The Right–and Wrong–Way to Talk about Rape

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rapeA well-known Catholic blogger recently wrote about the connection between the dehumanizing mentality of the “hook-up” culture among youth and the high incidence of sexual assault. His point was sound-that we need to move beyond focusing on whether we just have “consent” to sexually use another person, and instead embrace the values of respect and commitment inherent to lifelong marriage.

But reading the hundreds of vitriolic comments following his article, one thing was clear: Few readers actually heard the blogger’s intended message. Most were outraged anyone could suggest women bring rape on themselves (not what the blogger said). Others insisted rape would be virtually non-existent if women just avoided risky situations (also not the blogger’s point). Women should have the right to walk through a doorless, all-male prison naked without being subject to so much as a catcall, said the first group. To the second group of folks, women need to have “common sense” and “take personal responsibility for themselves” by avoiding risky situations and behavior.

Both positions are wrong.

For decades, author Camille Paglia (a leftist, atheistic lesbian, by the way) has been vilified by secular feminists for proposing that women avoid situations that leave them more vulnerable to sexual assault. But Paglia has a point. We live in a broken, violent world. This fact, along with man’s proclivity for sin and his physical superiority over women, means that females will ALWAYS be at risk for rape. (I know that males can also be raped, but that’s another post.) I have four daughters; I would love nothing more than to live in a world where every man respects their inherent dignity. That world doesn’t exist, however, this side of the veil. And I don’t want my daughters to naively assume it does and suffer for it.

What I want my daughters to be is PRUDENT. Prudence is rightly called “The Mother of all Virtues” because it directs us to act wisely in pursuit of a good outcome. Prudence tells you it’s unwise to go to a party and drink so much that your judgment is impaired and you go home with a virtual stranger. Or to invite strangers you met online to your apartment. Prudence tells you it’s unwise to ditch your friends over a disagreement and hitchhike home at midnight. (It also tells you not to pick up hitchhikers.)

Prudence is that virtue that tries to keep us safe, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But prudence can only increase your chances of being safe; it can’t guarantee it. You can exercise great prudence and still have a bad outcome. You can prudently obey all traffic laws and still get into an accident. Or prudently spend your money and still go bankrupt from medical bills. You can prudently have just one drink, stay at home instead of going to a club, and only date men you’ve known for years–and you can still be raped.

This is a very important distinction and it bears repeating: prudence may increase your chances of staying safe, but it can’t guarantee it.

We need to teach our daughters to be prudent in their choices, because prudence will increase their chances of staying safe. But we also need to emphasize that they can make the most prudent choices about behavior and situations and STILL be a victim of sexual assault.

What we should NOT tell them is that they need to “take personal responsibility for themselves.” Such language is dangerous because it implies that a woman can fully control whether she’s a victim of sexual assault. That if she dresses modestly, doesn’t drink too much (or at all), and avoids strangers, then she won’t be raped. And that simply isn’t true. There’s absolutely no way to entirely safeguard against sexual assault in our broken world. If a woman can be raped by her own husband, in her own home, then we ought to recognize that sometimes, all the prudence in the world can’t prevent a woman from suffering sexual violence.

When a woman is taught to believe she can virtually eliminate her chances of being raped if she “takes responsibility” for her clothing, company, and circumstances, then she will only blame herself if she ends up being sexually assaulted anyway. Worse, everyone else will blame her, too. This blame can be unspoken, but the victim absolutely will feel that blame. She will feel it in the pointed questions from investigators about why she was at that club or out that late (if she can even suppress her shame to come forward). She will feel it in the subtle questions and comments from friends and family about how much she drank or what she was wearing or who she was with. She’ll feel it in the lack of support, as those around her privately judge her as someone who just wasn’t “responsible enough” to avoid the rape and withdraw from her when she suffers. And it will make this wounded soul feel violated all over again, to have the blame for her rape redirected back to herself instead of where it belongs: solely with the man who raped her.

Regardless of whether a woman acted prudently prior to being raped, she deserves nothing but unconditional support after she’s suffered sexual assault. It doesn’t matter if she actually did walk naked through a doorless, all-male prison and got raped—she’s a victim of violence, pure and simple, and we’re called to love her with NO judgment whatsoever of her behavior.

