Saturday, December 12, 2009

Victim-Blaming?

A friend directed me to this post criticizing advice columnist Amy Dickinson for apparently 'chastising' a woman who who wrote in describing an alleged rape.

The post is entitled "Idiot Advice Columnist Calls Raped Girl 'Victim of Her Own Judgment'":

We guess they'll let anybody write advice columns these days. Take, for instance, Amy Dickinson, who recently chastised a rape victim in her syndicated Tribune Media column "Ask Amy," calling the young woman a "victim of her own judgment."

. . .

While Dickinson goes on to admit that a crime was committed, her first impulse is to blame the victim. Which we find, frankly, despicable.

. . .

Also reprehensible? Characterizing all frat guys as potential rapists. Fraternities are social organizations with group housing, and their members are just as morally diverse as any pool of human beings.


This is what Dickinson actually said:

Were you a victim? Yes.

First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment. Getting drunk at a frat house is a hazardous choice for anyone to make because of the risk (some might say a likelihood) that you will engage in unwise or unwanted sexual contact.

You don't say whether the guy was also drunk. If so, his judgment was also impaired.

No matter what -- no means no. If you say no beforehand, then the sex shouldn't happen. If you say no while its happening, then the sex should stop.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Web site (rainn.org):"Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse -- or an alibi. The key question is still: Did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape. However, because each state has different definitions of "nonconsensual," please contact your local center or local police if you have questions about this. (If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.)"

Go to your college's health department to be tested for STDs and pregnancy. See a counselor to determine how you want to approach this. You must involve the guy in question in order to determine what happened and because he absolutely must take responsibility and face the consequences for his actions, just as you are prepared to do. He may have done this before.

In her letter, the alleged victim initially states that she "made some mistakes." And, based on her story, she's right. Despite what Dickinson's critics say, it is risky for a girl to get drunk at a fraternity party and go off with a fellow she doesn't know very well. This decision reflects poor judgment.

Simply acknowledging this obvious point is not equivalent to "blaming" the victim for being raped. The girl in this account is partly a victim of her own bad judgment -- and she is also a victim of events totally beyond her control, for which she bears no responsibility. Both of these things are true, and neither of them implies that the she deserved to be raped.

One of major problems that I have with what Katie Roiphe deemed "rape crisis feminism" is that even the most sensible advice -- like cautioning young girls against becoming intoxicated and returning home with strange men -- is often misconstrued as victim-blaming. The unavoidable impression is that good judgment simply doesn't matter, and risky decisions can be wholly divorced from their negative outcomes.

Rape is never the victim's fault, but that doesn't mean that the victim's prior decisions are always value-neutral.

Update: Amy Dickinson qualifies her statement:

Unfortunately, I started my answer by expressing frustration at her judgment to get drunk at a frat house, calling it "awful." This is the part of my answer that has enraged readers, who have accused me of "blaming the victim."As a mother (and stepmother) to five daughters -- four in college -- I have counseled (and worry about) all of my many daughters because of how vulnerable they are if they choose to drink.

Drinking to intoxication poses very serious security issues for our daughters and sons, because being drunk impairs judgment and the ability to discern risk.

Because "Victim" wondered where the line was, I tried to draw it for her. My intent was to urge her (as I often urge readers) to take responsibility for the only thing she could control -- her own choices and actions -- but I regret how harshly I expressed this.

I certainly didn't intend to offend or blame her for what happened, and I hope she will do everything possible to stay safe in the future. I'm grateful that she chose to share her question with all of us, because talking about it will help others.

11 comments:

petpluto said...

One of major problems that I have with what Katie Roiphe deemed "rape crisis feminism" is that even the most sensible advice -- like cautioning young girls against becoming intoxicated and returning home with strange men -- is often misconstrued as victim-blaming.

Calling her the victim of her own bad judgement first and foremost, before offering any other judgement, is, actually, pretty callous and could be victim blaming. What truly sets it up over the edge is the part about questioning if the guy was also drunk and how she had to involve her attacker in the process to mull out what happened.

