Victim blaming and logical fallacies

I’m writing this with a bit of trepidation, as it’s likely to be unpopular. I am hugely sympathetic to the political standpoint of the people whose arguments I’m targeting here. But the philosopher in me can’t bear to witness sloppy reasoning and logical fallacies, even when called into the service of a good and rightful cause. Philosophy is prior to politics, and the pursuit of truth should be prior to any convictions or ideology to which we are committed. It’s for this reason that I want to explain why one very frequently advanced claim is simply false, the product of a basic error in reasoning. This is the claim we most often see in discussions of rape and other sexual offences: that engaging in certain forms of activity or behaviour does not increase one’s likelihood of being a victim of these types of crime.

I have seen many comments along the lines of: “most people who are victims of rape are not drunk when it happens, so it’s not true that being drunk increases your chances of being raped”. Or similarly: “most people are raped by somebody they know, often in their own home, so walking late at night in a deserted area doesn’t make it more likely that you will be raped”. Now, I fully understand and feel the force of the sentiments that motivate this kind of argument. The worry about victim blaming is a legitimate one, and the problem of victim blaming is real and persistent. There are still many people who think that if a woman behaves in certain ways – gets drunk, wears certain clothes, walks home late at night – that she is somehow responsible or blameworthy if she is attacked. That she somehow had it coming, or ought to have expected it. This has serious implications for all manner of questions – how we punish convicted rapists, how we go about tackling rape as a societal problem, etc. And of course, it also has a serious impact on those who are assaulted. Not only are they victims of the first injustice, that of the assault; they are victims of a second injustice, when they are blamed for what happened to them, with all the suffering and pain this causes. So I fully agree that we need to avoid blaming victims for the crimes they have experienced. Unfortunately, the aforementioned argument is not the right way to go about this. It is an invalid argument, built upon a basic error of reasoning, so that its conclusion does not follow, and is probably false.

To be specific: in logical terminology, the error of reasoning that occurs in this argument is the fallacy of denying the antecedent. The fallacy occurs in this form:

If P, then Q.

Not P.

Therefore, not Q.

This conclusion – not Q – does not follow from the premises; therefore, this argument is not valid. The premises cannot be held to support the conclusion. (That doesn’t mean that the conclusion is definitely not true, either; it just means that we can’t deduce that it is true, from the premises given).

The argument given above, invoked to avoid the danger of victim blaming, can be laid out in this form:

If you are drunk, then you are more likely to be the victim of rape.

Most victims of rape are not drunk.

Therefore, it is not the case that drunk people are more likely to be victims of rape.

Now, it might not be immediately apparent why this is a fallacious argument. This is pretty much the argument that one often hears, and so it may on the face of it seem valid. However, we only have to tweak it slightly and the error becomes obvious:

If you are drunk, then you are more likely to crash your car.

Most people who crash their car are not drunk.

Therefore, it is not the case that drunk people are more likely to crash their cars.

Hopefully now it’s clear why this argument doesn’t work. The fact that the majority of people who are in car accidents were not drunk does not mean that driving while drunk does not increase one’s likelihood of a crash. This argument has the exact same structure as the previous one, and yet we can see that it is invalid; the premises do not support the conclusion.

In the case of drink driving, we know that as a matter of fact, the conclusion is false, because the empirical evidence tells us that the first premise is true – it is a fact that being drunk increases your chances of crashing your car. Now, I should make it clear that I am not stating that the first premise in the argument about rape is known to be true. That too is a question that empirical evidence will support one way or the other. The facts will tell us if it is indeed the case that being drunk or walking home alone late at night or wearing high-heeled shoes or whatever increase one’s likelihood of being victim of an attack (intuitively, some of those seem more likely factors than others).

But the point is this: the fact that most people who are raped were not drunk does not in itself tell us anything about whether getting drunk increases your chances of being raped. We know it is the case that the vast majority of rapes that take place occur within the home, or between people who know each other; and so in those cases, drunkenness is not a determining factor. But from that it just doesn’t follow that if you are wanting to minimize your chances of being the victim of rape, not getting drunk won’t help you. It is an empirical question – but it seems a plausible hypothesis to think that in any given situation, holding everything else equal, being drunk will make you more vulnerable that you would otherwise have been. And if that’s so, then to reject the claim that being drunk increases your chances of being victim of crime is just a mistake, and is an example of putting our politics ahead of the facts of the matter.

It’s crucial to note what is being said here, and what is not. Saying that being drunk makes it more likely that you will be a victim of a crime does not entail anything about whether you are therefore blameworthy for that crime or responsible for it. But to avoid that conclusion, we need to develop a coherent and intuitively compelling theory of blame and responsibility (and this would hopefully be able to make some important distinctions between causal responsibility and moral responsibility).

Equally, saying that being drunk makes it more likely that you will be a victim of a crime does not entail anything about what is the best way to go about eliminating that crime – whether you understand best to mean morally appropriate, most effective, or something else. I completely agree with those people who say that rape prevention far too often places the onus on women to avoid being victims of rape, rather than on targeting men’s behaviour. And I also agree that this is a dangerous move to make because it increases the tendency towards victim blaming. I happen to think that women have a right to get as drunk as they please, wear as short a skirt as they like, and walk home through dark and deserted areas without being assaulted; none of those factors could ever justify somebody assaulting them. But what I do have a problem with is people moving from that essentially moral position to the factual claim that being drunk or walking home alone doesn’t increase your chances of being attacked, because that just doesn’t follow.

