Original Sin: Vulnerability and Culpability

Feminists are so familiar with the phrase "blaming the victim" and associate it so strongly with patriarchal attitudes to rape, that I think perhaps we overlook the more general treatment of vulnerability and culpability in conventional thinking about a wide spectrum of social issues. The image shown here is a famous optical illusion: is it two faces nose-to-nose, or an ornamental pediment or vase? Our visual cortex will recognise either image; we can even voluntarily switch back and forth between the two perceptions. Even so, in the same set of data about interpersonal harm or risk we can recognise one pattern or another of responsibility, focus our problem-solving facility on one set of actors or another, based on our cultural conditioning and the social status or power of the actors.

I'll take as my starting point a recent article about the problem of binge drinking in the UK, specifically binge drinking among women. There are many aspects to this issue, but the relevant one for my purposes is this:

The disclosure will alarm policy-makers struggling to combat Britain's growing drink problem, which has led to an escalation in anti-social behaviour, lost working hours and long-term health problems, including cancer and heart problems.

A new government advertising campaign will this week highlight how drunkenness puts women at risk of sexual assault. Studies show that more than three-quarters - 81 per cent - of sex attack victims have been drinking before being attacked.

A review by the Association of Chief Police Officers of drug-rape attacks has found that in many cases women had been drinking heavily rather than been targeted by men using date-rape drugs. The Government is considering tighter laws so that even when a woman has consented to sex, men can be prosecuted for rape, if she was drunk at the time.

The publication of this article occasioned a discussion at the liberal Euro-American blog European Tribune; the woman who posted it included a link to the discussion at Feministing. I offer some excerpts from the ET thread here to illustrate the ways in which typical "progressive" or "liberal" discourse avoids the issue of gendered power and keeps the focus on the victim:

None of which has anything to do with my point. If someone was sawing their own leg off, no one would be talking about rape.

Regular binge drinking is equivalent to sawing your own brain off. Anyone who does it is either an idiot, or - more generously - in some distress and needs help. And that's equally true whether they're male or female. [erasure of gendered power and male assumption of sexual prerogative]

That's why it seems a bit tangential to be trying to squeeze the problem into the generic gender politics box... [then a complaint that gender politics is "too generic"]

For sure. People drink in the UK because they think it's 'ard. It's the same for men and women. It's all about being 'ard, and has a lot to do with proving your virility.... [which of course has nothing to do with gender]

it's men's responsibility not to rape, not women's responsibility to not get raped.

Well, obviously I agree with that, but I'm tired of seeing it come up as a kneejerk response every time it's suggested that women should take some responsibility for their own safety. [putting the focus on the perp is a "kneejerk response" whereas focusing on the victim is just common sense]

We don't live in a perfect world. People shouldn't steal, but that doesn't mean I leave my car with the keys in the ignition. A man should be able to walk into a Rangers pub in a Celtic shirt without risking a beating, but I wouldn't encourage any man to try. [only in a "perfect world" could rape be eliminated; note that the analogy is to the antagonisms between sports fans and not to a "serious" form of discrimination or hate crime like antisemitism or racist lynching]

I know where the sentiment comes from and I agree that a woman should never be blamed for being raped, but the notion that taking sensible precautions is somehow letting them win seems to me to be a distinctly adolescent viewpoint... [putting the focus on the perp is adolescent]

I actually dislike the suggestion that a woman is a helpless juvenile in this process and must be protected from their silliness with a lecture.

My difficulty with this revolves around the idea that when drunk a woman is helpless, but a man when drunk is still somehow in full control. So if two pissheads who can barely stand tumble into bed in alcohol fuelled lust, in the morning we discover that one has been raped and the other is a rapist. Guys do stupid things when drunk and so do women. Yet legally that scenario is rape, which seems ridiculous to me.... [raping a woman is just "doing something stupid" and has nothing to do with gendered power]

If the law says that a woman is incapable of giving consent when drunk, then it criminalizes men for something that was presumed "consensual". I'm not talking about a guy stumbling on a woman who is passed out, that is rape, but two people who get mutually stewed and end up in bed together. The woman wakes up and cries rape cos she can't really remember what happened. Yet is the guy guilty even if it seemed like consent at the time. ["cries rape" is a stock phrase. "mutually stewed" again erases gendered power]

To me, that is a double jeapardy where a woman can get drunk and claim insensibility, yet a man is always presumed to be adult and controlled enough to realise that even tho' everything says yes, legally it's no. So we now not only have an age of consent but women have to pass a sobriety test before they can consent. At what point do they take adult responsibility for consent ? ... [a simple denial of the mechanics of rape -- it's the guy who's doing something to another person's body, i.e. sticking his penis into another person. should men not be prosecuted for breaking and entering, car theft, burglary, etc if they were drunk at the time? if the homeowner was drunk at the time?]