And, yes, telling girls "this is just the way of the world, and you have to be careful or else you are partially to blame for your situation" is victim-blaming. Actions may not be value-neutral, but going off with a strange guy doesn't automatically equal "rape". Drinking at a party does not automatically equal potential victims. There is so much uproar about the "all men are rapists" portion of feminism, and some of it is warranted. But not when the response is to go around and tell women to act as if all men are rapists, and to couch their actions because there is a possibility if they drink, if they chat up that guy, if they go into that room, they will be raped. And then the first line of advice will be how they were victims of their own bad judgement.

Secondly, there is a cultural thing going one here separate from whether or not a victim's prior actions are "judgement neutral", and that is the historical blaming of the victim because "she shouldn't have been there, shouldn't have been wearing that, shouldn't have been talking to him". To separate that still present cultural thought from advice given to women is, I think, irresponsible and not seeing the big picture.

Thirdly, after being raped, it does become all about the victim. The only thing that separated this girl from being a victim from the girl drunk and talking to a guy in the next room is that this girl was in the presence of a rapist.

College students make a lot of bad choices. I cornered the market on some of them. But among the bad choices I have made, I don't count the times I got drunk around people I hardly knew. If I had gotten attacked at a college party, while drunk and chatting someone up, the attack would not be the result of my "bad judgement", because what you deem as "bad judgement" is just living out in the world. It isn't comparable to walking down a street in a bad neighborhood all bejeweled up with 50s hanging out of your pocket - because women AREN'T ornaments or objects, and it isn't our job to make sure men aren't assholes who will attack us.

mikhailbakunin said...

Calling her the victim of her own bad judgment first and foremost, before offering any other judgment, is, actually, pretty callous and could be victim blaming. What truly sets it up over the edge is the part about questioning if the guy was also drunk and how she had to involve her attacker in the process to mull out what happened.

You’re right -- it is a bit callous. That’s a fair criticism. But Dickinson is an advice columnist, which means that she’s speaking to a much broader audience. I think she would be remiss if she didn’t at least acknowledge that good judgment matters.

If I was an advice columnist and a reader wrote in telling me that he had been assaulted while wandering through a dangerous neighborhood late at night, I would be doing a disservice to all my readers if I didn’t first point out that this behavior is risky. That doesn’t mean that I’d be blaming him for the assault, or condoning violence.

Dickinson simply asked whether the alleged assailant was impaired. She then linked to an article which explicitly stated that this was no excuse for rape. I think the reason Dickinson asked is because different states have different standards regarding consent, and whether the alleged perpetrator was intoxicated could be legally relevant. If you want to pursue charges, I think you have to involve your alleged attacker in the process. This doesn’t mean that the alleged victim must interact with him. But, certainly, he deserves a chance to tell his side of the story.

I obviously don't think that all men are potential rapists. But I think it’s undeniable that the vast majority of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol specifically, and often take place on college campuses.

As you know, I actually think that the level of risk is vastly overblown, but everyone -- men as well as women -- should be aware that getting heavily intoxicated and going off alone with someone you barely know is a risky decision.

petpluto said...

If I was an advice columnist and a reader wrote in telling me that he had been assaulted while wandering through a dangerous neighborhood late at night, I would be doing a disservice to all my readers if I didn’t first point out that this behavior is risky.

Rape is unlike every other crime in one specific way - we typically want to interact with members of the opposite sex. Or, of the same sex. We are social creatures, and there is a rather large difference between "wandering through a dangerous neighborhood late at night" and interacting with men unknown at present to the woman. Otherwise, you are suggesting that men are the equivalent to a bad neighborhood. Since you don't believe all men are rapists, that is obviously untrue.

If you want to pursue charges, I think you have to involve your alleged attacker in the process. This doesn’t mean that the alleged victim must interact with him. But, certainly, he deserves a chance to tell his side of the story.

But that is not exactly what Amy said. She said "you must", not "he will be involved in the process", placing the onus on the victim to involve her attacker. As an advice columnist, whose business is words and advice, I expect her to be a bit more precise.