I worry about all of this because the perfectly legitimate desire to avoid victim blaming then often becomes an outright attack on people who are trying to give factual advice about how to avoid being the victim of a crime. I can see why analogies with leaving one’s windows open and burglary seem crass and offensive to many people. But as the proponents of those kinds of analogies often stress, it is not a moralized claim; it’s a purely factual one. The empirical question of what makes a certain event more likely to occur is entirely distinct from the moral question of what makes a person blameworthy or not. Telling women not to get drunk probably will, everything else being equal, reduce their chances of being raped. Whether or not this is the morally right way to go about reducing those chances is an entirely different question.

32 thoughts on “Victim blaming and logical fallacies

  1. What you say is true, but only part of the equation.

    To follow your analogy, it is also true that people who are drunk are more likely to be killed by a drunk driver when walking home (they’re more likely to stumble into the road, misjudge the speed of an approaching car etc etc)

    Most people killed by drunk drivers are not drunk, of course, but that still doesn’t mean that it is not true that drunk pedestrians are more likely to be killed.

    But despite that, it would never occur to anyone to have a “don’t walk home drunk” campaign as a solution to the problem of drink-driving, for several reasons, the first is that it might be true, but it is not very practical – people will still drink, the risks of being hit by a car on any given evening are not going to be enough to deter them. The second is that it would detract attention from the real problem – drunk drivers. The third would be that it would feed a belief in drivers that it doesn’t matter so much if they drive when drunk, because it is the responsibility of others to get out of their way.

    The big problem with rape-avoidance campaign is that they imply that rapes are a naturally occurring phenomenon, as opposed to being the consequence of a rapist’s behaviour and choices. By propagating that message, shifting responsibility for rape prevention from the perpetrators to the victims, it is quite likely that it actually makes the overall prevalence of rapes greater, not less, because it feeds the beliefs of rapists that what they are doing is somehow normal and to be expected, and if people don’t want to be raped they should take greater efforts to make sure they’re not vulnerable to it.

    For all that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with people taking sensible precautions with their own behaviour and most people do, all the time. But it is a dangerous message to propagate at a societal level.


    1. Thanks for the comment Ally.

      I agree with everything you say. You’re absolutely right. But all of this is an answer to the question: how should we as a society go about reducing the number of rapes? And if we’re going to answer that question, we need to take into account empirical evidence about what is likely to work, as well as moral values, such as women’s rights and freedoms, etc. It’s a complex question, and I think that moral arguments have a huge bearing on it – there is something hugely objectionable about saying that we should eliminate rape by controlling women’s behaviour.

      But my point in this piece is – that question of how we as a society ought to tackle rape is an entirely separate one from the one about how might I reduce my chances in any given situation of being raped? That’s a factual, not moral question. I may still decide to get drunk because I have a moral right to. But that doesn’t make it not true that I have made myself more vulnerable to certain sorts of crime.


      1. Absolutely. But I think in practice what people are objecting to is not the existence of personal safety advice per se, but the fact that personal safety is the only tactic offered by society as a solution to rape.

        It’s also complicated by the fact that in popular media discourse, sensible advice (don’t get insensibly drunk, don’t get into unlicensed cabs, don’t go off to party with groups of men you don’t know and trust etc etc) gets muddled up with completely useless or downright offensive advice (don’t dress like a slut, don’t be too flirty) which is not only an unfair imposition on women’s liberty and sexuality, but has absolutely no evidential support. There’s a lot of evidence about how rapists select victims, and their sexual assertiveness doesn’t come into it.

        Consequently advice like “don’t get drunk” in that context ends up looking more like patriarchal morality policing than actual crime prevention advice.

        While we are talking about evidence though, there is no doubt that drinking and recreational drug use are genuine and real risk factors for rape, and you are absolutely right that there is no excuse for hiding that or pretending otherwise.


        1. I agree with all of that as well. You’re absolutely right.

          I think there are hugely important questions about how we ought to tackle rape as a society. We are currently doing a terrible job!

          So I definitely don’t want this post to be interpreted as a defence of the strategy of telling women not to get get drunk. It isn’t. It’s really only intended to show the flaw of a type of claim that some people do make. I really have seen a lot of people suggesting that because most people who are assaulted aren’t drunk, being drunk doesn’t increase your chances of assault, which strikes me as just straight up false. What we do about that is another matter.

          Basically, I’m a pedant. I like people to get their concepts and their arguments clear!