Which one? Did the drunk woman rape the drunk man? Why not? Be careful that you understand the scenario: we're talking about apparent but very drunken consent. He also gave drunken assent. Why is his worth more than hers? What if both were female? Who raped who then?... [again erasure of gendered power and the "level playing field" of neoliberal theory in which all actors are equal and women can rape men just as well as men can rape women]

Sure, and the conduct of rape trials is a whole other complicated issue full of appallingly difficult grey areas. It makes discussing rape almost impossible though. ...

This is what political correctness does to any conversation. ... [it's the fault of those pesky feminists that we can't talk about rape; but what if we turned this on its head and asked whether one reason why it is so hard to talk about rape is that large numbers of men -- maybe a majority? -- have coerced or extorted sex from a woman at one time or another in life and are (a) uncertain whether or not a feminist might consider them to be rapsts, or (b) uncertain themselves whether they have committed a rape or not, or (c) well aware that they have committed a rape and defensive about it, troubled by conscience or afraid of being found out and named as perps]

Never forgot, my first person I had to try have 'back on the rails' was a 30-year old man who was raped by two of his 'girl-friends'. Na....I was only 23 years old then and it never came to my mind such a situation was possible, nobody ever had told me, nor I had seen literature about such cases. In a few days time I learned that everything I learned before was very relative and I had to review how our society 'organises' relations between the sexes. Our capitalist society is very 'macho' and the more and more 'macha'. ...

Sorry, I temporarily forgot the rules around here. I will never ever bring up violence against women again. ... [if women get annoyed/uppity about something they must be punished by men sulking and refusing to ever discuss it again]

I donīt know the rules, but I think sensitive issues should be brought up often to practice out-of-the-box thinking. ...

Out of the box thinking? Right now I think people might benefit from some empathetic thinking. I suppose that would qualify as "out of the box" around here. ...

No, it wouldn't, but some people could benefit from some logical thinking, which you seem to mistake for a lack of empathy ... It is foolish for women (or men for that matter) to drink so much that they put themselves in an extremely vulnerable position. ... Everybody here has condemned rape, some just wanted to point out that with rapists around it is foolish to get drunk, and do not expect to be accused of holding women responsible for the actual rapes... ["with rapists around" presumes that "rapists" are some special kind of men different from average men, again erasing gendered power and the ubiquity of rape, male rape fantasies, and male excuses for rape.]

Back to the original report:

Between 60 and 70% of men who assault their partners do so under the influence of drink.

Forty-one per cent of violent crimes, including assaults and muggings, are committed by somebody who has been drinking.

We could -- and should -- ask why a government campaign does not warn men that heavy drinking will increase the risk of their experiencing impaired impulse control, irrationality, and blunted empathy, and committing offences against women which they will regret later and for which they will be held fully responsible. Why does the government not do this? Because that would put the focus on the perpetrator. Which we are not allowed to do.

When some women on the centre/left ET discussion forum became outraged about the content of some of the thread on drink-rape there was a predictable defensive reaction from the guys (cf the comments about "rationality" and a lot of talk about whether the site was friendly to "women's issues." At one point I wrote I'm gonna ask one Socratic question though. Why do we keep calling rape a "women's issue"? it isn't women who are doing the raping. is global warming "an Inuit issue"? Apropos of which I came across this passage in Derrick Jensen's latest book, Endgame (I):

Pretend you're in an abusive relationship. Picture yourself saying to this other person, "I have the right to be treated with respect." Now, that may developmentally be important for you to say, but there comes a point when it's no longer appropriate to keep the focus on you -- you're not the problem. Contast how that former statement feels with how it feels to say: 'You have no right to treat me this way." The former is almost a supplication, the latter almost a command. And its focus is on the perpetrator.

For too long we've been supplicants. For too long the focus has been on us. It's time we simply set out to stop those who are doing wrong.

When the focus is on the victims -- on the victims' behaviour, on how to "save" or "help" the victims, on how to "educate" the vulnerable to be "safer" -- the focus is removed from the perps. When we talk about "saving the forests" or "saving the oceans" similarly we render invisible the people -- people with names, addresses, and bank accounts -- who are making the decisions (and profiting from those decisions) to liquidate the biosphere and use it as a dump for the excreta of industrialism. They have no right to do this -- or in a sane system of "rights" they would have no right.

All this is quite analogous to current environmental/consumption/transport issues. If feminism vs male sexual prerogative were, say, an energy/resource issue like "resource finitude vs the American Way Of Life", most ET members as represented in the drink/rape thread would be in the ideological category who believe that buying a Prius fixes the problem, and that it's insane to think that we might have to ride bicycles or stop travelling by air. And, as I've seen on forum after forum, people who are used to the luxury of private autos and air travel get very angry -- righteously and personally angry -- when anyone tells them that these privileges are too expensive in terms of other people's lives and happiness. And men are very much accustomed to the luxury of dominance (of discourse, of space, of government) and consumption (particularly sexual consumption, both visual and carnal, of the bodies of women and juveniles), and tend to get angry when anyone tries to point out that these unexamined privileges are too expensive, morally, ethically, in terms of the quality of life of women and kids. We get the naturalising argument that "a certain percentage of men will always rape, prostitution will always exist, women need to accept these realities" in just the same flat, dogmatic tone as "but people [i.e. affluent people] have a right to freedom of travel, and you cannot curtail air or car travel." It is the absolute refusal of privilege to be challenged, and it is like banging your head on a brick wall to try to get past this stage.

