A number of years ago, I defended a young man who was charged with gang rape. That case ultimately ended in a plea bargain and each lawyer delivered a plea in mitigation on behalf of his client. One of the lawyers for another accused person submitted that the victim had not been entirely blameless in that her conduct had led her assailants to believe that she might be amenable to the acts that followed.
These remarks were published in the media and soon attracted a rather heated response from AWARE (Association of Women for Action for Women and Research). AWARE is a Singapore- based gender equality advocacy group with emphasis on a feminist agenda.
In particular, Ms R Rheaume’s article, written shortly after the verdict in the above case, suggests that such comments are made in almost every case of rape and that such “victim-blaming” suggests that the victim is partly at fault. Needless to say, Ms Rheaume takes issue with any such suggestion.
“Victim-blaming” tends to be more strongly associated with sexual assault than, say, muggings or even murder. A key objection to “victim-blaming” in the context of sexual assult, at least according to Ms Rheaume, is that it suggests that society somehow expects women to do their part to “protect their virtue because men who cannot be expected to control their natural urges.”
I suggest that, in certain circumstances, the conduct of the victim simply cannot be ignored. This is regardless of whether the crime in question is rape, robbery or online identity- theft. A person cannot walk into a dark alley brandishing hundred-dollar bills and say he is shocked to have been mugged, or ride a bicycle with no lights along a dark road and be surprised when he is hit by a car.
Let me be clear. No person ‘deserves’ to be raped. No more and no less than anyone ‘deserves’ to be murdered, robbed or run over in the middle of the road. But any objections to critically assessing the role of the victim are predicated on one thing- that blame is a zero-sum game. We assume that, if a victim is blamed, that somehow lessens the culpability of the perpetrator. Why should that be so? Surely it is possible to critically and dispassionately acknowledge errors in judgment on the part of a victim without in any way justifying or excusing the acts of a predator.
“..any objections to critically assessing the role of the victim are predicated on one thing- that blame is a zero-sum game.”
It seems to me that, in the rush to avoid any suggestion whatsoever that a victim caused the rape or was somehow “asking for it”, we run the risk of failing altogether to critically assess the conduct of the victim and whether that victim’s conduct significantly increased the risk of an incident occurring. In this respect, blame and responsibility are very different creatures. While I agree wholeheartedly with Ms Rheaume’s suggestion that no woman should take blame for causing a rape, the issue of whether she was responsible is another thing altogether. Everybody is, to a large extent, responsible for his or her own safety, whether from assault, fraud or lightning strikes. To suggest otherwise is, in my view, incomprehensible.
Why then, does the conduct of a rape victim come under particular scrutiny? Certainly not, as Ms Rheaume suggests, because society expects women to take it upon themselves to shield themselves from the insatiable sexual appetites of men. Rather, rape belongs to a small category of crimes in which there is often close proximity between the victim and perpetrator prior to the commission of the crime. Around 2/3 of all rapists were known to their victims. It is in this context of proximity that the conduct of both parties is often examined to discern whether consent- the absence of which is a key element in a rape charge, was present. Conduct is therefore relevant, not for the purposes of apportioning blame, but in pursuit of the truth.
I pause here to reiterate that no person ‘brings upon’ themselves any form of assault. However, I would simply point out that, the law recognizes that in certain cases, the conduct of the victim can be a factor in determining the culpability of the perpetrator. A murder charge may be reduced to culpable homicide if there was “grave and sudden” provocation emanating from the victim.
There is a very real risk when we shy away completely from any discussion which touches on the conduct of a victim of rape. It suggests that rape is something over which a victim has no control. That it simply ‘happens’, much like being struck by a meteor while crossing an open field. The reality is somewhat different. Discussions on rape must include an emphasis on good judgment and risk mitigation, while maintaining society’s abhorrence and zero- tolerance for sexual assault.