  2. Thanks Becca this was interesting. I hope what follows makes sense.

    I can’t help but think that you’re being uncharitable in the way that you’re interpreting this argument. I don’t follow the discussions of victim-blaming as well as you do, but I do know of them. And I don’t think that these people are actually denying the consequent, but are just implicitly making a slightly more complex argument. (Or their argument can be salvaged if seen slightly differently, whichever fits.) Such as

    (1) The reason why people believe that people who are raped when they are drunk are to blame for being raped is that (A) being drunk increases the likelihood of being raped
    (2) (B) There is no evidence supporting (A)
    (3) (C) The majority of rape victims are not drunk,
    (4) A lot of people do not know (B) or (C).
    (5) (B) and (C) show that we have no reason to believe (A) [or we are not justified in believing (A), whichever]
    (6) The people who believe that people who are being raped are to blame for being raped are not justified in believing this (from 1 and 5)

    In your post it seems that you assert (B) and then deny (B), since you say: ‘It is an empirical question – but it seems a plausible hypothesis to think that in any given situation, holding everything else equal, being drunk will make you more vulnerable that you would otherwise have been.’

    But if what you say is true, perhaps we should change (A) to ‘being drunk significant increases the likelihood of being raped.’

    Perhaps another way of getting at the same point is to say that of course there’s a distinction between causal responsibility and moral responsibility – but it seems that in fact moral responsibility for X tracks significant causal responsibility for X (and perhaps X flowing from the agent to be held responsible’s agency.) And victims of rape are not significantly causally responsible for their rape if at all.

    On a slightly different note – I doubt that we need a theory of moral responsibility and blameworthiness to make the anti-victim-blaming argument. It seems, to me at least, that the intuition that victims of rape are not morally responsible or to blame for their rape is an intuition that a theory of moral responsibility and blameworthiness would have to conform with…
    [But you probably agree with this anyway…]


  3. Thanks so much for the comment!

    Your (1) might be true, in that maybe people do think that. But that to me is exactly where the problem is. That moves too quickly from the factual claim that something makes an event more likely to the normative one about blame. We ought to resist that move. That’s why I think it’s a theory of blame or moral responsibility that should be our focus, not on factual questions about whether being drunk makes rape more likely.

    It seems to me it’s a huge mistake to leave that premise standing, unchallenged, because then in order to get to the conclusion we want – that women are not to blame for being raped – we have to make claims like your premise (2), which it seems to me is dubious at best. It’s an empirical claim, and one I don’t have the data about. But if I had to guess, I would say it is highly, highly likely to be the case that holding everything else equal, being drunk makes one more vulnerable to certain types of crime. It would be surprising if it didn’t! When I’m drunk, or asleep, I would think I am more likely to have my purse stolen. I would have thought it is obviously true that if I leave my windows open, I am more likely to be burgled! But that’s a factual matter, and conducting some good social science should help us to answer it either way. What seems to be going on here is that people are fudging that factual matter – trying to make the evidence point the way it suits them – when they would be far better tackling your premise (1) head on.

    In other words, I don’t agree that we should unthinkingly accept that moral responsibility closely tracks causation. Instead of fudging the empirical evidence, we need to go back and fix our moral/political theory. It’s hugely problematic when we try to fabricate a casual account that doesn’t correspond to the empirical evidence, in order to keep our conflicting moral intuitions or political principles in tact – that’s precisely the wrong way to go about things. And, sad as I am to say it, I think feminists do this a lot – make unsupported or dubious empirical claims because they fit their politics.


    1. It must be frustrating to have your thesis misunderstood several times! I think your reasoning was quite lucid. To emphasise the separation, perhaps we might point out that leaving your home will increase the likelihood of your being mugged; however, we would not sanction victim blaming for every person who was mugged! (Assuming that it entails being outside your home.)


  4. It would make more sense to warn men not to go out and get so drunk that they might rape someone. One of the major problems with these constant warnings to women not to go out and get drunk because a man might choose to rape them if they do, is that when boys and men are being bombarded by these messages, at some level they absorb the message that raping a woman who is drunk, doesn’t count; it’s not “real” rape, it’s understandable.

    I don’t mean that the messages will turn men who otherwise wouldn’t rape women into rapists; what it does, is turn them into men who don’t empathise with a rape victim, who are constantly searching for reasons why that woman got raped and makes them more likely to settle on the idea that she got raped because she was drunk, rather than because a man chose to rape her. It diminishes the perpetrator’s responsibility for rape and re-assigns it to the victim. Those men are then less likely to feel uncomfortable when associating with other men who objectify women and who say rapey things about them. If they sit on juries, they are less likely to convict a rapist. All these messages underpin the idea that women are responsible for men’s behaviour and that men cannot be held responsible for rape unless the victim fits some kind of perfect victim template: and the result of this, is that 85-90% of rapes are not reported and of the ones who are, fewer than 10% end up with a guilty verdict, even though false allegations account for only about 4%.

    It matters that women are constantly being told to curtail their freedom to avoid rape and men are not: these messages are part and parcel of the underpinning of the rape culture we live in which ensures that the overwhelming majority of rapists get away with it again and again and again while the women they rape live with the devastating effects of their crimes with no chance whatsoever of any justice because the spotlight is always on women’s behaviour vis a vis rape and never on that of men.


    1. I agree with all of this. I haven’t said anything at all about what advice we ought to give women, or how we as a society ought to go about preventing rape.