The issue with, say, the government posting warnings to women that getting drunk may expose them to increased risk of sexual assault, can be perceived perhaps by two analogies. One is a sign on a small service road at my local harbour. it says "CYCLISTS SLOW DOWN, WATCH FOR CARS." Why does this sign not read "MOTORISTS SLOW DOWN, WATCH FOR CYCLISTS"? After all, it is the motorist who will injure or kill the cyclist in a collision, not the other way around. Or let us take a cross cultural view: if the Afghan government were to post signage in public places warning women that to go unveiled may expose them to greater risk of harassment or injury (or death) at the hands of Taliban extremists, we would be outraged. We would focus on the behaviour of the men who are attacking these women, not on the behaviour of the women in going unveiled -- even though, indeed, at this point in history it would be unwise and dangerous for a woman to go about unveiled in public in Taliban-controlled spaces, and that is the "reality". The big difference is in whether we consider that "reality" (actually a socially constructed set of rules, a hierarchy of privilege and power) is acceptable or not, and whether it is immutable (in which case we will label it "natural") or not. And this judgment in turn may depend on whether we feel, at some level, that remedying the injustice will erode our own personal privileges (i.e. force us to give up our SUV or our air travel vacation -- or the many benefits of dominance over women -- or erode our sense of national, ethnic, religious or gender identity).

Thus when it is our own Taliban (our own motorists) -- men who rape women because, like Donald Rumsfeld, they believe that "weakness is provocative," and because they can get away with it -- their behaviour suddenly becomes *natural* or *normative* (like danger imposed on peds and cyclists by motorists), and the women's behaviour becomes the "controllable factor" that should be influenced in order to "solve the problem" (just as our traffic planners want to control and restrict ped and cyclist behaviour and freedom more and more stringently to "protect" them from the danger from cars which we are not allowed to reconsider or challenge). But when women react with instinctive (or reasoned) outrage to the suggestion that the British government would consider printing such a warning, you see the result: accusations of irrationality, flailing defences of the "rape culture", naturalisation of male sexual predation and banditry, etc.

Returning to the "safety" of women, a thread at ET on "Protecting Prostitutes in Europe" offered the information that prostitute protection efforts varied widely from one country to another, for example in Köaut;ln,:

Based on a system already working in Utrecht, this provides a safe zone for prostitutes to meet clients and access services. In a fenced-off area covered by CCTV, sex takes place in cubicles fitted with panic buttons and a second exit. (Deutsche Welle) But it's estimated that only 300 out of Cologne's estimated 4000 prostitutes choose to work here. Possible reasons include reluctance of clients to come to this area and distrust of the authorities.

Run that by me again? In a fenced-off area covered by CCTV. In cubicles fitted with panic buttons and a second exit. Is that a normal work environment? "Just a job" like any other, as we are so often told? What are we protecting here? Why is it taken for granted that men's attitude to women and to sex is so violent, so aggressive, so dangerous that women who offer sexual services, for their own safety, should work in cubicles with panic buttons, under the surveillance of CCTV? Why are we not asking, "What is wrong with these men, what is wrong with our cultural construction of masculinity and sexuality, that prison-like technology is necessary to 'protect' these women from being murdered or tortured or beaten by their clients?" What are we protecting? The women? Or our preconceptions about male privilege and behaviour? And what does it mean that fewer than 10 percent of the city's prostitutes "choose" to work in this Panopticon environment?

Do they make this choice freely? Do they perhaps feel offended and humiliated by being filmed and surveilled -- free entertainment for the security guards? -- while they work? Or do they know their business will fall off sharply if they work in a controlled and supervised zone, that one of the things their clients are looking for is the vulnerability of the prostitute, the knowledge that men can and do abuse and kill these women with impunity? Does the "safety zone" spoil the experience for the male clients? if so, what does that say about the clients?

We argue constantly about how to protect prostitutes, about the rights of prostitutes. We say, prostitutes have a right not to be beaten, not to be murdered. But this is supplication. When are we going to say, No man has any right to treat any woman in this way? When are we going to say, "The government is working on the wording of a warning to men to be posted in public places, advising them that drinking may impair their judgment and result in their committing actionable offences against women for which they will be held responsible"? When are we going to rewrite the sign to read MOTORISTS, SLOW DOWN. WATCH FOR CYCLISTS?