Thursday, March 27, 2008

Irish rape survey - distinguishing between recklessness and the guilt of the rapist?

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 26th March 2008:

It is too easy to dismiss as outrageous the views of those who believe that, in some circumstances, women carry part of the responsibility if they are raped and to leave it at that.

But the views expressed in the latest opinion poll are not those of a small, deviant minority. For example, the poll found that 37 per cent of those questioned thought a woman who flirted extensively was complicit to some extent if she was the victim of a sex crime.

Thirty seven per cent is a massive proportion when it comes to opinions in a society, so we need to look at what is going on here and at what these results might mean, unpalatable as they are.

I expect that almost all of those who see women in certain circumstances as having contributed to their situation, would also favour the current life sentence for their rapists.

I think that what people are doing here is drawing a distinction between the responsibility of all of us to ourselves for our own survival and the responsibility carried by criminals for their crimes.

There is also behind these figures, I think, a belief that in a society in which rapists usually get away with it, people need to look to and take responsibility for their own safety. This belief has nothing to do with reducing the degree of guilt belonging to the rapist. It is a question of survival in a dangerous world.

To me the most revealing finding in the Irish Examiner/Red C poll is that 38 per cent of respondents believe that if a woman walks through a deserted area and is raped, she carries some of the blame for what happened.

Does this mean, that 38 per cent of people believe the rapist is somehow “less guilty” in this situation? I don’t, for a second, believe it does.

I think those 38 per cent would regard the rapist in this situation as a predatory thug who carries one hundred per cent responsibility for his actions and who deserves a life sentence.

So what are they saying about the woman? I think what they are saying is that the woman who walks through a deserted area needs to take responsibility, not for the rape but for having comprised her own personal safety in a foolish way.

So there are two separate issues going on here. One is the issue of the rape which is completely the responsibility of the rapist. The second is the issue of responsibility towards one’s own personal safety.

It is a feature of this and all surveys that it’s hard to know just what is in people’s mind when they answer questions. Take the finding that more than 30 per cent of people would say that a woman is responsible in some way for a rape if she has flirted with a man or has failed to say ‘No’ clearly.

It seems to me that there is a major difference between flirting and failing to say ‘No’ clearly. If you are in bed with someone and you fail to say ‘No’ clearly, I am not sure how you would sustain a charge of rape, morally or in the courts.

But flirting? How can 30 per cent see flirting as making a woman somehow complicit in rape? Does it depend on what they mean by flirting? Even extreme flirting, in my view, does not excuse rape but we don’t know what was in the minds of those respondents and I assume – I hope – they do not mean ‘normal’ flirting.

The issues raised in the survey are complicated and emotional. They need to be debated. Let’s not walk away from these findings, uncomfortable as they are. Let’s talk about them.

Got an opinion? Comment here.

No comments: