Victim-Blaming Viewpoints

Victim-Blaming Viewpoints

Victim-Blaming Viewpoints
Victim-Blaming Viewpoints

Late one night, a 22-year-old mother of two enters a bar filled with men. She has a few drinks and flirts with some of the patrons. Suddenly, she finds herself held down on a pool table. Six young men force themselves on her as onlookers cheer and she screams and curses. The six men are arrested and put on trial for aggravated rape. Their defense is that she acted seductively and “led them on.” The prosecution argues that a sexual assault begins whenever a man continues after a woman has said no. The jury concludes that she did not consent to what they did to her and convicts four of the six defendants. The judge sentences them to terms of 6 to 12 years in prison. At a rally held on behalf of the victim, speakers hail the outcome as a symbol that gang rape will not be tolerated as a spec- tator sport. But at a demonstration protesting the ver- dicts and sentences, speakers sympathetic to the young men contend, “She got herself raped,” and “She should have known what she was getting herself into.” They hold her largely responsible for enabling the men “to take advantage of her.” A movie is made about her ordeal, the trial, and the public’s reactions. (Schanberg, 1984, 1989)

A man is on trial for rape. His lawyer points out that the alleged victim was wearing a tank top, a lacy miniskirt, and no underpants. The defendant is found not guilty because, as one juror explains,

“We felt she asked for it.” The failed prosecution inspires the state legislature to amend the laws gov- erning rape trials to bar defense attorneys from asking complainants about the clothes they were wearing at the time of the assaults. (Merrill, 1994)

Both of these often-cited real-life cases illustrate the clash between two competing perspectives.

The victim-blaming viewpoint contends that some rape victims differ in their attitudes and actions from other females who are able to avoid sexual assault. Allegedly, there are certain kinds of women who go around “asking for trouble,” “single them- selves out from the pack,” and eventually “get them- selves raped.” Such harsh condemnations rest on two premises: that the male was overwhelmed by sexual desire and lost his self-control and that the female somehow facilitated the assault (perhaps by weaken- ing herself by taking drugs or alcohol), thoughtlessly precipitated it (by making rash decisions that put her in a temptation–opportunity situation), or even pro- voked his overpowering response (by suggestive and seductive utterings or deeds) (see Gibbs, 1991). Those who believe in the “just world” theory, in which people get what they deserve during their lifetimes, are more inclined to blame rape victims, even if the attacker is a complete stranger (Stromwall et al., 2013).

Victim blaming chastises women who suffer sexual assaults for acts of omission (not being cau- tious) as well as acts of commission, such as hitch- hiking (see Amir, 1971). Even worse, the female might be castigated for secretly harboring fantasies of being ravished and then enabling such scenarios to take place (see MacDonald, 1971). The victim- blaming interpretation of date rape characterizes the incident as a terrible misunderstanding in “he said/ she said” terms: He says she wanted to and didn’t really object, while she says he intimidated her and forced her to yield. Miscommunication results when a female sends mixed messages, fails to make her true intentions clear, and doesn’t protest unwanted sexual advances vehemently enough—a common problem during this period of rapid changes in the rules of the “dating game,” with its courtship rituals and shifting sexual mores (see Warshaw, 1988; and Muehlenhard et al., 1992).

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The most widely cited (and most heavily criti- cized) study of victim precipitation in rape was based on data drawn from the files of the Philadel- phia police concerning cases reported in 1958 and 1960 (Amir, 1971). The researcher considered “precipitation” to have occurred either whenever a girl’s or woman’s behavior was interpreted by a teenage boy or man as a direct invitation to engage in sexual relations that was later retracted (she agreed and then changed her mind, according to him) or when she signaled that she would be ame- nable if he persisted in his demands (she was saying no but meant yes, in his opinion). Included in this researcher’s working definition of a precipitated rape were acts of commission such as drinking alco- hol, hitchhiking, or using what could be taken as indecent language or gestures. Acts of omission, such as failing to object strongly enough to his sex- ually charged overtures, also counted against her. The offender’s interpretation was considered to be the crucial element in recognizing instances of pre- cipitation. Even if the male was mistaken in his beliefs about her intentions, his perceptions led to actions, and that was what really mattered.