      I’m focusing very specifically on one factual claim. What we ought to do about it is another question entirely, and I agree with pretty much everything you say.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If you show me a plausible mechanism for why my being drunk is more likely to lead to my rape than my sobriety, maybe we have something to talk about. Correlation (assuming correlation exists, and we don’t know that it does) only implies causation if there is a plausible mechanism linking the two. I don’t see why my being intoxicated leaves me more vulnerable to rape, unless we’re talking about me being unconscious.

    I am not a tall woman, or a strong woman. The chances are that if someone decided to attack me, they would be both larger and stronger than I am. The chances of me being able to prevent their attack through force are pretty much nil. This holds true for any sort of crime, not just rape. Can the speed of my reactions have a meaningful impact in the attack? Well, that seems unlikely too. Rape and assault both are not particularly reliant on speed. I could try to run away, maybe, but this bigger, stronger attacker can almost certainly outrun me.

    You argument seems to assume that once somebody has decided to attack me, there is something I can do about it. That is a false assumption. Unless I can see immediately that they have decided to attack me, and can then escape their company, there is nothing I can do. I can’t see when someone decides to attack me. I only become aware of that when they do attack me, and that’s too late.


    1. It’s hugely complicated. As you point to here, it’s a complex matter of physiology, psychology, all sorts of things. I don’t want to speculate about the precise causal mechanism.

      I haven’t insisted that being drunk increases one’s vulnerability, only suggested that it seems highly likely. It strikes me that it would be really surprising if it didn’t. I am probably more likely to be run over by a car, or to burn the house down, when I’m drunk. But like I say in the post, it’s an empirical matter, and it’s a hugely complex one. All I’m saying is that one argument you often hear that purports to settle that factual question doesn’t work.


      1. Surely the causal mechanism could be that being drunk leads to other risk-taking behaviour, such as being more likely to walk home alone.

        It could be true that you’re no more likely to be raped while walking home alone drunk than walking home alone sober, but if this is indeed risk-increasing behaviour then that you’re more likely to do it when drunk than when not will imply that you’re more likely to be raped when drunk.


    2. I feel like you haven’t really thought this through properly.
      Alcohol has a massive effect on rape.
      Just think, you get drunk and stumble home, maybe you only sway slightly; that is a clear signal to a potential rapist that you are vulnerable, your ability to fight back is reduced and the chance of your testimony being accepted in court impacted.
      Alcohol also clouds judgement. You set off alone since “nothing bad wil happen” You decide to take that short cut through the park that you never would sober. Or you stop and talk to strangers on the way home.
      Alcohol lowers inhibitions. You may have lead someone on at the party you just left. You walk home together and have sex. In the morning you feel like it was rape because you didn’t provide express consent (which by the way is a dick move). Or they initiate sex with you but you don’t say stop. You may consider that rape but a man would not unless you make it very clear.

      As you can see alcohol indeed does complicate the issue of rape and I would argue strongly for it increasing your chance of being raped. Don’t be naive.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. V. interesting post that makes clear that there is a distinction between causality (or factors that may increase the probability of causality) and responsibility/blame.

    However, you do appear to suggest that there is not a connection between the probability of an event occurring involving someone and their responsibility in ‘Saying that being drunk makes it more likely that you will be a victim of a crime does not entail anything about whether you are therefore blameworthy for that crime or responsible for it.’

    Yet, if there are factors under control of the former that increase the probability of an event occurring (& victim blamers presumably believe there are) and the victim has knowledge of these factors a priori then the problem becomes that if the victim has not taken steps to reduce this risk then arguably (& this is very controversial), then arguably in not taking steps to address reducing the risk does imply a degree of responsibility (which is dependent upon knowledge of the factors, the extent to which the person has control of the factors and the extent to which those factors affect the probability of the event occurring, none of which may be known)

    This is not to take any focus away from the perpetrator, who has the primary (& perhaps sole) responsibility for the event as they have the knowledge, control & decision that the event will (or is likely to) occur.


    1. Thanks for your comment Noble.

      All I wanted to do in this post is to make clear that if we want to get to the conclusion that people are in no way responsible or blameworthy when they are attacked, that we should do this by working on our moral arguments, rather than trying to fudge the empirical facts. I tend to agree with you that any plausible account of moral responsibility is going to have to tie the notion to causal responsibility. We tend to think that we should not hold people responsible for things that were entirely outside of their control; and generally speaking we tend to think that we should not blame you for your action if it were impossible for you to have done anything else. (It’s probably also worth mentioning that I’m talking about moral responsibility and blame as though they are synonymous, but of course they need not be).

      So I don’t want to suggest that there is no link whatsoever between causal responsibility and moral responsibility. Unpopular an opinion though it may be, I think that if you engage in risky behaviour, then you bear some moral responsibility for the negative consequences of that behaviour. If I go skydiving and break my back, I have to accept some responsibility for that broken back, because I did not have to go skydiving; I chose to engage in risky behaviour. Now, with respect to making oneself more vulnerable to being a victim of crime, the picture becomes murkier, because clearly the responsibility for that crime overwhelmingly lies with the perpetrator, who chose to commit the crime. To add to this, the risky behaviour the victim engages in which increases her vulnerability is one she has a moral right to engage in; and, furthermore, it would not be risky behaviour if it were not for the choice made by the perpetrator to violate her rights – which is an important disanalogy with the skydiving case. Skydiving is inherently risky. Getting drunk is risky (with respect to sexual assault) only because the perpetrators of these assaults make it so. This all complicates the picture hugely, and makes it a much more difficult task to apportion responsibility and blame.

