Dear Editors of TCS,
We would like to respond to the comment article by Phil Sheppard entitled "Stop taking offence - start taking care" (Page 14 - Lent Term Issue 8), in which the author discusses women's responsibility for their personal safety with regards to the crime of rape.
Mr Sheppard suggests that it is dangerous for feminist campaigns to "attribute one hundred per cent of the factual responsibility to [the criminal]" since this may give the impression that women should have no responsibility for their personal safety, thus putting them at risk. He argues that not all rapists are responsive to education directed at men and that we should also continue to educate women on how best to take reasonable steps to prevent such a crime.
We wonder if Mr Sheppard could provide advice as to what these reasonable steps would be? Rapists all rape in different circumstances. Some may rape a drunken acquaintance; others may rape a sober stranger; others may rape their wife or daughter. A woman may avoid getting drunk at a party, only to find that she is raped by her friendly housemate when she returns home. A woman may avoid walking alone after dark, only to find that she is raped by the taxi driver (or bus driver) who has driven her to her destination. A woman may avoid dressing in revealing clothing only to be raped while wearing a baggy tracksuit. This, incidentally, is the driving force behind the SlutWalks that are disparagingly mentioned in the article: they serve to illustrate that a) clothing is factually not a causal factor in rape (women are routinely raped wearing burkas in the Middle East, for example) and b) it should therefore not be used as an excuse for the rape.
The varied circumstances of rape show that it is extremely difficult for a woman to change her own behaviour in a way that reduces her risk. Women of all ages, of all races, in all types of clothing and in all places are raped while awake, while asleep and in all other states of consciousness. The one common factor? They all came into contact with a rapist. So until all rapists go around with "I am a rapist" written on their foreheads, there is really no practical way to avoid them. Even then, the power differential in abusive relationships is such that when a woman knows for certain that someone is a rapist, it is still not guaranteed that she can avoid rape.
The issue is not whether women should have any responsibility for their personal safety - the issue is that the advice we are given doesn't work. We are told to consider how we dress; what, when, where, how much and if we drink alcohol; when we go outside alone; where we go outside alone - and yet we aren't any less likely to be raped. According to the British Crime Survey, of those who said they had been raped, most said that the attack had been carried out in their own home by someone they knew. Almost half involved a husband or boyfriend and one in ten was an acquaintance rape. Strangers were responsible for only eight percent of rapes. Should women avoid home and their close male relatives? It could be effective, but it would also undoubtedly be unreasonable.
By suggesting that rape victims are morally innocent but hold some factual responsibility for their rape, the author creates several problems. Firstly, women who are raped already overwhelmingly blame themselves. This is true even of children who are raped. It is a huge factor in their refusal to report the rape (again, this is particularly true for children). By introducing the concept of factual responsibility, this self - blame and refusal to report can only be amplified. Secondly, although the author is careful to distinguish between moral blame and factual cause, it is likely that the general public (from which juries are drawn and police officers hired) will not be so discerning. Currently, a third of people believe women are partially responsible for their rape if they have been flirting; 26% believe a woman is partially responsible if she has been wearing revealing clothing; 30% believe she is partially responsible if she has been drinking. By legitimising these incorrect beliefs through the concept of 'factual responsibility', the already misinformed attitudes of juries and police officers (yes, police officers) can only become worse and reduce the likelihood of a correct conviction. So what positive purpose can it serve? Not only is the article's suggestion incapable of reducing the risk of rape, it actively harms the pursuit of justice.
Although the author makes a seemingly reasonable comparison to burglary he misses the differences between burglary and rape: if you leave your house unlocked with valuables showing and it is burgled, nobody doubts that the burglary happened. Nobody questions whether you agreed to give your valuables away and are merely regretting it afterwards. Previous gifts to others are not brought up in court and held against you. The police accept that a crime was committed against you and make efforts to catch the perpetrator. When the criminal is caught, the fact that your house was unlocked is not used by their defence team as evidence of a misunderstanding. They do not claim that the unlocked house was mistaken for an invitation to enter and take your stuff. It is accepted that the criminal chose to burgle it, they had the choice not to burgle it, and the theft is therefore 100% their fault. When the burglary is reported in the news, nobody distracts from the issue by complaining about the epidemic of false burglary claims or highlighting the plight of those falsely accused of burglary (although perhaps they should, since the rate of false burglary claims (10%) is higher than the estimated rate of false rape claims (8%)). And there is actually evidence to suggest that locking your house and hiding your valuables will deter burglars: rape statistics show no such useful correlations between women's behaviour and risk of rape. A better analogy would be that people should reduce the risk of burglary by painting their front door pink, since most burglars are men and men don't like the colour pink, so they'll avoid your house. This is a much more appropriate mix of unhelpful advice tinged with sexism.