In the police department’s files, specific indicators of precipitation were statements by the offender, wit- nesses, or detectives claiming that “she behaved pro- vocatively,” “she acted seductively,” “she was irresponsible and endangered herself,” or “she had a bad reputation in the neighborhood.” Using these criteria, the researcher deemed 19 percent of Philadel- phia’s forcible rapes to be precipitated. Comparing precipitated rapes with nonprecipitated ones, it was found that alcohol consumption was more likely to have taken place and that the offender was more inclined to sexually humiliate his victim. Precipitating victims included higher percentages of females who were white, teenagers, and casual acquaintances of the males they first met at bars or parties (Amir, 1971).

The victim-blaming perspective contends that some young women precipitate rapes because of their lifestyles. They do not understand (or choose to ignore) the risks involved in certain situations, such as going to bars unescorted or accepting rides home with men they hardly know. They are unaware, naive, or gullible in their dealings with

males. They wear clothing or use language that men stereotype as signaling sexual availability. They ignore the dangers that might arise if they are suddenly confronted with a weapon or are overpowered while under the influence of alcohol or some other drug. For some teenage girls, their reckless behavior is considered a form of acting out. These adolescents—especially if they come from poverty-stricken homes and suffer parental rejection—are said to be seeking protection, atten- tion, love, intimacy, and status through precocious sexuality. As a result, they get involved with older male casual acquaintances and find themselves in situations in which they are forcibly exploited (see Amir, 1971; and Dean and de Bruyn-Kops, 1982).

Two sets of consequences follow from the acceptance of victim-blaming arguments. First, if the female shares some responsibility, then the male can be considered less culpable and less deserving of severe punishment. Second, girls and women must be educated to behave more cautiously and avoid any miscommunication about their real desires.

If the victim’s behavior can be criticized, then the “tragic misunderstanding” is not entirely the offender’s fault. The legal principle involved is that the female assumed the risk of attack when she vol- untarily participated in potentially dangerous events that led up to the rape, such as drinking heavily or agreeing to enter an isolated area away from poten- tial rescuers. Even though the male remains subject to arrest, her contributory behavior can provide grounds for granting him the benefit of the doubt. This line of reasoning can influence every stage of the criminal justice system’s handling of these cases.

Anticipation of harsh interrogation might dis- courage a victim from bringing her problem to the attention of the authorities. If, after thoroughly ques- tioning the complainant to determine her back- ground, reputation, actions, and possible motives, the police believe that she contributed to her own victimization, charges might not be pressed. If the police do make an arrest, the prosecutor might decide that the case is unwinnable and therefore might drop the charges. If the case is brought to trial, jurors may exercise their discretion in interpret- ing the facts and may find the assailant guilty of a


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lesser charge than forcible rape (sexual assault, for example). If the defendant is convicted, the judge may hand down a lenient sentence in view of the mitigating circumstances—her misleading seductive- ness might have been taken as a sign of implied consent (for additional references, see Schur, 1984; and Marciniak, 1999).

The other major consequence of accepting the victim-blaming point of view is that the burden of preventing rape is shifted away from aggressive males, the police, or the prevailing culture, and onto the potential targets. Girls and women are admon- ished that they might unwittingly be courting disaster and that it is their obligation to constantly review their lifestyles and do what they can to minimize their risks and maximize their safety. Because controlling the actions of offenders is so difficult, victim blaming seeks to reduce the incidence of rape by constraining the behavior of the potential targets. Females are warned to be careful whom they associate with, what they say in conversations, where they go, and how they dress. They are urged to communicate clearly, to signal their true intentions, and to avoid teasing or taunting males. They are held personally accountable for their own security and are pressured to follow crime prevention tips derived from the mis- takes made by other females. Just as the threat of pun- ishment is intended to make would-be rapists think twice before breaking the law, the public humiliation of victim blaming is meant to pressure females to think twice before stepping out of traditional, shel- tered, family-centered roles and activities.

Teenagers and young adults are especially likely to hold these traditional beliefs about the female’s responsi- bility for precipitated rapes. Surveys reveal that between one-quarter and one-half of all adolescents express agreement with some statements that pin blame on vic- tims because of their demeanor, clothing, or prior actions (see Marciniak, 1999). A sizable proportion of female college students also hold victims accountable for their “mistakes” (Cowan, 2000; Bondurant, 2001; and Carmody and Washington, 2001).