But I think it’s undeniable that the vast majority of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol specifically, and often take place on college campuses.

And yet, most of the onus is placed on women to limit themselves.

Call for men to be the ones to sequester themselves; call for men to not go into a room with a woman strange to them, lest they rape. Call for men to understand the danger of being at a party with women, and how the night may end up with them as rapists. You wouldn't, and I wouldn't, because that is patently ridiculous. And yet, we expect women to do these things and to live in fear because they are at risk of attack. We rarely ask anything of those likely to do the attacking. And that? Is a symptom of privilege.

mikhailbakunin said...

Rape is unlike every other crime in one specific way - we typically want to interact with members of the opposite sex. Or, of the same sex. We are social creatures, and there is a rather large difference between "wandering through a dangerous neighborhood late at night" and interacting with men unknown at present to the woman. Otherwise, you are suggesting that men are the equivalent to a bad neighborhood. Since you don't believe all men are rapists, that is obviously untrue.

I think that it's risky for anyone to get intoxicated and head off alone with a person they don't know very well -- whether that person is male or female.

Call for men to be the ones to sequester themselves; call for men to not go into a room with a woman strange to them, lest they rape. Call for men to understand the danger of being at a party with women, and how the night may end up with them as rapists. You wouldn't, and I wouldn't, because that is patently ridiculous.

This isn't equivalent at all, but I would caution men to avoid getting drunk and heading off alone with women they hardly know. I think this displays poor judgment. In addition, if a man had been in this situation and claimed that he was taken advantage of sexually, I would hold him to the same standard.

I don't want women to live in fear -- quite the opposite. This is the reason why overblown rape statistics trouble me. I think women should be taught that they have sexual agency, and I think that rape crisis feminism totally undermines this goal.

petpluto said...

This is the reason why overblown rape statistics trouble me. I think women should be taught that they have sexual agency, and I think that rape crisis feminism totally undermines this goal.

I think men should be taught that women have sexual agency, I think that even the most conservative rape statistics are frightening, and I think that telling women they exhibit poor judgement by living their lives undermines the goal of getting to the point of equality.

What I don't think is that going off with someone you don't know well or have only just met, even while intoxicated, is poor judgement. I don't think hooking up with someone while tipsy is a bad idea. I don't think equating "poor judgement" with getting raped helps women, and I don't think actions are able to be quantified in terms of value because the value we place on actions are so often tied to outcome. If you (general 'you', not you-you) meet your future spouse at a party while intoxicated, if that is the story you tell your friends and family (not so much the "we were totes wasted!" part but the "we met at a large gathering and wanted to get better acquainted" part), no one I know would look at them and go, "Wow, really poor judgement there. You shouldn't have done that".

That is my problem with Amy's response and with your response. It doesn't take into account that people will get drunk, and people will socialize while drunk, and the poor judgement comes by way of the attacker not the attackee.

mikhailbakunin said...

What I don't think is that going off with someone you don't know well or have only just met, even while intoxicated, is poor judgement. I don't think hooking up with someone while tipsy is a bad idea. I don't think equating "poor judgement" with getting raped helps women, and I don't think actions are able to be quantified in terms of value because the value we place on actions are so often tied to outcome.

Then you and I simply disagree. I think this is undeniably risky behavior, regardless of your gender and regardless of the outcome.

petpluto said...

I think this is undeniably risky behavior, regardless of your gender and regardless of the outcome.

But is that how you react? Again, I'm serious about alternate scenarios. If this girl had written in 50 years to describe her first date with the guy she'd been with for the last 50 years, I want to know that your response would be "Yup, lucky she wasn't raped. That was extremely poor judgement".

Jeremy said...

But is that how you react? Again, I'm serious about alternate scenarios. If this girl had written in 50 years to describe her first date with the guy she'd been with for the last 50 years, I want to know that your response would be "Yup, lucky she wasn't raped. That was extremely poor judgement".

I would say that this was undeniably risky behavior, regardless of the outcome. A base jumper is making a risky decision, even if that decision turns out to be rewarding.

