Victim blaming and ‘asking for it’

by lizmckinnell

A short section of a thing I’m working on at the moment. The overall thing will be about the general notion of victim blaming and the instances it is used to cover. There will be lots of J.L. Austin in it.

The phrase ‘asking for it’, used in so many cases of rape and sexual assault, masks a distinction between two very different notions, and often slides between its two different senses. The distinction is that between a provocation and a request. On the provocation model, a woman’s clothes, behaviour or location are seen as a red rag to a bull – the perpetrator is presented as having been ‘provoked’ to commit the assault. This is similar to the ‘Right, now you’re asking for it!’ of a barroom brawl. On the request model, the perpetrator is claimed to have responded in a reasonable or understandable way to a masked or non-verbal request for sexual contact.

‘Provocation’ itself is typically used in a range of ways: I might be wearing a provocative top, or say provocative things about a renowned philosopher (perhaps both at the same time). These cases are very different: the latter might be a cause for condemnation, while the former is in most cases fairly benign. Perhaps sometimes I might even provoke thought. ‘Provocation’ also has legal and medical uses. The legal use is parasitic on the ordinary understanding of provoking anger: under many jurisdictions, someone charged with committing a violent crime may be excused or exculpated if they have been ‘provoked’ in a way that has led them to lose control. In the medical sense, ‘provocation’ is any technique used in a clinical trial to elicit a particular reflex or bodily response. The legal, medical and anger cases suggest a loss of control or responsibility for one’s own actions, an absence of the capacity for rational thought, and the eliciting of a response that is not fully voluntary. This seems to be an element of the sexual sense too, although one that we are probably better off without.

The sense in which ‘asking for it’ is construed as a request is in strong contrast to this. It is used when a victim is understood to be consenting by behaving in particular ways, for example by going to the perpetrator’s room, or by dancing with him. If we understand it in this way, then the perpetrator is understood as someone who is capable of attending to another person’s intentions, and acting on the basis of what he takes those intentions to be. The behaviour is taken either to express the victim’s desire for sexual contact, or to be reasonably interpretable as doing so.

It seems unlikely that someone could be capable of behaving in this manner, while at the same time being so ‘provoked’ in the former sense that they are unresponsive to the normal reasons for action. On the first understanding of ‘asking for it’, the perpetrator is (partially) excused on the basis that he is not in control of his actions, while in the latter, he is (partially) excused because he has made a reasonable interpretation of the situation before him and acted accordingly. The cases also differ with respect to the perpetrator’s supposed attitude to the victim. In the first case he is portrayed as (excusably) unresponsive to her preferences and wellbeing, while in the second he is portrayed as responsive to them.

In both senses, this phrase is a case of blaming the victim, but for different reasons. In the first sense, the perpetrator is presented as the proximate cause of the attack, but his moral responsibility is taken to be overridden. In such cases, his actions are taken to be caused rather than chosen, and the victim is then taken to be the most immediately responsible party with free agency. This is usually only taken to be ‘partial’ blame, where the perpetrator’s actions are not so beyond his control that he is entirely exculpated, and the blame is ‘distributed’ between perpetrator and victim. The second case is also an instance of victim blaming, but the victim is blamed either (a) for claiming that a rape or sexual assault has occurred when she was ‘actually’ consenting; or (b) for misleading by ‘sending out the wrong signals’. In both (a) and (b) the victim is presented as dishonest or misleading. Again, this kind of victim blaming may be an element of a (purported) partial excuse, but notice that those who blame the victim in this way can present the behaviour of the perpetrator as entirely reasonable.

In reality though, these very different meanings tend to be equivocated, despite their near-incompatibility.