“I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy” – Random Marine, The Rock
We bounced around some when I was a child, my father was climbing the corporate ladder at IBM with impressive pace. The turnover of uprooting and moving every three years (or so) stopped when I was in 7th grade and my sister (9th grade) protested that she had finally found a place that she really liked and didn’t want to leave her friends. Dad relented and instead of heading off to Dallas (the likely next stop) we stayed put in Conover, NC. With that decision, my formative years would be spent primarily in North Carolina.
I now live in Maryland and work with folks from all over. I tend to joke with my co-workers from the midwest or northeast that, in the south, “he needed killin'” is a valid defense at a murder trial. That if the victim was in fact good-for-nothing (e.g., a wife-beater) then he, in fact, needed to be killed, and furthermore that the world was indeed a better place without him. It’s an expression of common-sense judgment that we pretend prevails in the south – that folks will wink and nod and accept that justice was done without actually pulling through the legal minutia.
It’s silly, of course. I’ve never heard of “he needed killin'” being used as a valid legal defense. Furthermore, we have the legal wrangling over what constitutes self-defense and justifiable action for a reason – the systems works hard to prevent “type II” errors (sending the innocent to jail) as well as “type I” errors (letting the guilty go free).
I digress. The point is that one can plausibly make an argument for justifiable homicide based on the potential harm that the “victim” may do to others down the line … sort of a pre-self-defense argument. What I cannot wrap my head around is the notion of justifiable rape.
I came across a story the other day from Brazil, where a survey purporting to claim that women in revealing clothing deserve to be raped. I have some serious disagreements with the conclusions of the study as stated in the above article (basically editorializing gone WAY wrong). The story has gotten a lot of attention internationally and I think it says perhaps not what the pool reporter writing this article claims. We’ll deal with that in a second, but first let’s deal with the obvious point.
I had a pastor once who told met that it was very important to “over-communicate”. That is, make sure your words are unambiguous and leave no wiggle room for wrong interpretation. As such, the mere thought presented in the linked article that a woman who dresses provocatively (or who dresses not at all) is responsible for her own rape is offensive, absurd, and just plain wrong-headed. Each man is responsible for his own actions, and there is no space to claim “I lost control, I couldn’t help myself” as though we were vampires smelling blood and unable to fight against our base urges. Circumstances clearly corrupt our ability to make sound judgment, but they never fundamentally remove our ability to make that judgment.
Having said that (and hopefully having been unambiguous) there are some more subtle questions to address about appealing to the male sex drive, poll methodology, and even subtle commentary by reporters.
For instance, the article linked above, which has gone far and wide, passes on claims that 65% of respondents believe that it is “justified to rape women wearing ‘clothes that show their body’.” But an article “closer to the source” from this Brazilian newspaper tells quite a different story:
Most Brazilians (65.1%) agree, as a whole or in part, that “women wearing clothes showing their body deserve harassment.” The majority (58.5%) also say they believe that “if women knew how to behave, there would be less rapes.”
Now that is a different issue altogether. I’m not here defending harassment, but to equate harassment with rape is absurd. In fact, the secondary statement shows the absurdity of the prior conclusion. How does it come to the point of 65% justify “rape” but only 58.5% say there would be fewer rapes if women “knew how to behave.” The conclusion is that at least 6.5% of respondents would think it OK to rape a woman dressed provocatively but that any decision on her part to dress more modestly would NOT reduce the number of rapes (implication: we can’t reduce the number of rapes, but it’s only “OK” if she was “asking for it”).
Perhaps there was a bit too much editorializing by the former news article. I mean, “deserve harassment” doesn’t get anywhere near the same attention as “deserve rape” – and it’s all about ad clicks these days.
Speaking of editorializing, the Yahoo version goes one farther, claiming not only the first result (rape versus harassment) but also:
The study revealed a well-known Brazilian paradox in which a cult-like obsession with the body and sensuality clashes with the society’s dominant conservative Catholicism.
Fair warning: I would have led with the yahoo version, but there is a naked Carnival dancer at the top (photo from the back side) – and I’m a bit wary of linking to such an article.
Now we have an even more absurd conclusion. First, that the study defends rape (it does not) and further that defense of rape comes from the clash between obsession with sensuality and a conservative Catholic culture. Really? Is it a tenant of conservative Catholicism that those who dress provocatively deserve rape? I know a few Catholics and I have never heard of such. (This is not Saudi Arabia, where a woman is “guilty” of her own rape if she wore a provocative full body covering but dared to leave the house without a male relative.)
OK, to recap thus far: A study in Brazil shows 65% claiming provocative dress justifies harassment and 58.5% claim that if women “knew how to behave” there would be fewer rapes. A reporter somewhere concluded that harassment is tantamount to rape and that 65% actually justify rape. Another reporter further concluded that the justification of rape stems from conservative Catholic culture.
Now let’s get to what I think is the bigger issue in the story: those 58.5%. I don’t know if anything was lost in translation, but I will certainly hold open the prospect that the phrasing of the question – “fewer rapes if women knew how to behave” – IS indeed consistent with a conservative Catholic culture. The mathematician in me would prefer a more clinical statement of “would there be fewer rapes if women dressed more modestly?” I imagine that such a question would have gotten a similar level of response.
I offer that such a statement is almost surely true, and that it is not tantamount to blaming the victim. I hopefully have addressed the “blaming the victim” charge with the over-communication bit above. A number of commenters to the story noted that a woman should be able to walk down the street naked and not suffer rape. While I’d agree, they SHOULD be able to do such a thing, we live in a fallen and broken world and walking down the street naked is a dangerous thing to do. And if a naked girl is raped then I should hope that our legal system will duly punish the offender … but that will be small consolation to the victim.
I don’t think these scantily clad Brazilian women are ignorant or stupid. They dress the way they dress to appeal to the sexual desires of men. Perhaps they need attention, perhaps it makes them feel empowered, perhaps they have low self-esteem and view themselves as objects. Regardless, I think they know full well that their mode of dress is intended to produce a response from onlooking men. It’s a dangerous appeal to make. There are plenty of decent men out there who may well notice your beauty and then suppress their base desires – but there are plenty of indecent men as well. These groups are largely indistinguishable until it’s too late.
There’s more from the study though. Consider:
On the other hand, 91.4% of the population agrees that “a man beating his wife has to go to jail” and 82.1% disagree with the statement that “a woman who gets beaten at home should be quiet not to harm the children.”
Well, at least there’s that.