It's not just rape I'm woried about. I'm worried about people -- men and women -- getting taken advantage of in all sorts of ways if they go off with strangers when they're drunk. I think women and men have agency, and they should take responsibility for the aspects of their lives that they can control, like their environment and their level of intoxiation. (Obviously, sometimes people cannot control these thing, but they often can.)

I'm not interested in harshly judging people -- which is why I agree that Dickinson's statement was overly harsh and pershaps a bit insensitve. But I agree with her fundamental point. I want people to acknowledge the link between risky behavior and negative outcomes.

petpluto said...

I want people to acknowledge the link between risky behavior and negative outcomes.

And yet, you believe in free markets...

Seriously, though. My problem with your approach is twofold:
1) The victim wasn't asking if she had made some mistakes or poor judgement. She was asking if she had been raped. The first answer to that question - the only answer to that question - is "yes".

You can talk all day about the dangers of walking down alley ways at night and getting attacked or mugged, but the truth of the situation is that no one comes out of a mugging going, "Was I mugged if I didn't fight back hard enough?" Meanwhile, rape victims have been, for centuries, blamed for their own attacks. You say that the victims prior actions aren't value-neutral? I say telling a victim she was the victim of her own poor judgement isn't value-neutral, that it is directly related to how we see women.

2) At the point after an attack, the issue is not what the victim did or did not do. Focusing on the victim doesn't really help the situation. What it does is take the attention off of the fact that a crime has been committed.

People have agency, yes. People make poor judgement calls. But I don't see how you're doing anything to acknowledge agency by making it about the victim in these types of situations. What is so wrong about leaving it at, "You were raped. It wasn't your fault"? Why does there have to be a "but" there that does little except offer yet another way for the victim to feel as if s/he'd done something to deserve it - no matter how many hollow "No one deserves to be raped"s you throw in after? If you want to make women recognize they have agency - and I have to say, feminism, even the type you criticize as "rape crisis feminism", is about agency and choice - then there have to be less nebulous situations to enforce the "you have agency!" card.

Ms. Judice said...

http://jezebel.com/5426520/every-f-ing-day-of-my-life-one-day-of-violence-is-one-day-too-many

Not related to rape, but to domestic violence. Just wondering how you would perceive the situation? Did she commit a crime? Should she have received jail time?

mikhailbakunin said...

People have agency, yes. People make poor judgment calls. But I don't see how you're doing anything to acknowledge agency by making it about the victim in these types of situations. What is so wrong about leaving it at, "You were raped. It wasn't your fault"?

I thought that I’d already addressed this question. As I said, I think that the position that you’ve staked out – that prior judgments should not be considered in the context of a discussion about rape victimization – creates the “unavoidable impression is that good judgment simply doesn't matter, and risky decisions can be wholly divorced from their negative outcomes.” In my view, this is a dangerous thing to teach young people. I think a more nuanced approach is warranted, teaching personal responsibility without encouraging victim-blaming.

I also think that in the context of an advice column – which is really directed at a much wider audience – it’s appropriate to acknowledge that prior judgment matters, though I agree with you that Dickinson’s phrasing was, at best, insensitive.

It’s important to point out that I’m not trying to cast stones. I’m not interested in blaming people for engaging in risky behavior, and I’m certainly not perfect. But it’s important to encourage people to think before they act, and consider the risks inherent in their decisions. Again, I feel that you can do this without fear-mongering or harshly judging – or holding victims responsible for rape.

Not related to rape, but to domestic violence. Just wondering how you would perceive the situation? Did she commit a crime? Should she have received jail time?

I’d really have to see the details of the case to make an appropriate judgment. I assume Wendy Maldonado’s lawyer(s) tried to argue that it was justifiable homicide -- and judging by the story and the clips, it certainly seems that way -- but why was she convicted?

The documentary seems to be a form of advocacy on Maldonado’s behalf. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I'd like to see a more neutral account.

Still, my strong impulse is always to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. If even some of the more heinous details in this account are accurate, it would be hard to argue against acquittal.