In defense of the “weaker sex”

Note: This article first appeared on Monday, February 28th on Canadian Atheist. While it is CA policy not to cross-post, I felt that this case needed to be made on as many outlets as I could.

A good friend of mine posted a story on my Facebook wall last week about a police officer who fell victim to the arch-stupidity of the “she was asking for it” argument:

A police officer who suggested women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” has apologized, saying he is “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”

“I made a comment which was poorly thought out and did not reflect the commitment of the Toronto Police Service to the victims of sexual assaults,” Const. Michael Sanguinetti wrote on Thursday to Osgoode Hall Law School where he made the comment. “Violent crimes such as sexual assaults can have a traumatizing effect on their victims. . . . My comment was hurtful in this respect.”

It’s a tired trope that is almost guaranteed to come up in any discussion of women and sexuality – if women didn’t make themselves so open to sexual predators then they’d be safer. It is due to the privilege of being male that this argument offends me only intellectually, since I will never be the target of a sexual assault. I will never appreciate the visceral part of the feminist response to this argument, try as I might. The reason this particular friend posted the link on my wall is that she and I have gone 9 rounds on it in the past, with me articulating the “personal responsibility” position. Don’t worry – I got better.

However, a second friend of mine saw this and posted what he thought was an entirely reasonable response. His response (I’ll call him “Billy” just so we can avoid pronoun confusion) was that the story failed to take the police officer’s side into account. It is a fact, said Billy, that women will be less inviting targets for assault if they are dressed more conservatively and hide their sexuality. Billy didn’t understand why this was such a controversial statement, and was taken aback with Sheila’s (again, for the same of pronoun confusion) full-throated and confrontational response. Billy messaged me afterward to apologize for starting a fight on my wall, and confessing that he couldn’t really understand what he had said that was so inflammatory.

The problem with this “she was asking for it” argument, aside from the fact that it isn’t true (sexual assault is just as common in Muslim countries where women have to stay covered and none of them dress sexy for fear of being arrested, beaten, or scalded with acid), is that it completely misses the point, and tries to derive an “ought” from an “is”. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. The solution to the problem is not for women to “dress less slutty” (a phrase which is provocative enough on its own), but for men to realize that a woman’s choice of dress is not an open invitation to sexual assault.

It seems as though this seemingly-obvious (once explained) argument still has yet to suffuse through common consciousness:

A University of Manitoba law professor has concerns about a judge’s comments at a sexual assault sentencing. Karen Busby said the remarks by Justice Robert Dewar are a legal throwback to the time when how a woman dressed or acted could be treated as implied consent to sex. Dewar said “sex was in the air” when he spared a man jail time by handing him a two-year conditional sentence instead and allowing him to remain free in the community.

During the sentencing, Dewar also commented on the way the woman was dressed and her actions the night she was forced to have sex in the woods along a dark highway outside Thompson in 2006. The man and a friend met the 26-year-old woman and her girlfriend earlier that night outside a bar under what the judge called “inviting circumstances.” He pointed out the victim and her friend were dressed in tube tops, no bras, and high heels and noted they were wearing plenty of makeup. Dewar called the man a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted.

On a Facebook wall, the kind of statement that Billy made (although, to be sure, he didn’t intend to suggest that it is a rape victim’s fault for being assaulted and he went out of his way to say so) is merely annoying. When it comes from a judge’s mouth, it carries behind it the force of law. I do not wish to derogate Justice Dewar’s abilities as a jurist – perhaps he would have handed down an identical sentence if the victim’s clothing had not been a factor. One cannot guarantee that this would have been the case for all judges, although it certainly should be.

And certainly, this kind of cavalier attitude toward sexual assault does appear in other places:

Reports that women are being sexually assaulted at a Downtown Eastside shelter are being ignored, a coalition of women and women’s groups is charging. But the agency that oversees the First United Church co-ed shelter at Gore and Hastings says it has had meetings with both police and women’s groups on the matter and is actively working to address it. “The safety and security of people using provincially funded shelters are our top priority,” said a statement from BC Housing, which funds and has an operation agreement with the shelter. “We will continue working together to make sure the shelter is a safe place to stay.” But Harsha Walia, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter, said women have reported sexual abuse to front-line workers, police and staff at the shelter, and nothing has been done about it.

When it is a woman’s fault for being assaulted, when her mere presence is provocation enough to justify some kind of violence against her, we know something has gone terribly wrong. When we turn a blind eye to women being assaulted, we cannot call ourselves a society where women enjoy equal or sufficient rights under the law. And because language like “she was asking for it” or “don’t dress like a slut” only serves to reinforce the casual tolerance of violence against women that leads to assault, it is the job of every feminist to speak out against it whenever it comes up. It will forever be a source of chagrin for me that I didn’t always speak this way, but I bloody well will from now on.

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  1. says

    In my experience, the ‘she was asking for it’ argument is rooted in the assumption that men should just be expected to be rapists – and if the woman in question doesn’t take that into account when choosing what she wears or how she acts, then it’s really her own fault, right?

    So there’s two sides to this. The first and most obvious is the one you’ve taken to task above and that I’d happily echo: Dressing conservatively is no protection against rape, but even if it was women who fail to do so still shouldn’t be blamed anyway – it’s not their fault.

    But there’s another side to this that you didn’t mention. At least, that you didn’t mention here.

    The ‘she was asking for it’ argument must be founded on two notions about men.

    1) That a significant proportion of men are walking around with a hair-trigger for rape
    2) That 1) should just be accepted as an incurable fact of nature

    I find those offensive on their own – I don’t like the assumption that I may be suspected of being a borderline rapist simply because I happen to have been born with dangly parts between my legs.