But until we change our mindset about sexual assault, and stop perpetuating the illusion that women can fully control whether they’re raped through good choices, we will continue to teach women to blame themselves. And women who blame themselves don’t report sexual assault, meaning they won’t have access to the resources and support they need to heal. It also means that a rapist will go unpunished and likely violate more of our sisters (or brothers). The “taking responsibility for yourself” mindset also leaves the rape victims who do come forward vulnerable to unfounded and painful judgment, which only compounds their suffering.

Let’s teach our daughters, then, to embrace the virtue of prudence. Let’s teach them to make decisions that will increase their chances of staying safe, but with the understanding that sexual assault can happen anyway. And that if it does, then they are NEVER to blame for the actions of another person, whether they were prudent or not. Perhaps just as importantly, let’s also agree never again to ask women to “take personal responsibility for themselves” to avoid sexual assault. Because no woman is ever responsible for being raped.  Ever.

6 Replies to “The Right–and Wrong–Way to Talk about Rape”

  1. I think you have made some excellent points — espcially in how you explained it all in relation to the virtue of prudence. I only have a son, no daughters. But the horrendous incidents he related to me this year as he was a college freshman…..I would call it the “hook-up culture” but it also sounded like a lot of those young drunk women he saw stumbling in and out of his all-male dorm with his dorm mates were unable to give consent because of their state. Yes, they were imprudent in their choices. But how to get through to these young college men their responsibility in that? I am grateful my son is disgusted by what he sees and I have even asked him if there is some point he would intervene on behalf of a young woman. I have no answers, but how do we attack this culture where “having sex” is regarded as a requirement for “happiness” and (among the boys) a “right”.

  2. I read that! I was fairly blown away by the idea of anyone disagreeing with his points … but maybe it’s more of an antagonistic vibe than I realize. Like people go there looking for a fight.

    Recently the 90s song ‘Round Here’ by Counting Crows came on the radio and I almost melted into my driveway out of nostalgia. So I Googled the song, watched the video (which I didn’t remember with any poignancy, but the song reaaaallllllly typified my adolescence and I liked visiting it). So the wandering lady statue creature is holding that sign, right? The writing on her sign seems to be more what MW blogged about — the paralysis of modern hookup/don’t look-up from cellphone, no risk interactions. So devoid of comedy or tragedy.

  3. So many miss out on learning prudence in this society, it is sad. I used to work in forensics and the sheer number of rapes is horrifying. So many of these women will never understand the difference between others wishing they learned and exercised prudence and others blaming them for their rape. The courts themselves don’t encourage prudence as defense attorneys often lay blame on the victim for ‘flaunting’ their sexuality in front of the accused based on clothing, location, previous sexual encounters, etc. With condoms, birth control, sleazy clothing, stories, songs, and movies, etc pushing imprudence both men and woman are assaulted on a daily basis both literally and figuratively. One of my daily prayers as a Forensic Biologist was that both the victims and perpetrators of crimes come to learn prudence, experience healing, and accept help.

  4. To point out that someone who does something imprudent and gets victimized did something imprudent is absolutely NOT blaming them for what happened.

    To point out the errors involved in being victimized by some less serious crime, say fraud, is by no means blaming the victim. Just because someone is gullible certainly doesn’t put the blame on them “rather than where it belongs”, the con-man who defrauds them; what a laughable misrepresentation of how ANYONE acts. Does anyone think that if someone falls victim to a con-man, telling them how to be more prudent in the future, or asking them why they fell for the fraud, is remotely blaming THEM? What is most people’s response to hearing a loved one has been defrauded? MAYBE “How could you be so stupid?!”…but always, “I’ll rip that con-man apart with my bare hands!” (and where the former occurs, it is always in close juxtaposition with the latter). Gee, which one seems to be getting blamed?

    Much of the time, it is the victim themselves who CHOOSES to interpret such recognition of imprudence as blaming them—or who, recognizing their imprudence for themselves, CHOOSES to blame themselves. Rape, especially, is psychologically traumatic, and traumatized people don’t always think clearly—that needs to be recognized, so people have to be sensitive when discussing what failures of prudence led to a rape (or any other victimization—being defrauded is traumatic too, though of course less); they may have to forgo it entirely, if the victim seems likely to take it wrong. Nevertheless, the idea that simply recognizing imprudence on the part of a victim is blaming the victim is simply a poisonous lie.

    Finally, you forgot the other component of prudence: self-defense. Women who are armed, with firearms, are statistically VASTLY less likely to be raped.

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