I’m not a philosopher. I did one module of philosophy as part of my masters and I did it very badly, managing to scrape a pass by pretending to understand Kritik der reinen Vernunft when all my ideas actually came from Sophie’s World. Hence I am not very hot on philosophical terminology and naming different types of argument (straw man and circular are about my limit). All the same, I have decided to at least attempt to write a response to this post on rape, victim blaming and logical fallacies. The central point being made – that being drunk does make women vulnerable, therefore it’s intellectually dishonest and logically fallacious to present it as irrelevant to discussions of sexual assault – is presented clearly, with great pains taken not to offend. However, while I recognise the positive intent, I don’t think it’s an honest representation of the integrity of most feminist debates on this subject. Furthermore, I don’t feel it captures how and why discussing a hypothetical victim’s alcohol consumption causes offence.

I don’t want this to be seen as a highly critical or combative post. On the contrary, it is refreshing to read something about rape and victim blaming which has made me think rather than want to throw things (so no more CiF comment threads for me, I fear …).

First, I too have often heard it pointed out that most victims of rape are attacked in the home, therefore it’s wrong to be making the link between rape and women getting drunk. I have made this argument myself. But I would argue that it is not the same as saying that getting drunk does not make you more likely to become a victim of crime. As I have always understood it, the argument being made is that it’s inappropriate to locate discussions of what causes sexual assault within the stereotyped context of “real” rape (stranger rape). Doing so misrepresents the broader nature and extent of sexual violence. This is not equivalent to saying “most victims of rape are not drunk, therefore getting drunk does not increase your chances of being raped”.

Second, there is an implicit moral judgment in the advice people choose to give or withhold. This is something that isn’t acknowledged in the post when this is said:

I can see why analogies with leaving one’s windows open and burglary seem crass and offensive to many people. But as the proponents of those kinds of analogies often stress, it is not a moralized claim; it’s a purely factual one.

But it is a moralized claim because it suggests these limitations to freedom are analogous and ignores the fact that in the case of rape, any restrictions proposed would only apply to some people and not others. Everyone has some form of property, everyone can decide what risks to take with it. Not everyone is a woman (and it is almost exclusively women who are subject to these unwarranted “factual” nuggets). Anyone who is at risk of being attacked because of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation can take steps to reduce the risk. Yet it is inappropriate for those who aren’t facing similar risks to suggest that others actually take these steps. It’s an abdication of broader responsibility and it is victim-blaming insofar as it presents the limitation of the freedom of a specific group of people as a price the broader society can seek to weigh up. And yes, one can say that stating that a particular course of action puts one at risk is not the same as suggesting one desists from this course of action, but the implication is already there in the statement. I think it is dishonest to pretend that it isn’t. Analogies made between rape and theft of property are not “purely factual” due to the simple fact that people have chosen to make these analogies and not others. This selectivity is very important.

Third, it is very risky to assume that “telling women not to get drunk probably will, everything else being equal, reduce their chances of being raped”. Obviously I don’t understand all that is captured by “everything else being equal” ; it is however clear that this is a discussion taking place where everything isn’t equal. There is some evidence to suggest that societies in which so-called “rape myths” are granted more credence, the risk of rape is increased. While “telling women not to get drunk” is not the same as pushing rape myths, it does distort popular understandings of when, where and how rape happens. Furthermore, I am not convinced that “telling women not to get drunk” actually makes them less likely to get drunk, certainly not if it’s placed within such an uncertain context, and one which makes them feel that they are being judged unfairly.

I think it’s important to be honest in debates about crime and risk. However, repeatedly stating the obvious – that being drunk makes you vulnerable –  with reference to rape but not to other crimes is not honest. It’s not merely stating the facts. I don’t hear men being told that drinking makes them more vulnerable to physical assault. I assume they know. If I were to tell them this, it wouldn’t be because I thought they were ignorant and needed protection; I would be making an implicit argument in an attempt to control their behaviour. Therefore I wonder what future course of action is being proposed for feminists. Next time someone makes the rape/open windows analogy, do we say “yeah, fair enough”? Because we know that what is really being said isn’t just “did you know …?”

I think these issues are worth thrashing out because it helps us to understand that rape apologism and rape myths aren’t the only problems faced by victims and those who represent them. Rape prevention advice can be well intentioned and it can be based on facts – but we still need to question what it is actually doing. How do these messages function once they’re out in the wider world? Do they help or harm? Getting the focus and the wording right is vitally important. It’s not just about truth, but the truths we choose to tell.