    But more importantly, these two notions tend to be used by many men (and some women) as a means of excusing men of the crime of rape. As if it is something outside of male control, something for which a man cannot be held entirely responsible. It’s a man’s nature, see.

    Related to this, another thing I’ve only recently started to notice is that whenever you read an account about rape, you never really hear about the rapist. Only the victim.

    What was the victim wearing, how many people she was with, was she drinking and if so how much, was taking drugs, what was her relationship with her father, are her parents divorced, are her parents dead, how educated was she, did she move out of home at a young age, was she smoking, what kind of music was she dancing to, was she a member of a gang, what did she do for a living, what are her past boyfriends like? And so on.

    But you don’t really hear anything about the actual rapist. He just lurks beneath the text of the account like a ghost.

    What about him? What was in his past? What set him up to make him tick the way he does? Was he drinking or on drugs? How educated was he? What did he do for a living? Did he have a history of violence towards women? What was his relationship with his mother like? What about his father? What’s his background?

    No. You never really hear about the rapist. He’s not really interesting. After all, he’s just one of those slathering force-of-nature rapists out there. Can’t be helped or blamed, it’s just how he is – there’s nothing to understand in the first place, nothing to be done.

    Therefore it must be the victim’s fault for allowing herself to fall into his wicked clutches.

    Not a healthy view for all people concerned.

    We need to be more interested in what makes rapists into rapists. Because rapists are the cause of rape. Not the victims.

    In terms of causation, all that we can meaningfully say about the victim is that she had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – she happened to be in the presence of a man who had the inclination and opportunity to rape her, then did so.

    Anything else the victim has or hasn’t done becomes once we put the focus back onto the rapist.

  2. Ethan Clow says

    A very good post, but I would take issue with one thing (or at the very least, point out)

    “It is due to the privilege of being male that this argument offends me only intellectually, since I will never be the target of a sexual assault.”

    I think its important to mention that men are raped and sexual violence against men is both possible and at times, even likely.

  3. says

    Want to lay odds that the next man who gets raped won’t have a member of the police force say it was because he was dressed like a slut?

  4. says


    I’m in Auckland – so yeah, I’ve been fine.

    My mother’s partner *almost* accepted a business meeting in Christchurch that day. The restaurant he would have been eating in was destroyed.

    Scary times.

    Thanks for the concern.

  5. Ethan Clow says

    My comment was directed at the quote I pointed out. I have nothing against the general topic of the post that there is a stigma against rape victims. I whole heartily agree with that sentiment.

    I do however disagree that a man can’t understand rape, men are not immune to rape. Sure, if a man gets raped the cops might not suggest it was because he was dressed provocatively, but there are other ways to blame the victim besides saying clothing was a sexual invitation.

  6. says

    At no point did I say that I can’t understand RAPE, I was just pointing out that this argument will likely never be used against me – my emotional connection to it is therefore negligible. It was not my intention to suggest that men can never be the victims of sexual assault, but the odds of that happening (to me in particular) are far and away much smaller than they are for a women my age.

  7. says

    I can accept that much, I suppose. American History X and Shawshank redemption springs to mind.

    All the same: Rape is not something I’ve ever feared would happen to me during day-to-day events – such as crossing a dimly lit parking lot, or getting a bit too drunk on a night out on the town.

    Few women I know could make the same claim. The situation between the two worlds is not equal. I’m not sure if that’s male privileged or female dis-privilege – but either way, it’s a salient point that should be acknowledged one way or another.

  8. Lara Beaton says

    Yes, a full 9% of all rape victims are men.

    This article is about the other 91%.

    Other interesting statistics include the fact that 99% of all rapists are men, and 0% of all *male* rape victims are accused of “asking for it” by drinking too much, dancing too provocatively, or dressing too “slutty”.

  9. says

    To be fair, I don’t think Ethan’s comment was intended to convey that men being raped was more important, only that my saying that I wouldn’t be a victim of rape is not necessarily true and neglects the fact that there are male rape victims.

    Again, my intention was simply to point out that the argument that is the topic of this post will never be used against me, rape victim or no.

  10. says

    As a digression:

    I’d suggest that men definitely do understand rape.

    I’ve long suspected that often, homophobic men are homophobic because they fear rape, and because they resent having to acknowledge the possibility that they may be raped.

    I don’t have a lot to go on with this idea – it’s just speculation at this point.

    But I would really like to see a study that took a wide sample of men and then searched for a correlation between homophobia and acceptance of the notions 1) and 2) I mentioned above.

    Probably worth throwing religion and political ideology into the mix too just to see what comes out.

    Regardless of the results, I think that would be a really interesting study.

  11. says

    I’d be more inclined to believe that homophobic men are the way they are because they have their own latent homosexual tendencies and have difficulty dealing with them. You don’t chase down and beat up a gay couple walking home because you’re afraid they’re going to team up and rape you.

  12. says

    My problem with the ‘homophobes are latently homosexual’ is that it kind of implies that straight people can’t be homophobes. I would be very surprised if that turned out to be true.

    That’s not to say that latent homosexuality doesn’t make a contribution to homophobia. Ted Haggard springs to mind.

    I just don’t think that latent homosexuality explains enough… And I’m also not prepared to let straight people off the hook.

    But hey – like I said, it’s just armchair speculation. I’m no social scientist or whatnot.

  13. Ethan Clow says

    @Crommunist, just to be clear, I didn’t mean to imply that you were saying men couldn’t understand rape like a woman could.

    As you suggested, I just wanted to point out that men (despite what most of us men probably think) can be victims of sexual assault.

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