We cannot walk at night across an unlit campus or down a back alley, without incurring real danger. These are things every woman should be able to do, but “shoulds” belong in a Utopian world. They belong in a world where you drop your wallet in a crowd and have it returned, complete with credit cards and cash.

Wendy McElroy

Sexual Correctness: The Gender-feminist Attack on Women

Outgoing Judge Lindsey Kushner QC, during her sentencing remarks at Manchester Crown Court in relation to a rape offence, has made a plea “for women to take actions to protect themselves” in the context of being potential victims of sexual offences. She said that women were entitled to “drink themselves into the ground”, but their “disinhibited behaviour” could put them in danger, before acknowledging previous criticism for judges “putting more emphasis on what girls should and shouldn’t do, than on the act and the blame to be apportioned to rapists.” She naturally added that “there is absolutely no excuse, and a woman can do with her body what she wants, and a man will have to adjust his behaviour accordingly”, also adding that it would “be remiss” not to implore women to protect themselves from predatory men who “gravitate” towards drunken females.

Judge Kushner, as she presumably expected, has been criticised widely for her comments, which have been condemned as amounting to “victim-blaming”. Commenting on the remarks, former Labour MP Vera Baird told BBC Radio 4: “When somebody is raped they feel guilt and shame and they find it very hard to report it. If a judge has just said to them ‘Well, if you drank you are more likely to get raped, we are not likely to believe you and you have been disinhibited so you’ve rather brought it on yourself’ then that guilt is just going to get worse.” She added that the judge should have advised women instead of implying “it’s your fault for having attracted him in the first place”, before saying that “This looks like victim-blaming and they (organisations such as Rape Crisis) are worried that, yet again, it is going to become harder to get women to make reports”. “What this judge is saying is exactly the kind of thing that deters women from reporting assaults” opined Rachel Krys, co-director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, “Women understandably think that they will not be believed, or will be blamed for their own attack if they’ve had a drink.”

Restating the pervading point of the criticisms at its strongest, and proceeding on the working assumption that rape and other sexual assaults are underreported crimes, the argument is that such words spoken from the position of a senior circuit judge will likely deter future victims from reporting their crimes due to an apprehension that they will not be believed and will be made to feel guilty for having placed themselves in a dangerous position, whether they actually did or didn’t. This will therefore lead to a diminished rate of detected rapes and apprehended rapists, and therefore to a higher prevalence of rape in general. I need not rely on any fallacy within this argument to demonstrate the validity of my position. I am content to proceed taking the premises and the conclusion of the argument as working assumptions, but posit simply that the end (a higher rate of reporting of an underreported crime) is not only not justified by the means in question (that such comments by the judge should be discouraged or simply not uttered), it is in fact undermined by it.

There is a wonderful scene in The Matrix during which Neo first encounters The Oracle, sat on a three-legged stool in an obvious reference to her ancient namesake at Delphi. After telling Neo that he already knows the answer to the question on his tongue, he says “I’m not The One”. She replies, “Sorry kid. You ‘got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something. . . Your next life maybe, who knows?” Neo reports to Morpheus in the hallway after receiving this disappointing news. But before he can utter what was said, Morpheus interjects: “what was said was for you, and you alone.” Later in the film, Neo, after rescuing Morpheus from his Agent captors and hearing him ask his love interest “Do you believe it now, Trinity?” begins to inform his mentor of what The Oracle had told him. Morpheus interjects once more to say “She told you… Exactly what you needed to hear.” Though there is some case to be made that The Oracle was actually being truthful with Neo, given that he did indeed die and come back to life (in an apartment with the number 303 on the door, likely to be a messianic Biblical reference), the relevance of our digression here is to serve as a demonstration of what the arguments against judge Kushner’s position amount to. They are tantamount to holding that the truth of the commentary is inconsequential – that so long as victims and potential victims of rape are told exactly what they need to hear, regardless of whether what they hear is true, the higher number of reported rapes justifies the mendacity. I find this to be wholly condescending.

