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Check Your Dogma: The problem with ‘never blame the victim’

Simply because you ended up being the victim of the situation does not absolve you of all responsibility. Actions have consequences.

As colleges grapple with how to best combat problems of campus sexual assault, they have toggled through a series of philosophies and policies that they hope will diminish such criminal activity. One persistent maxim has remained a tenet of campus orthodoxy, though: “Never blame the victim.”

“Never blame the victim” is not a controversial position on college campuses, nor should it be. My own school had a mandatory sexual assault prevention program that emphasizes the point multiple times: when talking about sexual assault, never blame the victim; when dealing with immediate aftermath of an assault, never blame the victim; in legal proceedings, never blame the victim. Never even ask victims about their own behavior, ever. No one “deserves” to be assaulted, so never imply that a victim has contributed to her own victimhood.

I say that such a dogma shouldn’t be controversial simply because no one truly disagrees. To think that anything short of complete absolution of responsibility amounts to victim blaming is a false choice. No one wishes to blame the victim of a crime for what ultimately happened to him or her.

But there are pragmatic reasons to question behaviors that tend to end poorly.

Conservatives and Leftists alike can and do agree that rape is an abhorrent crime. Even one campus rape is too many, and we should do what it takes to minimize and ultimately eliminate its perpetration, just as we would like to do with murder, armed robbery and other violent crimes. That means being pragmatic about approaching solutions, not searching for what will make us feel good about ourselves and possibly solve the problem, but what will, simply, work best. That means all parties taking concrete steps to make sure rape does not happen.

The solution du jour is to teach men not to rape. That’s great and is part of a solution, but we teach men not to murder, not to steal, not to do all kinds of immoral things–yet some still do. So we take steps to protect ourselves, locking doors and setting alarms, learning self-defense and maybe even carrying a gun. Though it’s a crude comparison (and before you start calling me all kinds of nasty names, this is a logical comparison, not an equivalency) acting irresponsibly by getting drunk to the point of being unable to consent and subsequently surrounding yourself with hormonally raging young men is somewhat akin to leaving your car unlocked in a bad neighborhood. No one would blame you for having your car stolen. No one deserves to have property taken unduly. We will still try to catch and prosecute the perpetrator. But man, were you stupid for leaving your car unlocked in a bad neighborhood! It was irresponsible, and simply because you ended up being the victim of the situation does not absolve you of all responsibility. Actions have consequences, and if you truly wish to minimize particular consequences, it would be wise to minimize the actions that tend to have those consequences.

The problem with “never blame the victim” is that it is misleading, and it doesn’t allow us to put our best foot forward in combating sexual assault. It is misleading in that the real question is not about blame, but responsibility. Young adults need to know that putting themselves in compromising situations and expecting nothing bad to occur is naïve at best. Perhaps some time in the future, when rape is a relic of a bygone era, we may be so confident that there is no risk of something terrible occurring in alcohol-fueled hookups (which account for 90% of acquaintance rapes).

For now, we need to take steps that will protect young people from being victims of horrid crimes. That quite plainly means asking and encouraging both men and women to act responsibly, and no longer condoning the alcohol-soaked hookup culture that encourages irresponsibility and puts college students in compromising positions.

It ought to be emphasized that this does not place the onus on young women alone. On the contrary, responsibility belongs to everyone to change the culture of campus hookups, entailing, primarily, responsible drinking. Young men being intoxicated beyond the point of knowing if they’ve received consent is dangerous and irresponsible, without question.

Campus rape is a problem that demands solutions, even ones that seem retrograde, and a focus on avoiding discussions of personal responsibility at all costs distracts from a potential solution.

It’s not victim-blaming or rape apologetics. It’s common f***ing sense.

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About the Author
Tal Fortgang -- Princeton University

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