In many acquaintance rape cases, the male, the female, or both were drinking alcohol or taking drugs before the confrontation. Several studies have generated the finding that about half of all men

arrested for rape disclosed that they had been drink- ing before the crime, and about half of all women who were raped concede they had been drinking preceding the assault (Kilpatrick et al., 2007). (How- ever, these figures don’t indicate how much they drank or how intoxicated either person was [see Abbey et al., 2004].) Girls and women who volun- tarily get drunk and consequently become easy to subjugate often are singled out for particularly harsh condemnations. They are faulted for recklessly getting so high that they became unaware of devel- opments taking place around them, unable to think clearly enough to give meaningful consent or to vehemently object, and incapable of physically ward- ing off unwanted advances. Whereas males may use alcohol as a way to erode their “partner’s” will to resist, females are condemned for getting drunk enough to dissolve their inhibitions and provide themselves with a convenient excuse afterward (see Corbin, Bernat, and Calhoun, 2001; and Falck, Wang, and Carlson, 2001). The following highly publicized case touched off an acrimonious debate over whether the victim was partly responsible for her own “downfall” and how the justice system ought to handle alcohol-fueled “date rape” cases.

A high school student tells her parents she is going to sleep over at a girlfriend’s house, but after they drop her off she gets some Vodka and brings it to a party attended by about 50 beer and liquor drinking classmates, with no adults around. After that party breaks up, she vomits but insists to friends that she is intent on going to another get-together and drives off in the company of two football players, ages 16 and 17. After parents at that location close that party down, she throws up again, passes out, and is lifted and carried off by the two athletes. Six hours later, she wakes up naked in a basement in their presence, but she can’t find her shoes, underwear, or cell phone. “I was embarrassed and scared, and I did not know what to think because I could not remember any- thing,” she recalls. Over the next few days, she pieces together what had happened with the help of friends who showed her a video posted on YouTube and a picture of her lying naked. When her outraged par- ents file a complaint and hand over to the police a

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flashdrive full of videos, Facebook postings, Instagram pictures, and tweets they compiled as evidence, the events come out of the shadows and into the glare of spotlights. The case divides the small town, with devotees of the football team charging the girl, her supporters, and the national news media of blowing an episode of drunken teenage misbehavior all out of proportion. Others, especially outsiders and adults, are appalled at the evidence indicating that so many adolescents seem to accept a “rape culture” that con- dones or even extols forceful acts that degrade females. The two boys face very serious charges in juvenile court because the law in that state considers digital penetration to be a form of rape, but the teammates who were amused onlookers and photographed the attack do not get into legal trouble. During the widely publicized proceedings in front of a judge, two former friends testify that she has a reputation as a liar, and an expert witness contends that she drank enough to have a memory lapse, and perhaps that is why she can’t recall that she granted consent to the boys to engage in sex. Prosecution witnesses include a class- mate who saw the penetration take place in the back seat of the car, and another who witnessed penetration of the unconscious girl in the basement. Text mes- sages to her the next day from one of the defendants are entered into evidence, in which he pleaded with her not to tell the police and ruin his athletic career. Both boys are “adjudicated delinquent”—the equivalent of a guilty verdict in adult court. The judge sends one athlete to a year in juvenile detention; his teammate is found responsible for both rape and disseminating child pornography, gets two years, and is ordered to register as a sex offender for twenty years. (Oppel, 2013; and Levy, 2013)

An advertisement intended to raise awareness that a bout of heavy drinking could facilitate a sex- ual assault caused such a controversy about whether it encouraged victim blaming that it was removed:

A state liquor control board launches a campaign to educate the public about the link between excessive drinking and alcohol poisoning, drunken brawls, and car crashes. But one ad that sparks an outcry features an image of a woman’s legs on a bathroom floor with her underwear pulled down to her ankles, with the

caption, “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.” Critics argue that the ad suggests that victims are to blame. Supporters say that it will encourage frank conversations about how to prevent sexual assaults. The ad is dropped from the cam- paign. (Begos, 2011)

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