Lastly we would like to clarify whether the author has any specific advice for men with regards to rape. Men are raped too, although this is conveniently forgotten when discussing the myriad ways in which a woman's behaviour can increase or decrease the risk of rape. Should men avoid revealing clothing, drink and flirting? Should men stop walking anywhere alone? Should men avoid other men? No, we didn't think so. Educating potential victims makes little difference unless the advice is actually demonstrably helpful.
Rapists choose victims whom they consider to be vulnerable. That is how rape and sexual violence happens: the perpetrators choose to do it. This idea is explored by Professor David Lisak in his work "Understanding the predatory nature of sexual violence". He notes that many rapists are fully aware of what they are doing and indeed are actively choosing to rape. Furthermore, they develop sophisticated tactics to identify likely victims, groom them and isolate them. Here we agree with the author in that the education of rapists is unlikely to be entirely effective. Lisak, however, advocates a third option: "Rather than focusing prevention efforts on the rapists, it would seem far more effective to focus those efforts on the far more numerous bystanders - men and women who are part of the social and cultural milieu in which rapes are spawned."
This means educating everybody about the true factual causes of rape - rapists and how they operate. Rather than encouraging a drunk woman to be driven home by an acquaintance for her safety, people should recognise that the acquaintance who is stubbornly insistent despite her strong objections may have a different aim in mind. Change the culture in which 'ironic' sexism, 'ironic' objectification and 'ironic' jokes about rape are acceptable, since this creates an atmosphere within which rapists feel validated, supported and secure in their actions. Teach young men and women that sex obtained by coercion, by pressure or through the use of excessive alcohol to the point of unconsciousness is not consensual sex. Be risk aware, but be aware of where the true risk lies.
To instead publish an inane, fact free article suggesting instead that it is easy, or reasonable, for women to reduce their risk of rape through changes that in reality make them no safer especially on International Women's Day makes a mockery of all survivors of rape and sexual violence and we do take offence to that.
Charlotte Jeffreys (Women's Officer, Christ's College)
Lorna Ayton (MCR Welfare Officer, Churchill College)
Morwenna Kirke (Women's Officer, Clare College)
Priyanka Joshi (Welfare Officer, Clare Hall College)
Jonathan Faasse (MCR Male Welfare Officer, Corpus Christi College)
Ruth Graham (CUSU Women's Officer)
Hannah Scally (Student's Association President, Darwin College)
Aly Monaghan (Women's Welfare and Equal Opportunities Officer, Downing College)
Matt Carter (Men's Welfare and Equal Opportunities Officer, Downing College)
Shenyue Ding (JCR Women's Officer, Emmanuel College)
Eva-Maria Weick (MCR Women's Officer, Emmanuel College)
Mariel Richards (Women's Officer, Fitzwilliam College)
Jessica Morley (Women's Officer, Girton College)
Luba Pirgova (MCR Welfare Officer, Girton College)
Andrew Brooke (MCR Welfare Officer, Girton College)
Harriet Sykes (JCR Women's Officer, Gonville & Caius College)
Madeline Mitchell (MCR Women's Officer, Gonville & Caius College)
Catherine Trinder (Female Welfare Officer, Homerton College)
Amie Ladley (MCR Female Welfare Officer, Homerton College)
Olivia Bennett (MCR Women's Welfare Officer, Hughes Hall)
Lucy Fielding (MCR Women's Officer, Jesus College)
Susy Langsdale (King's College Female Welfare Officer)
Laura Wetherly (Women's Officer, King's College)
Harriet Dickinson (MCR Welfare Officer, Magdalene College)
Freya Evison (Women's Officer, Murray Edwards College)
Jessica Sandelson (Women's Officer, Newnham College)
Katie Camarda (MCR Women's Officer, Newnham College)
Anika Seemann (MCR Women's Officer, Newnham College)
Laila Ezz (JCR Women's Officer, Pembroke College)
Anna Robinson (JPC Welfare Officer, Pembroke College)
Beth Singler (GPC Women's Officer, Pembroke College)
Hannah Fox (Peterhouse JCR Women's Officer)
Or Rosenboim (MCR Welfare Officer, Queens' College)
Anna Thompson (Queens' JCR Women's Officer)
Daisy Pope (Women's Officer, Robinson College)
Sarah Johnson (MCR Women's Welfare Officer, Robinson College)
Jill Christy (St Catharine's College Female Welfare Officer)
Florence Cahill (Women's Officer, St John's College)
Sarah Pearce (MCR Female Welfare Officer, Selwyn College)
Claire Davis (MCR Female Welfare Officer, Selwyn College)
Laura Deslandes (Women's Officer, Sidney Sussex College)
Kenton Whitehall (Male Social Welfare Officer, Sidney Sussex College)
Kim Wagenaar (MCR Women's Officer, Sidney Sussex College)
Anais Lasvigne (MCR Women's Officer, Trinity Hall)
Annalijn Conklin (MCR Women's Officer, Trinity Hall)
Tabu Shamu (Female Welfare Officer, Wolfson College)
Abhishek Bhattacharyya (Male Welfare Officer, Wolfson College)
Susan Taylor, Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre