Where does responsibility lie for rape?

Trains of thought like the following are very common nowadays:

  • When a woman is raped, it is wholly the rapist’s fault.
  • When a man rapes a woman, it is not in any respect the fault of the woman.
  • Women do not in fact give any sort of provocation to men to rape.
  • Women needn’t give any thought to their own supposedly “provocative” behavior.
  • Supposedly “provocative” behavior on the part of women has no causal effect on would-be rapists.

But wait. In real life, rapists are like terrorists. We may condemn their violence using words like ‘indiscriminate’, but in fact it is not wholly indiscriminate. They do choose to target some types of people in preference to others. Heterosexual rapists tend to target women rather than men to rape. Palestinian terrorists tend to target Jews rather than Arabs to stab with knives. And so on.

Rapists and terrorists are both culpably responsible for their acts of violence, but those they target do play some causal role in being chosen as a target, if only because they can be classified as a member of this or that group, or because they inadvertently provide a (wholly spurious) pretext for the rapist or terrorist to target them.

Why is this? — The cause of an event (such as a rape or a stabbing) consists of all of the conditions that together are sufficient for the event to occur. Whether we like it or not, to be identifiable as a member of this or that group is one such condition. Outrageous as it would be to recommend that Jews disguise themselves as Arabs to reduce the risk of being targeted by knife-wielding criminals, such a precaution might indeed slightly reduce their risk of being stabbed. Over the course of history, several women have chosen traditional men’s roles in life, and in doing so many disguised themselves as men. This was partly to avoid the unwanted attentions of men, and no doubt their efforts met with some success. In both of these examples, we might say that would-be victims are to some extent causally responsible for avoiding victimhood, although of course neither would be in any way culpably responsible if they became victims.

There is no such thing as a woman “asking for” or “inviting” rape, as rape is by definition non-consensual. But there are situations in which a woman can inadvertently provide a spurious pretext for rape. Remember, rapists are perverts, their minds are twisted, and pretexts for action are their chosen currency. And no matter how twisted a mind may be, causes are “brute causes” — that is to say, they are often immune to reason or appeals to justification. And causal responsibility is distinct from culpable responsibility. The failure to distinguish the two is a classic case of ambiguity in language leading us astray. “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”, Wittgenstein remarked, and the word ‘responsibility’ is a seasoned traveler between the contexts of blame and causation.

It’s also a case of confusion of “is” and “ought”. During the course of the train of thought sketched above, the idea that “men ought not to rape” (in such-and-such circumstances) subtly shaded into the idea that “men do not rape” (in such-and-such circumstances). That’s more than a philosophical error: it’s dangerous. To deny the reality of risk on the grounds that being subject to such risk is unjust is to expose oneself to greater risk.

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