      I think part of the solution to that is to stop thinking of responsibility and blame in black or white, all or nothing terms – that you are either wholly responsible for something, or not at all responsible. It might be the case that responsibility can be divided proportionately, so that victims of crime might be to a small degree responsible, while the culprits hold the significantly larger share. Another solution would be to detach responsibility and blame, so that we can say that somebody is partly responsible for what happened to them, without assigning blame. My only point is that once we’re having that conversation, we’re not talking about the factual question any longer about what factors increase my chances of being a victim of a crime. We’re doing moral philosophy or political theory, and the answers we arrive at to these questions are in principle detachable from the empirical facts and the causal story about what makes something happen.


  7. This whole discourse is fascinating. And I can’t help but agree with you Becca. Similarly, Joanna Lumley’s comments about how women dress really hit the nail on the head. Of course you are more vulnerable to creeps if you’re puking into a gutter holding your own hair back. The only thing she could have adjusted about this statement was that you’re also more vulnerable to cars.

    I used to walk home alone. A lot. Through somewhat undesirable parts of Glasgow. Thankfully, I’m still here to tell the tale. Sometimes I carried my shoes, sometimes I stashed flat pumps in my bag expressly for the purpose of walking home. My guy friends frequently admonished me for doing this. Something which, truth be told, only made me more adamant to continue. Me Jane. Me walk home alone okay. With hindsight, this is undeniably stupid. I am lucky to have not become a statistic. Not because Glasgow’s particularly dangerous, simply because of the number of times I did it; the odds were not in my favour.

    It makes me wonder if banner waving feminists have gone too far. If they’re in danger of putting us in danger. “Wear what you want! Consequences be damned! Drink your body-weight! Society has no place in judging you!” If provocative clothing is a proverbial red flag to a bull then maybe Mum’s in the doorway saying “You are NOT going out in THAT” Should make a comeback. I don’t have a solution: but I really hope someone does.


    1. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by ‘banner-waving feminists’, but it sounds dismissive.

      In any case, feminism (banner-waving or otherwise) hasn’t yet been able to go far enough, in terms of the extent to which it has been successful in pushing back against rape myths and victim-blaming. And that isn’t because feminism is lacking in some way, or that it hasn’t been trying hard enough. It just reflects how trenchant those myths are, how widely they are believed and represented.

      And you suggest that ‘banner-waving feminists’ might be “in danger of putting [women] in danger”? That’s a new one on me. I’d suggest it’s rapists and patriarchal structures of oppression that are the problem.


    2. I think that Joanna Lumley’s comments were pretty hideous, because they were moralistic, judgemental and came pretty close to calling victims of sexual assaults sluts who were asking for it. We should object to that kind of thing whenever we see it. But I also agree with you that feminists often go too far in objecting to any kind of safety advice, which strikes me as just completely misguided and wrong-headed, however well-intentioned. We should give everybody practical advice about how to keep themselves safe, men and women, from all sorts of threats. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also target the perpetrators of crime or try to address the underlying causes.

      Personally, I don’t think we should be telling women not to dress in certain ways. Women have a right to dress as they please, and dressing in these ways would not be in any way dangerous if it were not for the choices that some men make. So we should focus our attentions on telling men that short skirts and high heels are not invitations to rape. However, getting blind drunk is inherently dangerous, for all sorts of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with other people identifying us as vulnerable, but just have to do with chance – you’re more likely to get hit by a car when you’re staggering along drunk, for example. So advising people not to get so drunk they make themselves vulnerable seems like good advice to me. The idea that any time we give women advice about how to keep themselves safe, we are victim blaming, is just too quick, and pretty unhelpful.


  8. I agree with the general thrust of this post, but I’m not sure that the problem is one of denying the antecedent.

    P1: If you are drunk, then you are more likely to be the victim of rape.

    P2: Most victims of rape are not drunk.

    Note that P1 and P2 appear to be about different things. P1 concerns your likelihood of being raped, whereas P2 is about whether most victims are drunk or not. This seems like a non-sequitur, unless we’re supposed to infer something like ‘since most victims are not drunk, you’re less likely to be raped if you’re drunk.’ This doesn’t seem promising.

    I think the problem here is baseline fallacy. Suppose out of a sample of 100 women, ten are drunk (whatever this means) and 90 aren’t. Suppose one of the ten is raped, so let’s call the chance of being raped while drunk 10%. Suppose that three of the ninety are raped. The chance of being raped while not drunk is 3.33%.

    So, with these (totally arbitrary) figures, the chance of being raped while drunk is three times higher than the chance while not drunk, even though three-quarters of those who are raped are not drunk.


