doing so entitles him to ignore her wishes and take what he wants. Put another way, if I walk down a side-street in Camden at 3:00 in the morning while wearing my most expensive suit and talking on an iPhone, nobody (least of all the cops) will say "it's your fault somebody robbed you." Sure it's stupid, but I was well within my legal rights to do it, and the muggers who hypothetically beat me up and stole my possessions would be convicted if caught. It's not a perfect analogy, but it's the best I could come up with on the spot.

MediaMaven said...

I’m really enjoying this discussion, on both this blog and Triangulations. There’s a lot of good stuff.

Amy Dickinson’s advice reads to me like typical advice columnist advice, in that she’s obligated to put in info from a rape crisis website and talk about poor judgment. I understand exactly why Pet talks about changing people’s attitudes, because that’s how responses like Dickinson’s can change.

The other “issue” I see is the story itself. It’s extremely bare bones. If I was hearing this story from a friend, there would be more details, foremost if the guy in question was drunk. I assume yes, because in most situations like these (date rape/college frat parties), the guy is drunk. In fact, I didn’t even notice it wasn’t mentioned until Dickinson pointed it out. John assumed so as well. But this connects back to the idea of actions being value-neutral, or what Pet wrote here:

Or is the bad judgment of the first girl in the situation contingent upon the events that transpired after she entered the room? I think, it is the second option. I think we foster ideas about bad/poor judgement on women who have already been victimized

That’s largely true. But, going back to knowing more details, I can image being at this party and, assuming I was one of the friends, notice the dude and saying, “Watch out for him. He’s a little skeevy. Quite the player,” and then other comments on his past, what girls he was with, etc. I can see that being perceived afterward as poor judgment, because if this guy had a reputation for not respecting girls, allegations of assault, and my friend went alone with him drunk anyway, I would be worried and upset. But if he was the nice dude from class, then I would probably be ok with the situation, if I saw my friend go off with him. If he was a stranger, I might be a little wary; it depends upon my impression of the dude in question and knowing my friend. Just like the actual event itself, a flesh-out story gives a completely different meaning to what happened.