Victim blaming and logical fallacies: A response

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.


7 thoughts on “Victim blaming and logical fallacies: A response

  1. Given that victims of rape are usually sober and the majority of reported rapists have consumed alcohol, it would make much more sense to tell men, the potential perpetrators of rape, not to go out and drink too much lest they end up accidentally raping a woman on the way home.

    Imagine the uproar if the potential perpetrators were targeted with messages about restricting their freedom, instead of the potential victims.

    1. Just imagine a world where every alcohol advertisement was mandated to carry words to the effect of ‘drink responsibly’. Or one where alcohol vendors had a legal responsibility to stop selling booze to belligerent or out-of-control drunks. Don’t know where you are, but this is exactly the situation we have in the UK, no uproar. What was your point again?

      1. Are you really suggesting that men are being regularly told not to drink alcohol in case they rape women? Really? That’s what you hear every day is it? Honestly? Men are constantly being made to worry about not drinking too much because the danger of their turning into rapists is one of the serious risks they should always take into account?

        How extremely disingenuous.

      2. This crappy comments section doesn’t allow me to respond directly to your comment, so I hope you read this.

        I am in no way suggesting that men are being regularly told not to drink alcohol in case they rape women. I am, however, explicitly stating that men, women, and anyone else who may be drinking, are being regularly told to drink alcohol in moderation so that they do not cause harm to themselves and others. Every day. I get on the tube every day, I see a Jack Daniels advert there, and on it, in pretty big typeface it says ‘Enjoy Jack Responsibly’.

        Now, perhaps it’s just me and everyone I’ve ever known, but enjoying alcohol responsibly includes enjoying such that you do not go out and commit crimes that you blame on your intoxication afterwards. Give that this ‘do not commit crimes’ is a superset that includes ‘do not rape people’, the message not to do these things is clear and present.

        What’s good about ‘enjoy responsibly’ is that it is a catch-all for all the myriad nasty consequences of bad people drinking too much, rather than having to enumerate each one, including the rather more likely ‘drunk driving’ and ‘beating people up’.

  2. Thank you so much for your response Glosswitch, I really enjoyed it.

    It may surprise you to hear that I agree with pretty much everything you say here. This is an excellent post (as always) and I am in firm agreement with the side of the argument that says we ought to focus our attentions on stopping men from comitting rape, rather than controlling women’s behaviour.

    What I probably didn’t make clear enough in my post, and ought to have done, is that I do not mean to attack the feminist position on victim blaming or rape prevention. That position – the one you outline here – is built upon moral arguments about which I am in complete agreement: that women ought to be able to behave as they like, dress as they please, without being under fear of attack; and however they behave, they ought not to be blamed if they are attacked. I also agree that focusing on the issue of whether being drunk increases your vulnerability in isolation is a mistake because it suggests that the biggest threat of rape comes from strangers, when we know this is not true. I agree with all of that, and don’t mean to criticize the feminist arguments about this at all. I wanted only to attack one very specific factual claim that you hear from time to time about what kinds of things increase the likelihood of rape occurring. The feminist argument can and should proceed without making that false factual claim. We shouldn’t fudge the empirical facts to suit our political position – instead we should focus on making the moral argument that women have a right to dress as they please, get drunk, without being attacked. So I am most definitely not criticizing the rest of that argument. I’m only meaning to criticize that specific factual claim that you sometimes hear. So I’m sorry if I’ve presented a straw-man or uncharitable interpretation of feminist arguments. If feminists don’t make that factual claim, then I’ve got no issue with them at all.

    I’m really not saying anything at all about what we ought to do about rape or whether we should be giving women advice that tells them not to get drunk. I agree that if we advise women not to get drunk in order to avoid rape, we are telling them restricting their freedom, and this is highly objectionable. We just need to be clear about why telling women not to get drunk is bad advice – it’s bad advice because it’s morally objectionable, not because it’s factually inaccurate. After all, it is true that one way to reduce your risk of being raped is never to leave your house. Nobody thinks we should advise women never to leave their houses; but that’s because they have a right to go out, and not because the strategy wouldn’t work. (And of course, I am aware that you can be raped inside your house too; but as I point out, it’s a logical fallacy to say therefore going out doesn’t increase your chances of being raped.)

    As far as the analogy to burglary goes…well yes, there is a sense in which these cases are analogous. There’s a sense in which they aren’t, as well. Analogies don’t have to be a perfect match for the case they are trying to illuminate; they don’t have to share all the features of the case they are being compared to in order to be useful. The burglary case is structurally analogous in the sense that the causation in the two cases works in identical ways: there are some things you can do that increase the probability of a further event occurring. But that’s as far as the analogy goes. Nobody who invokes this analogy is trying to suggest that the crimes involved are of equal magnitude, or that the freedoms that would have to be restricted to prevent the crime happening are equally significant.

    What I mean by “everything else being equal” is this: in any situation, whether the archetypal case of the “stranger rape”, or the much more common rape by an acquaintance, if you are drunk then you are more vulnerable than you would be if you were in the identical situation and not drunk. That seems to me to be obviously true. You’re vulnerable in all sorts of ways when you’re drunk – more likely to get run over by a car, more likely to have your purse stolen, more likely to burn the house down. I don’t see any point in denying this. I’m not saying we should tell women not to get drunk. But we should tell everyone, men and women, to take basic precautions to keep themselves safe. I happen to think we ought to tell men that getting drunk increases their chances of getting beaten up. That’s not to say they shouldn’t get drunk. But they should be aware that they are increasing their vulnerability.

    So in my post, I really didn’t have anything to say at all about what we ought to do to reduce rape. You say towards the end: “I wonder what future course of action is being proposed for feminists”. By me: nothing. That’s a conversation we need to keep having. My point is only that before we have it, let’s get the facts clear, and our argument straight. We can’t hope to solve these problems if we’re building our arguments on a shaky foundation of false facts and dodgy reasoning.

    1. I read a lot of feminist writing either linked to me by my friends or written by them. Since not all of my friends are half as clever as they think they are, their writing (or the writing they link) often contains either extremely dodgy reasoning or false facts. I very frequently get attacked for being a ‘woman-hater’ or ‘the sort of person who says lots of my friends are feminists’ when I point these problems out. Good on your for taking that risk on on the public stage, and your response here is excellent. Just because you’re a feminist doesn’t mean that someone else claiming they’re a feminist protects their points from criticism. It is above all important to say the right thing for a correct reason, even if I disagree that problems can’t be solved with arguments built on terrible foundations (historically they so often have been).

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