I once posed this hypothetical to a tenth grade class: A young woman we’ll call Alice left a bar late at night after consuming a large quantity of alcohol to walk the half mile back to her apartment. It had been a rather raucous evening of cavorting, flirting with multiple young men and with conversations laced with deliberate sexual innuendo. She had purposely worn scant clothing and makeup designed to enhance her physical attributes, a not particularly unusual occurrence for her. Though she was known for having an active sex life, she left alone. One particular man had taken her sexual banter seriously and he was not happy when she shut down his forward advances. On the lonely walk home, she was attacked and raped by the man from the party and suffered life threatening injuries. My question to the class: What percent of responsibility does Alice have to accept for being assaulted?
The responses to this hypothetical were interesting. Nearly every student stated that this young woman shared at least some responsibility for being attacked. About a third said that she was equally to blame with a few saying it was mostly her fault because ‘she asked for it’ or ‘she led him on.’ More thoughtful students said her friends at the bar were partly to blame because they knew how drunk she was and someone should have given her a ride home. Others blamed the bartender for the same reason. Some said she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the assault was more like a coincidence of events. A couple students said that the woman was blameless.
Most of the tenth grade students’ reactions centered on the common error in reasoning known in logic as Blame the Victim. When this case came to trial, the counsel for the man’s defense would almost certainly bring up the circumstances leading up to the attack, the reputation of the victim and her provocative speech and clothing, and probably that his client was drunk as well. Witnesses would be presented that would say that the man had always been a ‘good boy’ and his actions were totally out of character. All of that would be to create the impression of a ‘loose’ woman who had deliberately enticed a nice young man.
Unfortunately, historically this defense has been successful in courts of law. Women must not only have the courage to report their attacker and then testify against him but to also endure the kind of character shredding that often takes place in court and in public gossip. A woman who is raped often finds herself as much under suspicion and certainly scrutiny as the man who assaulted her, a situation that is uncommon in any other criminal proceeding.
Must Alice share some responsibility for being assaulted? No. None. Deliberate assault has nothing to do with a victim’s personality or clothing. It is an act of unwarranted aggression against another human being. And the ‘being in the wrong place’ argument doesn’t hold water either. By that standard every bad thing that happens to a person could be explained by the same metric. (I wouldn’t have been in that accident if only I’d stayed home a bit longer.)
Any argument that includes ‘if only’ is irrelevant. In the case of Alice, one might say ‘if only she hadn’t gotten so drunk’ or ‘if only she hadn’t flirted so much’ or ‘if only she had worn more modest clothing’ or ‘if only she had gotten a ride home’ or worse ‘if only she had a gun!’ All of these are irrelevant because that is not how the past played out. So the incident should be stripped of all extraneous information and hypotheticals and consideration of it restricted to the actual event: A woman was walking home late at night and was assaulted leaving her with multiple injuries. Her appearance, status, or physical condition should have no more bearing than if she had been any other human being. Alice was the victim and deserves justice as well as restitution for her injuries and mental anguish.
We could probably leave this column at this juncture but a final point could be made. We do not live in a perfect world and the justice system is often imperfect. Money, power, race, social standing, and misguided ‘sympathy of the court’ or a bias of the judge sometimes unfairly skews what ideally should be equal justice for all. The victim of assault is never at fault but that doesn’t mean that our own diligence should be abandoned. Merely being right or innocent or minding our own business or having the right to do something doesn’t insulate us from danger. We can avoid certain actions that might lead to unsafe conditions or in the case of alcohol consumption, take the designated driver initiative seriously, and be there for friends who may not be fully capable of making reasonable choices and who might choose a course that may place them in the path of potential harm. In the real world unstable criminal personalities exist and for one’s own personal safety, it is prudent to minimize our exposure to them.