A theme prevalent in cases of rape and other sexual offences is one of trust. Invariably, in the commission of the offence, the trust of the victim has been breached. I submit that it is more principled (and this a principle worth preserving) for those involved in the investigation, prosecution and judgement of such cases to not deceive those victims during such proceedings. It is a lie and a shameful one to tell complainants that they will be believed, as I have previously argued, and it is a lie to say that in all instances, they could not, or should not, have done anything different so as to lessen the odds that they would become victims of rape. More pragmatically, deterring judges from advising women to take practical and reasonable steps in order to diminish the probability that they will become victims of rape, is by absence and implication, to tell those same women that nothing that they do as agents can constitute a factor as to whether or not they are raped or sexually assaulted. This is simply not true. But what is more pernicious is that such a dictum has the adverse consequence of preventing women who might have been able to avoid becoming victims, through a brief understanding of such factors, from doing so.

The term “victim-blaming” is a puzzling one, and I have considered at length whether my position is victimblaming, in accordance with its most literal interpretation. While it may seem counter-intuitive and outright illogical to contend that a perpetrator can be completely responsible for the commission of a crime, while the victim can simultaneously be partly responsible, I submit that they each can respectively, and that neither position axiomatically renders the other impossible. The reason for this is that we instinctively conflate the pool from which each respective responsibility is sourced, concluding erroneously that it is a zero-sum endeavour, and that it follows that any responsibility which may be ascribed to the victim, must therefore be subtracted from the perpetrator. Simply put, according to this conflation, if we say that a victim is in any way responsible for having become a victim, that therefore means that the perpetrator must be less than 100 percent to blame, and that this is an unacceptable conclusion.

My position may be most easily understood by considering the relevant questions as follows: (1) to what extent is the perpetrator responsible for having brought about this particular crime? And (2) to what extent is the victim responsible for having been selected from other potential victims for this crime? The first question is rhetorical as the answer tautologically follows from the question: but for the commission of the crime by the perpetrator, the crime would not have been committed (naturally). The second question is based on a working and demonstrable assumption that crime happens. It has always happened and it likely always will. As such, members of a society can logically be responsible, to greater and lesser degrees, for becoming members of the victim-of-crime subgroup within that society, which perpetually exists, without detracting from the responsibility or “blame” ascribed to the perpertrator.

Consider a night-time burglar who targets dwellings. His modus operandi is to slip or “pop” front doors which are only secured with a mortise lock, by using a thin, curved sheet of plastic called a mica. On a successful night, he may enter and steal from within three to five houses. On one such night, he manages to enter three, which happen to be, for the purpose of our example, adjacent properties. At the first property, he turns the door handle and leans against the front door to test if it bends at the top. Where he sees the key hole for the dead bolt. It doesn’t and he realises from this that the door is properly secured and it will make far too much noise to attempt to force it. He leaves empty-handed. At the next address, he again approaches the front door and leans against it, trying the handle as he does. He realises from this that the door is only secured with the mortise lock and the dead bolt, though present, is not locked, so he goes to work. He enters the house, and steals from the ground floor while the occupiers are asleep upstairs. At the next address, he leans once more against the door, and as he turns the handle, he almost stumbles in because the door was completely unlocked. He enters and again steals from the ground floor.

On each occasion, the burglar may be completely, that is to say 100 percent, to blame for the crimes having been committed. We must acknowledge that there is a spectrum of degree however, to which each occupier of the respective addresses is responsible for having become a victim of the burglar. The occupier of the first property used all the available security on their front door, and as such the burglar was not successful in gaining entry. But there is a difference in the amount of responsibility to be ascribed to the occupiers of the second and third address. Starkly, if I leave my new BMW running, with the keys in the ignition, parked in the centre of town while I run into the newsagents, I must hold more responsibility for becoming a victim of car theft than if the same car was stolen from me in a car-jacking, where I was accosted whilst stationary at a traffic light in the same town centre, and was told by a bandit wearing a mask and brandishing a gun, to “get out and leave the keys”. Surely we should have no difficulty in acknowledging this disparity, nor the fact that even though the thief in the first instance would likely have been an opportunist, that in each case, as moral agents in themselves, they are simultaneously completely to blame for the commission of the offence.

