Because victim-blaming and sexism are linked, and because the vast majority of rapists are men, I’m going to discuss the scenario of a man raping a woman here. I intend to write separately about male victims, and again about female rapists, later on.
Also – I’ve been using the terms sexual assault and rape pretty much interchangeably. In reality, the terminology varies from state to state, but generally rape means penetration of an orifice and sexual assault means anything else sexual, both of course done without consent.
Finally – in my explanations I say “men/women are supposed to…” a lot. That means the patriarchy wants them to, society sends them messages that in order to fit into society properly, they should. It is of course not what I believe in. People get other messages as well, nothing is black and white, but these are strong parts of our culture that I think most people notice pretty easily.
Now. To think that a rapist should be convicted and a woman should be helped, we have to believe that:
A. A sexual act occurred involving this woman.
B. This particular man was the one involved in the sexual act.
C. The woman did not consent to the sexual act.
D. A man who engages in a sexual act with a woman against that woman’s will has committed a crime.
E. A woman who is engaged in a sexual act against her will has not committed a crime.
Thus it stands to reason that any victim-blaming or rapist-excusing behavior would stem from disbelief of one or several of these ideas.
Interestingly, A is usually not contested, at least not from what I overhear in the blogospere. I’m sure there are some cases where the defendant says nothing at all happened and the spectators agree with him, but they don’t seem to catch on much. Presumably a woman wouldn’t make up having had sex, even non-consensually, first because of the evidence problem, and second because women aren’t supposed to be having sex.
B is also not a terribly controversial one. If the woman really was raped and she’s just got the wrong guy, it was probably a stranger rape, which is less controversial because it fits the idea of rape-by-physical force on an innocent virgin walking home that is much more popular than the idea of a nice guy taking advantage of a drunk girl or not understanding that consent needs to be affirmative or a husband taking out his anger by rape. The first scenario can still lead to victim-blaming, but if B is the problem, that’s more the fault of the technique used to find the suspect than the fault of the woman. I can’t see a good reason why any woman would purposely prosecute the wrong guy, letting her real rapist go free (ok, I just thought of a scenario, but that’s just because my mind likes to find a way to make anything implausible true), so it was probably an honest (though horrible) mistake and therefore not a reason to vilify her, although of course we need to try to fix this problem.
C is where things start to get interesting. So interesting, that I have to have a sub-list to keep track of everything.
1. Enter the term “regretted sex.” Maybe she consented at the time, and then regretted it later. That’s plausible enough. It probably happens to both women and men. But then people say, and therefore, she decided to falsely accuse him of rape. What? Ok. I’m sure it happens sometimes. Everything has happened once, I usually assume. But if you regretted sex, why would you want to make a controversy out of it, why would you want to testify about it in front of a court, why wouldn’t you want to just forget about it? I see two possible reasons. One is that you could convince yourself that it really was rape if you were able to convince others that it was, and that way you could ease your conscience or whatever part of you is bothered by the regretted sex. I can see that happening rarely, but not very often. When you think about how few rape victims report rape, you have to imagine it’s not something most people get into lightly. That must be more than just “regretted” sex to drive you to such extremes, not to mention to totally throw the guy you wish you hadn’t slept with to the wolves (or attempt to, anyway).
The other possibility I see is that the woman thinks the man will tell everyone they had sex and doesn’t want to be seen as a slut, so she tries to make herself seen as a victim. One important thing to stress here is that this situation is the product of patriarchy. If women were not “supposed” to be virginal and were allowed to express and enjoy their sexuality as much as men are (but without going too far, as sometimes patriarchy has men do) without being labeled “sluts” and being subject to hatred and contempt, the prospect of people finding out that she had sex would not bother her any more than it would bother him. On the flip side, if men weren’t pressed to prove their masculinity by having treating sex as a way of “conquering” women, he would be less likely to tell the whole school that he had sex with her. Thus, if this problem does exist, it’s not the fault of feminists; very much the opposite. (I don’t understand when male rights activists want situations like this to stop and yet oppose feminism.) If it does exist, of course the defendant should be let off the hook. Feminists have to avoid the trap of being so un-victim-blamey that they become falsely-accused-blamey. But the reality is, false accusations are a minority of cases (even according to those who say they’re much higher than the accepted numbers). And fortunately, our court system considers the defendant innocent until proven guilty, so no matter what feminists say, in the absence of evidence, if the court does its job properly, the defendant will be let off the hook. In light of these two pieces of information, I think it would be wise to stop hounding alleged rape victims, since most likely, the defendant will not be wronged. It will happen sometimes, and that’s tragic, but what happens much more is that real rape victims don’t get justice. In any case, this problem is the reason why we have trials in the first place; it’s a real concern (unlike many of those to follow), but we know that already and are already using a system that is supposed to take that concern seriously.
2. I have a new hypothesis that some people think that real true consent actually is given at some point before either the woman tries to initiate a sexual act or the man tries to initiate one and the woman gives affirmative consent. (This woulc be a good time to look back a couple of posts at my post on consent if you haven’t seen it, so you’ll know where my opinions are coming from.) Obviously some people believe that not screaming no means yes. So that could lead them to think they are being totally fair in ruling that this is not a case of rape, if she admitted to not having said no. But I think it goes even further than that. I think some people have gotten it into their heads that if a woman smiles, or flirts, or wears a miniskirt, or goes into their room alone, or gets drunk with them, or takes off their clothes (note: the ruling in the link was later reversed :), or starts doing one sexual act, that they already have consented to another. This is wrong for two reasons: first, consent to one act is not consent to another, and you have to actually give some sort of yes to some form of question that is clearly about sex for it to count as consent to sex. Second, consent can always be withdrawn, so even if I get to a party and find a guy and say “I want to have sex with you,” he doesn’t have a license to rape me because if we get naked and then I say I changed my mind, the consent is over. If we get in the middle of it and I say stop, the consent is over. (Same goes for him, of course.) If people don’t understand these three concepts: consent is affirmative, consent to x != consent to y, and consent can be withdrawn at any time, they are liable to call rape consensual sex and call rape victims liars and probably sluts.
But I’m interested in why people would reject any of those three principles. To me, it looks like a whole lot of regular old male entitlement. That means they come from the idea that some men have that they deserve sex, that it would be practically a crime against them for a woman to “promise” sex (by smiling, flirting, wearing a miniskirt, starting to have sex, whatever) and then renege. This is just a messed up world view. First of all, let me introduce you to your right hand. Next, get over yourself. Women do not belong to men and the men who think this way, sorry, they’re just wrong. The antidote for this is respect for women as human beings, not sex objects.
But perhaps some people think not that what the woman should have done was “promise” sex and then follow through, but to not “promise” in the first place. Perhaps they see rape as the just punishment for women who do things that hint at sex, and think that the threat of rape is necessary to keep women in line, acting modestly and chastely and so on. This is simply the other side of the same coin. People who divide women into virgins and sluts will see the former paragraph as being about sluts and this one as being about virgins. If you’re not completely immaculate and virginal, you’re a slut, as there’s nothing in between. If there’s nothing in between, there’s no playing your role halfway – consenting to something and then stopping, or looking like a “slut” but not acting like one. If someone starts to play the role of slut, they must be one, and sluts say yes to sex every single time, so they can’t possibly be raped. If someone wants to be a virgin, they have to really be a virgin; otherwise they deserve what they get. Again, the antidote is respect for women: we need to understand that women are sexual AND more than sexual (full human beings) at the same time. They don’t have to choose one or the other. Having sex or acting sexual doesn’t mean they forfeit their rights.
This is getting long, so I think I’ll cover the even more depressing D and E later.