    1. Thanks Ben!

      The funny thing is, as I was thinking about and writing this post, I felt sure that the fallacy was one of denying the antecedent; but then, as soon as I came to lay out the argument, I couldn’t get it right, for the reasons you point out – P1 and P2 are about different issues. I might try to lay it out differently and see if I can get it to work, as I feel sure that something like denying the antecedent is often at play here. Although as you rightly point out, the baseline fallacy is undoubtedly one explanation of what’s going on too.


  9. What exactly was the point of this post? I’ve read it twice, gone away, thought about it, read it again, read the comments and read Glosswitch’s post and for the life of me I can’t actually fathom what you’re saying and why you’re saying it…

    The best I can manage is that you’re annoyed that because rape occurs on a massive spectrum involving individuals and unique circumstances each time, varying from event, age, culture etc, it can’t be described accurately in one snappy soundbite and thus you feel people aren’t portraying it accurately and giving it too much human emotion instead of philosophical weight. And that’s causing my eyebrows to rise so hard they are going to detach at the roots.

    I agree that it’s not helpful to focus solely on alcohol’s part in rape, but everything else about this post is setting my teeth on edge. It sounds like a subject you’ve read a bit about and decided you’re an expert, but it’s the difference between painting by numbers and having a feel for art. I don’t think it adds anything to the discourse about rape because you’ve basically by saying don’t use incorrect data about alcohol, focused more on alcohol than the subject needs and contradicted yourself by making it sound like drinking is the biggest risk factor when it isn’t. (It’s prior sexual relationships and being asleep by the way.)

    Plus in your comment replies you seem to be sitting on the fence in a fashion that makes this post sound like you’re treating rape as a fascinating little social experiment for dinner party chat than a life threatening event with hugely serious consequences. I’m finding that pretty distasteful as it’s reading like another way victims do it wrong (having emotions! Being frightened! Not being able to dissect and debate trauma utterly rationally like a robot! Not fitting statistics neatly!).

    Mind you I guess if we must be found lacking YET again for being assaulted, it makes a grimly refreshing change to have something other than our supposed slutty stupid drunkeness picked over this week. I look forward to something totally off the wall like our housekeeping skills being next. Once we’ve really done a number on victims, then we can finally turn our attention to perpetrators, but apparently there’s no rush on that one….


    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m genuinely sorry that the post upset you and struck you as distasteful. That really wasn’t my intention. I am well aware that this is not a purely academic subject and and I tried very hard to address a difficult topic as sensitively as I could. I would like to point out that however distasteful or distressing you find my argument, that doesn’t justify you making the assumptions you do about me, my intentions or my past experiences. The fact that I want and am able to discuss the topic rationally and factually does not entail that I have no experience or understanding of the trauma and emotional suffering that sexual assault and rape engender.

      I haven’t said anything about how important a factor drunkenness is in explaining sexual assault. I am well aware that the biggest risk factor for being vulnerable to sexual assault is a prior relationship with the attacker, and I agree that alcohol is likely to be one of the least important factors. My target in this post is with those feminists who want to deny it is a factor at all; and while I acknowledge not all do this, some do. Whenever discussions of victim blaming emerge there are some people who object to the very notion of suggesting that being drunk increases vulnerability, and who claim that any attempt to give people advice about how to keep themselves safe is tantamount to victim blaming. I think that is unhelpful, possibly even dangerous, and built upon a factual mistake, an error in reasoning, the error I tried to spell out in this post.

      I do not think that drunkenness is the main factor, or even a particularly important factor, in accounting for sexual assault. Nor do I think that if someone is drunk, they are to blame if they are later assaulted. What I do think is that everyone, men and women, should be aware of the things that make them vulnerable, and take sensible measures to look after themselves. Getting drunk increases the risk of you getting hit by a car, getting your purse stolen, burning your house down…and so it’s probably a good idea we advise people not to get so drunk they put themselves in danger of these things. The idea that we can’t give the same advice to people about sexual assault, because that is victim blaming, is wrong and unhelpful. We can give women practical guidance about how to avoid certain types of sexual assault (while recognizing that this won’t protect them from being assaulted by men they trust) without blaming them if they are assaulted.


  10. Very interesting post and comments. I agree with the general point you make and think it’s important to make it, because bending or ignoring facts to suit a point of view makes everything you say on an issue less convincing than it would otherwise be. Feminists can tell each other that victim blaming is terrible all we want, but to convince others, our arguments have to be rigorous and sound. It’s about not handing doubters a reason to dismiss the whole argument.

    But I would like to know what the statistics really are on drunkenness and rape, as I am not convinced that the assumptions you criticise here are actually wrong.

    I also thought the points that Herbsandhags makes are very well argued and I hadn’t thought bout that before, how the warning posters you see in pubs etc about not getting into unlicenced cabs etc fuel the “she was asking for it” mentality on so many levels. That post has pretty much convinced me that these warnings do more harm than good in the long term.


  11. I very much agree that it’s important to apply rigour to all of our thinking, including (and maybe especially) that which underpins political activism – so thank you for this post & for thinking about the issue.

