What can be learned from the now notorious Reddit rape thread? Most of the commenters beneath Megan Carpentier’s CiF article think the answer is nothing – the apparent confessions of rapists and abusers are unverifiable, they (quite rightly) say. Any analysis of their content must be suspect. The conclusions Carpentier draws are built on sand.
Well, I disagree.
As I said in a comment here , I believe most of the Reddit admissions are probably genuine. In browsing them, countless thousands of readers were exposed to the anecdotes about rape that tally strongly with at least 30 years of research into criminology and forensic psychology. Even if every post were pure fiction, the stories they tell are astonishingly true to life.
Despite hundreds of posts of condemnation, any doubts I had about the value of the Reddit thread, and indeed the value in linking to it, evaporated when I read just one post from the commenter gherkingirl. Over many years she has written and blogged with insight, compassion and enormous courage, about her experience as a rape survivor and her own pursuit of justice. In this comment she described her reaction to perhaps the most harrowing and disturbing of all the confessions, which she said could just as easily have been written by the man who first raped her.
“I came away finally seeing that it wasn’t something we victims had done. It wasn’t our hemlines or our flirtatiousness or taking a cab or having another chardonnay. It was because a certain type of man wants to rape.”
She expanded upon the point movingly and eloquently on her own blog:
“For years I’ve known deep down that it wasn’t my fault I was raped. It wasn’t what I was wearing or what I’d been doing, but I’ve always ultimately felt that there is something inside me that makes this violence happen to me. Like a spark on a flint in certain lights, there is something that surfaces and is why I’ve had so many frightening overwhelming experiences with men and been raped twice. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put my finger on it and it’s too painful to ask other people what it might be. But it would explain why men treat me so aggressively while being nothing like it with other women. But reading this comment, for the first time since I was raped, it occurred to me that these assaults aren’t something to do with me. They’re something to do with the type of man who thinks and acts like this.”
One of the most controversial aspects to the rape debate is the attribution of responsibility. We hear it in every discussion on rape – some variation on “of course the rapist is entirely to blame, but women must surely take some responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.” We see this in the traditional crime prevention advice, issued both through formal channels and bar-room punditry, that focuses on the potential victim and what (usually) she can do to keep herself safe – not walking alone through dark and isolated places; ensuring her drink isn’t spiked; not becoming insensibly intoxicated; or – at its most notoriously crass – “avoid dressing like sluts.” We even saw this applied to children, by a vicar no less, on BBC Question Time in the aftermath of the Rochdale grooming case. “They go out dressed as if they are looking for that sort of issue to take place”
The feminist lexicon describes this as ‘victim-blaming.’ I don’t think that term is helpful. The people issuing these opinions don’t intend to blame the victim, and I’m sure it doesn’t feel like that as they say the words. Consequently they become defensive and angry when it is suggested that they’ve done it. A better phrase would be something like ‘responsibility-shifting.’ These comments shift at least some of the responsibility for preventing the crime from the perpetrator to the victim. Repeated endlessly, as a refrain of popular wisdom and so-called common sense, they inevitably leave many rape victims thinking there must have been something they could have done to have prevented it happening.
The message is damaging to survivors, but perhaps more importantly, it is downright false. The Reddit thread found none of the respondents talking of their victims flaunting their sexuality with miniskirts and boob-tubes, dancing naked on pool tables or shamelessly prick-teasing their attackers according to stereotype. On the contrary, the serial rapist referred to above explained how he selected his victims meticulously by their shy and insecure personality-type, and planned his attacks down to the finest detail of his preferred modus operandi. Others described taking advantage of girls in their sleep, or riding roughshod over the consent limits of their girlfriends or dates. Every one described himself as being in control of his actions, making a conscious decision to rape. There was nothing any of their victims could have been reasonably expected to do that would have prevented the attacks occurring.
The other consequence of shifting responsibility is to portray sexual assault as an inevitability, a fact of nature. Go out without your umbrella and you might get caught in a rain shower, go out in a miniskirt and you might get caught in a rape. There is I think a serious risk that this serves to normalise rape in the minds of rapists. Rather than thinking sexual assault being something done by aberrant, cruel, destructive individuals, it is something done to careless or helpless victims. Of course some rapists with sociopathic tendencies will be indifferent to such concerns, but the Reddit posts reveal others who were racked by indecision, guilt and uncertainty. It might only take such a slight cognitive twist to make some potential rapists think better of their intentions.
There are many other lessons that could be learned from the Reddit thread and subsequent discussion, but this one alone is enough to justify the initial thread, and the articles on CIF and elsewhere. I think Megan Carpentier was wrong to say that the people who need to be educated about rape are our men and boys. It goes deeper than that. It is society – men, women, boys, girls and the intangible strands of our culture that still need to be educated, and if it could learn one lesson it is that responsibility for rapes lies foursquare with rapists, and nowhere else.