Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim-blaming

Originally published in the Daily Maverick


On the afternoon of this column’s publication, I engaged in brief debate with Michelle Solomon, a local anti-rape activist, on radio. You can listen to that here if you like.

Even since Anene Booysen’s rape and, later, death last weekend, much of South African society has been engaged in a sustained period of reflection regarding the staggeringly high incidence of sexual violence in our country. Alongside the reflection, there has also been much furious Tweeting and Facebooking, as the slacktivists all rise up to say “something must be done” – without ever telling us what it is that we might do.

Rapists aren’t going to read a Tweet and realise the error of their ways. So, for all the solidarity that these public shows of support provide, we need to do more. I don’t know what that could be, except for the obvious things everyone knows about – better resourced police and rape-crisis centres, for example.

It’s not that public debates can serve no purpose – Lindiwe Mazibuko’s suggestion to debate this in Parliament, for example, could actually be useful. The more often that patriarchs like Patekile Holomisa and Jacob Zuma get to hear that women aren’t chattel, the better. Because that is the root of the problem, is it not – that women aren’t treated with respect, but rather as objects for male exploitation of various forms?

How do you fix that, even as you try to improve policing and offer increased support to victims of crimes such as these (and certainly, those involving male rape also)? Some of us can certainly set a better example, whether in the copywriting contained in our advertisements, or in the lessons we teach to our children. But in a community riddled with drugs and gang violence like Bredasdorp apparently is, perhaps the best that many children could hope for – at least in the short-term – is to somehow escape their hometown, and their families.

In the longer-term, though, I’d like to offer a more modest proposal relating to our arguments and our language around rape. Simply put, I’d ask that we guard against sacrificing common sense on the altar of politically-correct principle, because if we’re not having a full (and fully-informed) discussion about the causes of rape, we’re handicapping the search for solutions to rape. One area in which discussion is becoming impossible is risk-mitigation with regard to rape, where every mention of it earns you little more than a reprimand for “victim blaming”.

The vast majority of rapes have nothing at all to do with the situation and conduct of the victim, meaning that victim blaming would not only be offensive, but also factually confused. But, if even 5% of rapes do have something to do with those factors – and are thus potentially avoidable through some form of risk-mitigation strategy – we have to be allowed to talk about those strategies. Currently, we can’t, because any suggestion that potential future victims should consider risks (and thus perhaps not experienced the crime in question) is shut down with a refrain of “victim blaming”.

Note the first confusion alluded to above – we can distinguish between existing victims and potential future victims. If you were to quiz an existing victim of a theft on whether he was counting his bankroll in public, he’d probably feel justified in asking  why you were paying attention to his behaviour, rather than that of the perpetrator. But if you offer tourists the pre-emptive advice to not count their bankrolls in public, the advice seems perfectly sensible and inoffensive.

Sentiments don’t become true through repetition. We just stop thinking about them, or start pretending they are true through fear or experience of being bullied. Why accusations of “victim blaming” are not always appropriate or true is because the moral and statistical aspects of rape are entirely different matters.

The moral aspect of rape – put simply, who committed a wrong, who should feel guilt, and who should be punished – is easy to resolve. In all cases, the rapist is the answer, and his victim has committed no moral wrong. But rape, like other crimes, occurs in a context. Or rather, it occurs in many contexts, and this allows for a purely scientific assessment of whether any particular aspects of those contexts correlate with a higher or lower incidence of rape.

This is how we respond to every other crime. If you were to be involved in a car accident involving a drunk driver running a red light, it’s that driver’s fault – entirely. But if this accident happened at an intersection where everybody knows drag racing takes place, you chose to expose yourself to a higher-risk situation than you could have (assuming there were other routes home). The fact that you shouldn’t need to take another route home is an entirely separate issue from how sensible it might be to take this particular route home.

What we say in situations like that is something like “watch out for that intersection”, and provincial authorities might feel inclined to put up one of those red spot “high fatality” road signs. What we say to children is things like “I don’t want you hanging out with Seamus” (at least, that’s what I was told). If you’re involved in an accident, or if Seamus introduces you to cigarettes, we could always have known that this was more likely than could otherwise have been the case. Risk-mitigation is, in other words, a standard component of our hardware.

As you all know, correlation doesn’t by itself indicate causation, but it can certainly act as a clue that there is some causal factor at play. More to the point, if it turns out that situation x tends to correlate with a higher incidence of rape than situation y, we never criticise someone for choosing situation y. And when someone knowingly choses situation x, you wouldn’t apply moral blame, because the blame belongs only with the criminal. But you could certainly feel entitled to ask potential future victims whether they are sure they want to visit the neighbourhood in question.

If you’re a policeman, you’re not doing your job through asking that question or questions about clothing after the fact, as the Toronto policemen who inspired Slutwalk did. Because only one person has committed a crime and that person is the rapist. But you’d also not be doing your job if you didn’t keep a detailed record of crime hotspots, and use that record to advise people of which areas they might want to avoid, for which reasons.

Of course it’s obscene that risk-mitigation with regard to rape asks women to voluntarily imprison themselves, only go out accompanied by chaperone, not walk alone at night, or to be constantly vigilant against someone spiking their drinks. These sorts of realities are an outrage, and the disproportionality of the burden carried by woman is likewise an outrage. Men are afforded the privilege of mostly being oblivious to these realities – and in many ways, it is men being oblivious to their privilege that allows gender-based violence to flourish.

Unfortunately, most situations that correlate with a higher incidence of rape can’t be avoided. The 2012 Victims of Crime survey (pdf) indicates that 17% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by family members, and a further 58% by someone known to the victim. 22% of sexual assaults took place in the victim’s home, and a further 25% in someone else’s home – areas we’d normally hope are safe.

Over this past weekend, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee published an editorial  in which she raised questions about risk-mitigation. A full day of criticism for “victim-blaming” ensued, because Haffajee asked whether firmer, or different, parenting, perhaps including a curfew, would have made a difference in Anene Booysen’s case. It probably wouldn’t have, at least not in any particular case. But we make a mistake when only thinking about Booysen’s rape, or any other instance of rape, while not also thinking about the rapes that don’t fit the pattern of the one under discussion.

For those (mostly) girls who live with a rapist uncle, cousin or brother, of course a curfew won’t help. But not all victims of rape can add that particular misfortune to the other misfortunes they have had to endure. So even though it’s true that most rapes happen in the home, and are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, that doesn’t mean curfews or parental interventions of other sorts can’t help avoid rapes that don’t fit this pattern.

People should be allowed to say that, because even though it’s wrong to have to limit your choices in the face of a dysfunctional society, doing so could save lives or prevent at least some of these crimes from occurring. That’s surely worth doing, even if it does nothing to address the root causes. If you insist that there is only one thing worth talking about – and one language to use when talking about it – the conversation quickly seems to be more about you than about Anene Booysen. And she can’t hear you anymore.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.