    I can’r put it in formal terms (no training), but what bothers me about the argument is the first premise – that getting drunk makes it more likely that you’ll be a victim of rape. And not _just_ because we have no data to support that premise (we know that “alcohol is involved” in a fairly high proportion of rapes that come to trial, but that’s pretty much it – who drank and how drunk they got is harder to get at).

    We do have some data on how rapists choose their victims however, with the operative word being “choose”; unlike gravity, which has no way of deciding to not break your back, rapists apply judgement to which woman to victimise, and that judgement is driven by basically one consideration: “how likely am I to get away with it?”.

    The first things rapists look for are signs of insecurity and lack of firm boundaries. Women who are uncomfortable saying “no”, who let men get in their personal space without pushing back, who are unsure of their social standing in their surroundings and so on. These women are less likely to resist and less likely to report the rape afterwards, probably choosing to blame themselves, and rapists know that.

    The second factor is how likely they are to face social sanctions for raping someone. So they go for women who are known to have a history of promiscuity, women who are dressed “provocatively” (note that this can ear very different interpretations in different social groups) and women who are drunk. _However_, what makes them choose women who are drunk is _not_ the fact that they are inebriated or incapacitated – it is the fact that rapists know, because we keep telling them, that if a woman is drunk she is more likely to be raped. They don’t go for drunk women because they’re soft targets (the first set of traits takes care of that), they go for drunk women because they, too, believe that it’s more likely that those are the ones who will end up rape victims.

    We get muddled around alcohol because it changes one’s perception (well, and also because the drinking myth is *our* myth, so we can’t see it very clearly), but really anything we keep saying leads to rape will end up, in fact, leading to rape. In Saudi Arabia they believe that it’s dangerous for a woman to leave the house without a male guardian, even in broad daylight, so the rapist population is heavily over-represented in the ranks of taxi drivers. Sure, having a woman alone in your car is _a factor_, but the normative cover they get from the prevailing beliefs in their society is probably an even bigger factor.

    So I would change that premise to “If you are drunk, it is more likely that a rapists will believe that you are more likely to be raped”, or something a bit like that, but less clumsy.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment Marina.

      First of all – I agree that we need data to know whether the empirical premise is true. I don’t have that data, so you’re right that we can’t be certain that the premise is true. In the absence of data either way though, I think it’s reasonable to assume that being drunk makes you more vulnerable, just because it would be very surprising if it didn’t. Holding everything else equal, the risks involved in pretty much every activity seem on the face of it to be exacerbated by drunkenness. Walking home in the dark along a winding, poorly lit road is risky because I might get hit by a car. If I’m also drunk, it seems plausible to think the risk is heightened, because of the physiological effects of alcohol on the body making my reactions slower and my control over my body weaker. So while I agree with you that we would need to check the data, in the absence of that, it seems a much more reasonable assumption than any other we could make.

      So your second point, if I understand you correctly, is that even if the empirical premise is true, this doesn’t tell us anything about why it is true – what makes it true. And your point is that one of the things that makes it true is the choices of other people – namely, rapists. It is precisely the fact that rapists believe drunk women are more vulnerable that contributes to the increased risk. Presumably there are a couple of factors at play – they choose drunk women because they are easier targets, and they choose drunk women because they know that they are more likely to get away with it.

      I think that’s a really excellent point, and one I definitely hadn’t given enough thought to up to now. I think it is only part of the causal story. One part of the (undefended) causal story is simply to do with greater physical vulnerability and lack of control, awareness and slower reactions. Someone (on twitter I think) wanted to deny this by saying – “I’m physically tiny, if a man wants to force himself on me there’s nothing I could do anyway”. But that doesn’t negate the point that no matter how vulnerable she is, she would presumably be even more so if she was also drunk, with slower reactions times and physical control.

      But it’s a very good point to make that this is only part of the causal explanation, and the other part is the beliefs and choices of rapists that makes it so. I think that’s absolutely correct; I don’t deny it at all. And as a society we ought to address that. We need to change men’s beliefs that drunk women are legitimate targets, and try to change the cultural attitude of victim blaming that means a man who rapes a drunk woman is unlikely to be convicted. But again, when we’re having that conversation, we’re doing moral philosophy or political theory. It doesn’t change the facts, which is that holding everything else equal, being drunk increases your risk of being attacked. It ought not to; but it does.

      I hope that makes sense, let me know if it doesn’t. And thanks for the great comment.


      1. Seeing you tweet this out just now reminded me that I had wanted to come back to this & bring up the issue of causality.

        In most of the examples that are usually given as analogies to the “drinking increases your chances of being raped”, the risk is directly caused by the action. In your example of stumbling into the road, it’s clear that you are causally implicated in any resulting accident, because the car, on it part, doesn’t need to be doing anything other than what cars normally do, i.e. driving down the road, in order to hit you.

        Even on the most pessimistic assessment of male nature, this is not true of rape; men are not on a constant potential collision course with vaginas. They don’t have special vagina-free roads to drive on and vaginas are not usually expected to remain on the sidelines of those roads. Likewise, alcohol doesn’t make penises spring up in unexpected places, either.

        So the reason I think this is still flawed, is that essentially the syllogism is saying “by doing action A you are causing/increasing the likelihood of causing action B by someone else”, which, except in cases like pushing & falling, is not actually true.

