The blame that is so often attached to women who are raped is nowhere more persistent than in situations where some level of social contact or intimacy between the woman and her attacker has already taken place.
If she has been out on a date with him, smiled at, flirted with, danced, laughed, kissed and engaged in some other level of intimacy with him and is subsequently raped by him, the view is very often put forward that she was naïve, should have known better or “what to expect”, and “had it coming”.
Often in such situations she is branded a “tease” who “led him on” and was therefore, to some extent, responsible for and complicit in what happened to her.
The fact remains, however, that a kiss is not a contract, and that a woman has the right to say no at any time, irrespective of what has gone before – up to and even during sexual intercourse itself.
The right to sexual autonomy to which all of us are entitled means complete control over what we do with our bodies, with whom, when – and for how long. There is nothing “inevitable” about rape.
The proof: some facts about public attitudes
Almost a quarter (23%) of the broad cross-section of the Scottish population (700 interviewees) who took part in research carried out by Progressive on behalf of Rape Crisis Scotland in August 2007 believed that women contribute to rape if they have engaged in some form of sexual activity. This corresponded very closely with other research findings:
Research conducted by Amnesty International in 2005 found that over a third of people believe that a woman is totally or partially responsible if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner.
A survey of 986 Scots carried out by TNS System Three in February 2008 for the Scottish Government found that if a woman was flirting before being sexually attacked, 25% of adults under 24 believe she should be held at least partly responsible, but among those aged 65 and over, that rose to 50%.
Zero Tolerance research carried out in 1998 found that 1 in 2 boys and 1 in 3 girls believed that it was acceptable for a man to force a woman to have sex in certain circumstances.
The prevalence of this myth has led to many mistaken and damaging assumptions:
- That engagement in any form of intimacy offers some kind of “green light” for sexual intercourse
- That the sexual urge in men is some kind of unstoppable force that they have no control over
- That a woman is somehow expected or obliged to “follow through” if she has shown any degree of interest in a man or been intimate with him
- That men can be excused for rape on the grounds of having “misread the signals”
- That women can say no, but mean yes.
Widespread credence attached to these ideas allows rapists to act with impunity, knowing that their assaults can be blamed on the behaviour of women.
The sense among women that they will meet with scepticism and even condemnation for what has happened because the circumstances of the rape may have begun as a date or other social encounter is entirely justified and increases their reluctance to report the crime.
Potential perpetrators can view rape in these circumstances as a “low-risk” crime, unlikely to be penalised – or even, in some cases, taken seriously.
And, just as the CICA were recently shown to have assigned culpability to women who had been drinking by reducing the amount of compensation awarded to them after a rape, the Sentencing Guidelines Council (which gives guidelines to judges in England and Wales) recently advised that although, for a first offence of rape, the starting point would be 5 years custody if the victim was 16 or older and there were no “special factors”, this might be reduced to 4 years if the victim was engaged in consensual sexual activity with the offender on the same occasion and immediately before the offence.
Women are fully entitled to have a full and vibrant social life without the fear of sexual violence – or of condemnation if they do encounter it. Women have the right to meet new people and explore the possibility of whatever degree of intimacy is mutually consensual in the circumstances that develop with them – to flirt, kiss, hold hands, drink, take their clothes off and roll around if they choose to. They are also entitled to say no and to receive justice if that no is not respected.
What you can do
Refuse to entertain the idea that women “encourage” or share responsibility for rape if they have already engaged in some kind of intimacy with their attacker
Challenge the notion that male sexuality is some kind of “runaway train” or that men are somehow unable to control themselves beyond a certain point
Reject in the strongest terms any suggestion of justified expectation or entitlement to sexual intercourse on the basis of what happened earlier – even if it was only 5 minutes ago
Ask yourself some questions
Why are we willing to remove the blame from rapists by condemning women for engaging in “risky behaviour”?
Why do we keep asking “why did she accept a drink / have an intimate dance / give him a kiss / get in his car / go to his flat” instead of “why did he have sex with her without her consent?”
Do we really believe that men are unable to control their sexual urges?
What is so confusing about “no”?
Finally … if you want to help us stop people blaming women’s behaviour for rape and assign responsibility where it really belongs, download a briefing pack to spread the word elsewhere.