I was recently at a party that included people primarily involved in the atheist movement in some way. Over the course of the night, a discussion arose about Elevatorgate, sexual harassment policies, and everything else that all the females in the atheist community are sick of having to explain. The person that seemed highly uncomfortable with the idea of asking to hug people due to a sexual harassment policy began to talk about rape and responsibility and mentioned that in his home (Peru), he had a responsibility to have bodyguards and take precautions so as not to be kidnapped, and if he were to be kidnapped, it would be his responsibility. I suddenly had the (perhaps long overdue) realization that the word “responsibility” is used in a wide variety of ways, and that perhaps advocates of the rights of rape victims and those people who appear to be victim blaming may be using it in completely different ways. I’d like to explore the different ways we might use the word and the repercussions for discussions of rape and rape victims, particularly in the atheist community.

When feminists and the like use the word responsibility in relation to rape, it seems to me that they’re most often talking about moral responsibility: who should we punish or hold responsible? Who has the moral culpability for the action? Who did something wrong in the sense of “you’re a very bad person and really shouldn’t do that again because it’s wrong”? In contrast, I believe that many of those people who appear to be victim blaming are using responsibility in the sense of acting responsibly. If you buy a house that is beach front property, you have the responsibility to insure it because it’s an at-risk property. This is a kind of pragmatic responsibility: what is a good action to take to keep yourself and your property safe? I think that many times we accept that individuals should take some actions to protect against disasters or other people’s bad actions: we say it’s responsible to lock our doors at night, we say it’s responsible to not walk in front of cars, we say it’s responsible to remain indoors during a tornado.

And now we get to the question of victim blaming. When a feminist hears someone victim blaming, they hear “she had the moral responsibility for what happened”. In some cases, I think this may actually be what people are saying, however I’m not sure if it holds in all circumstances. I think in some cases, people are trying to point out that a person could have done more to keep themselves safe, that if we all want to be pragmatic and take care of ourselves, we should do what we can to keep from being raped. But while it is true that someone perhaps could have done more to prevent a catastrophe, we are all human and make mistakes. If someone is robbed, is it helpful to ask them if their doors were locked? No, nor is it appropriate. We help them to find the thief, and we help them to move on with their life. We don’t berate them for not having acted perfectly to keep themselves safe, because we don’t in the end know what will keep us completely safe from the bad behaviors of others. There may be a time and a place to talk about how to keep yourself “safe”, but when someone has been victimized is not that time and place. When we are talking about a crime that has already happened, the what ifs are irrelevant: a victim blamer may be stating a true fact when they say that the victim could have done more, but it’s a true fact that has no place in the discussion.

I think that oftentimes balancing pragmatism and moral culpability is difficult because we use the same sorts of words to talk about them. Feminists are likely to get up in arms when someone says that a woman should have acted differently to try to prevent her rape. However we take actions to protect ourselves from bad things all the time. If done in an appropriate manner, this kind of language does not have to be victim blaming. But it cannot be done in response to a rape, it cannot be done as if the victim did something wrong, and it cannot be done in a way that puts the moral responsibility on the victim. Many people who can see the logic in saying we should protect ourselves don’t understand these different senses of responsible, and extend the responsibility for self-care to a responsibility for what happens when another person acts badly. This is inappropriate. Getting clear on what responsibility it is that we’re talking about can help us to respect victims while also trying to be pragmatic about the state of the world.

I would be interested in hearing opinions in comments about whether understanding different kinds of responsibility is helpful or harmful in moving the blame to the perpetrators rather than the victims. Of course in an ideal world, no one should have to be responsible by hiding their body or guarding their actions and behaviors, but in an ideal world we all wouldn’t have to keep locks on our doors or institute regulations to keep corporations from swindling us out of large amounts of money. Can we hold the ideal of a world without rape, work towards that ideal, and still act pragmatically?

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

1 Comment

  1. September 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm —

    I like your point about there being a place for discussions of pragmatic preventative measures, and that that place is not right after someone has been victimized. Unfortunately, I think most people who talk about “ways to keep yourself safe” tend to focus on what the victim did wrong rather than what the perpetrator did.

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