        I do understand what you’re saying re: a correlation. If such exists, which is unlikely, then there is at least some value in discussing this syllogism; but in general I think a discussion of it obscures more than it eliminates.


  12. The point is we’re not facing physical causality (driving too fast or after drinking alcohol, v.g., certainly increases the risk of an accident, no matter the culture one belongs to), but social causality. There’s an interaction between the choices of potential victims (clothing, drinking, flerting, walking alone late in the street etc) and the choices or – which is more important – the values and representations of potential agressors (if you can read spanish, i suggest: MAILLO, Alfonso Serrano. Etiología, prevención y atención en victimología a través del ejemplo de la precipitación en los delitos contra la libertad sexual []). That adds complexity to the problem.

    If a girl lives in a place where people respects woman’s autonomy, the risks (in terms of sexual criminality) she exposes to by binge drinking are smaller, or perhaps we can even admit there’s none; but, the more machist is a society, then greater the risk she sposes to by doing that. It means, in the last case, that the possibility that someone DECIDS raping her is larger, because presumably more potential agressors will notice she is unable to say yes or no, defend herself or call any help – more man would think of this conditions as proper moment to attack (OPPORTUNITY). And we can say the same about dressing: in a culture of rape, certain kinds of clothing may be seen as a manner of conscient PROVOCATION or CONSENT (we know these representations are wrong, both morally and as matter of pure psicological fact) or may simply be a trigger to the desire of a potential raper; in a ideal morally developed society, everyone would just respect her right to dress the way she wants.

    To give an example of a different kind of delinquence – the question whether exibiting goods on the street without protection should or not be considered a risky behavior dependes where you are: if it’s a strange place, than perheps you “should” (i’ll further examine the nature of this category) not take a walk with your best clothes and your golden watch, Iphone, etc (here in Brazil, we avoid that).

    But, my objective is not to discuss the details concerning the empirical premiss – causality (or victim precipitation – based on the interest you show about the debate, i’ll sugest you to take further read on this topic), because there’s a huge debate on this concept and i don’t know if we can properly adress it here. We should just make it clear that what increases the chances of an event is not necessarily it’s cause (not even a necessary or sufficient condition) – many philosophers actually state that causality needs or is more than that.

    What we already know is that responsibility dependes on the existence of a relation of (factual) causality between our conduct and the event we’re investigating, as well as the capacity of the agent to assess that relation. Indeed, we’re only responsible for what we can control. But are we blameworthiness for everything we can control? Not in my opinion.

    So I would like to further examine the deonthological aspect of the problem, as you have proposed, which is not only an independent issue from causality but I also believe that’s the one more relevant. To do so, I think we would benefit from a conceptual distinction between broader forms of responsibility and blameworthiness – tell me if you agree with that:

    I bleieve the later, blameworthiness, is the ONLY form of MORAL responsibility (if we think of morals as a topic of the greater thema of ethics) – and that we’re to be blamed only when our control HARMS OTHER’s rights or when we don’t help OTHERS (as long as we have the duty to do so). So, even if we do can control the possibility of being sexually harmed by others (we’re responsible to what happens to our body), we can’t be blamed for being ourselves victims, because it’s OUR OWN rights we had put in danger.

    Nonetheless, we ARE responsible for that. We do have the DUTY to behave properly not to being harmed, but that’s not a moral duty, yet a prudential duty (i SHOULD not bingedrink IF i don’t want to be harmed – that’s not a categorical imperativ, but a conditional one). That means we have the RIGHT to decide if we’ll try to prevent the harm or do something else that fulfills us more as a person (if i i’m a feminist in Russia, i would go out naked to protest in the streets, even knowing the risks of been jailed for it). I would be, by doing that, choosing to follow another concorrent and conditional duty – the one that commands us to pursue happyness (in a ethical sense). And if I do not act accordingly to the duty of selfpreservation and get harmed after all, the person who does the harm to me is still FULLY morally responsible (or blameworthiness), because moral obligations are categorical.

    Conclusion: prudential responsibility of the victim does not exclude or diminishes the moral responsibility (blameworthiness) of the criminal.

    But that phenomenon could also happen in the case of responsibilities of the same kind (two equally and fully moral responsible man for only a single bad event):

    A father who is convinced to give her little child to the cares of a known pedophile man (but for argumentative purposes let’s assume the guy can control himself just as any other mentally sane man). The father knows what can happen, but he just doesn’t care – he got his money. The pedophile rapes the child, as expected. Who’s responsible for that (or, who should be punished and how)? I think they both are morally responsible (blameworthiness) and should be equally punished with no mitigation, even if the final decision of raping belonged only to the pedophile.

    Finally, i also think the best way fighting rape culture is not telling woman not to risk themselves, but educating and punishing man. That doesn’t individual should be treated like scape goats, hurting themselves for a cause – they must know the possible consequences of their behavior and prepare themselves to deal with it.

    That’s all! I’m sorry for the long comment and for my poor writing skills in english. I think you have made a really good job in your inicial post and answering the comments. I’ve learned a lot and hope to hear your further considerations

    Diego Mendes


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