Furthermore, police officers advising residents living on the burglar’s identified patch, as to how they might best secure their properties so as not to become future victims, is surely exactly the response (pending his apprehension, obviously) that should be expected, and rightly so. To contend that in this instance, the actions of the police offering such advice is not “victim-blaming”, and yet that the advice offered to potential victims by judge Kushner is “victim-blaming”, as an argument, invokes and relies upon the existence of some dichotomy between our considered offences. I was offered a similar rebuttal when I mentioned the car-theft analogy on Twitter, saying “a person’s body is not a BMW and rape is not theft.” I make no issue with these assertions, but there is no such ultimate dichotomy. Crime and its manifestations fall on a broad spectrum, but my theory concerning perpetrators’ and victims’ respective responsibilities and degrees thereof may be applied to all crimes within this spectrum where the named roles exist. But in entertaining briefly that the “body” is the pertinent variable, it might be worth considering domestic violence, and specifically the concept of a police officer advising a victim, who has refused to provide evidence or support a prosecution, that there is a statistical likelihood that if they do not leave their abusive partner, they will be assaulted again. This is a victim being advised as to steps which they can take to prevent becoming a victim again. Is this therefore also “victim-blaming”? Because if so, victim-blaming must be the right thing to do.

Mick Hume, in his epilogue to Trigger Warning, categorises and lists a number of short, catchy expressions, which have morphed into dogmas. They are terms with which one side labels an opponent, so as to reduce said opponent’s position or argument to a circumstance of being unworthy of debate or challenge. Note that this is different from a strawman fallacy, which is made out when one dishonestly misrepresents an opponent’s argument so that it can be easily defeated, as the discussed tactic is employed so that the debate may be instead, avoided altogether[1]. Hume writes: “The phrases listed here are all invitations, if not orders, to shut up and withdraw from the rhetorical fray. The code words used are changing and mutating all the time, but the essential message is always the same: either You-Can’t-Say-That, or You-Can’t-Say-That – and quite possibly, both.” Among these, he lists you’re an x-denier, you’re an x-phobic and you’re an x-apologist. I believe that you’re a victim-blamer is a term which has evolved to carry all the same implications, and that is now employed precisely with the intention of shutting the debate down. It is a signal which can be fired in the hope that those listening or reading might learn all that the espouser intends them to know about their opponent, and that the opponent should be disqualified from the debate, or better still, that according to them, the debate was won long ago, and those who dare to question the vogue politics now, are simply “deniers”.

The above is attested to by Claire Fox in her wonderful, short book, I Find That Offensive, when she recounts her debate at a secondary school in front of sixth-formers on the topic of Ched Evans, and daring to push back against the statistic as wrong as it is frequent in its being cited, that twenty five percent of any given audience would go on to be sexually assaulted. “But it was when the Q&A started that things really heated up.” Writes Fox, “It became obvious that there was an accepted, acceptable narrative here, and any challenge to it led to accusations of victim-blaming or rape apologism.” Rape is a terrible crime, and victims of rape should feel able to report their allegations. But these facts do not justify forsaking truth and integrity in order to tell people what one expects they want to hear. The advice of judge Kushner was sound, and no doubt a sincere reflection of her extensive career in dealing with such matters. Crying “victim-blaming” serves no honest or honourable purpose, and contributes nothing to a very important debate, whilst simultaneously stifling the sources from which genuine and insightful knowledge and advice might be gleaned.

[1] I have leafed again briefly through Bo Bennett’s Logically Fallacious, and cannot find a fallacy which encapsulates the tactic under discussion (the employment of x-denier etc. so as to declare a position as unworthy of rebuttal). Should any of you know if this fallacy has already been coined, please let me know. Otherwise, I suggest calling it the beyond the pale fallacy. [Thoughts?]