Rape & Pragmatism

Rape & Pragmatism

Last week, my friend Casey Hynes wrote an article for Asian Correspondent about the dangers facing women travelers. She focused on the numerous high-profile assaults that have occurred in India, Bali, and Thailand.

As is typical regarding this topic, her article provoked a number comments (both on Asian Correspondent and ThaiVisa.com) criticizing the behavior of the female victims:

There’s a reason many Thai women will never get into a taxi alone or walk dark streets - they’re SENSIBLE, just as the Western women no doubt would be in their own home country. …

Should it happen? No. Does it happen? Yes. What is the answer? Common Sense… not some sort of movement or united stand or whatever’s being suggested in the article (Why? Because the rapists won’t be listening!).

Here’s another:

Because the feminist narritive has entirely highjacked the social-political framework in Western countries. Young women now think that it is their right to get well pissed. Unfortunately with inebriation comes risk.

And another:

Women are no safer in their own countries! I have worked as a sexual abuse counseller in my own country, have lived and worked and traveled in Asia and India for 20 years. The fact of the matter is that women dress and act in ways that are inappropriate to Asian cultures, people are often offended by this. No one writes about this!

And another:

Western girls come over here, dress skimply, get pissed and/or drugged and then get into problems. I’m certainly not excusing the scum that abuse them, but, common sense and a little awareness would avert the problem.

Comments like this draw ire because of the apparent victim blaming, the focus on the victims' behavior as if they’re the ones at fault for being attacked.

I don’t think these commenters truly believe that sexual assault or rape is permissible. They think they are being practical and pragmatic. Yes, we all agree that rape is wrong, but if women took some sensible steps like dressing more “appropriately” or only traveling in groups, the number of rapes and sexual assaults would decrease.

Pragmatism Is Attractive

I was robbed recently while traveling. I lost around 3500 USD worth of equipment and I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I could have done to avoid the situation.

I could have left my laptop at home. I could have stayed at a nicer place. I could have brought my own locks for the doors. I could have hidden the equipment or left it with a friend while I was out. I could have avoided the place entirely and just stayed home.

Ultimately, I wished that the thief wouldn’t have stolen my stuff. He was actually responsible for what happened. Blaming myself just excuses his acts. (Which is why people find victim blaming so morally grotesque.) But you can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your own. So you go through the ritual of thinking about all the things you should have done differently.

That’s what a practical, sensible person does. They look at the situation as it is and they change their plans accordingly. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world.”

But there are problems with pragmatism.

What’s Practical?

It might be true that if Western women dressed differently there would be fewer rapes. It also might be true that if people didn’t buy expensive cars there would be less car jackings. If no one used smartphones in public they would be less likely to be mugged. And if everyone stayed at home as much as possible, the crime rate would drop precipitously.

Where is the cut-off for what is practical safety behavior and what isn’t? Is it actually sensible to never take a taxi alone, as one commenter suggested?

We might be able to identify extremes: Never traveling at all, not sensible. Never leaving cash sitting out on a hostel bed, sensible. But that still leaves at entire middle range of sensibility that’s mostly arbitrary.

And who decides what is within the acceptable range of sensible, practical behavior? There is no litmus test for sensibility:

  • What part of the world were you in?
  • How does that culture view female sexuality?
  • How liberal is the current generation of young men?
  • Were you wearing a tank-top and shorts?
  • How short were the shorts?
  • Were you wearing a bikini?
  • Were you on a beach?
  • How many other people were also wearing bikinis?
  • Are you traveling with a man?
  • Are you traveling with a big group?
  • How many drinks did you have?
  • Were you walking alone?
  • Were you behaving “alluringly”?
  • Did you make eye contact with any sketchy, local men?

Your score is 95%. Congratulations, you acted sensibly, being raped was not your fault!

You can’t apply such subjective and mercurial standards consistently, which means it ends up being just arbitrary opinion. This woman didn’t meet my random standard of what is sensible, therefore she is partially responsible.

Or, in the prescriptive sense: Women should meet my arbitrary standard of sensibility in order to reduce rapes.

That isn’t to say that some of the practical considerations when traveling aren’t helpful. I would certainly recommend to my female friends or loved ones to travel in groups when visiting India. But these practical matters are personal, subjective considerations that everyone needs to make for themselves. They can’t be dictated by third parties, they can’t be used to measure the victim’s responsibility, and they certainly are not a recipe for solving social problems.

Status Quo As A Given

Whenever humans are facing a large, society-wide problem, there is a split that happens in the approach to solving it. Some people, typically labeled “idealists,” have grand, sweeping solutions to the problem. Other people, labeled “pragmatists,” are focused more on incremental solutions that work within the existing system.

The pragmatic anti-war activist might think: It’s all well and good that you anti-war idealists want to end states, and dissolve borders, and dismantle militaries. But those kind of grand changes are unrealistic. If we simply fight for something practical, like convincing governments to respect the Geneva Conventions, we’d see tangible results in our lifetimes.

One of the commenters above said something similar about rape culture:

What is the answer? Common Sense… not some sort of movement or united stand or whatever’s being suggested in the article (Why? Because the rapists won’t be listening!).

The idea here is that rape won’t go away. Men will always rape women. (At least it’s equal opportunity sexism.) The solution is not an idealistic plan that makes men stop raping, it’s to adapt to the existing situation and take small, practical steps to reduce the number of rapes.

The status quo is a powerful thing. It feels impossible to make sweeping changes to things that happen in society. This is why, like I said before, pragmatism is attractive.

But when coming up with solutions to social problems, if you accept the status quo as a given, something that will not change or will change so slowly that you’re better off focusing on smaller, practical steps, you’ll never solve any large problems. Thinking the status quo will always be the status quo is the exact recipe for not changing things.

It’s hard for people to see the failure of pragmatism with current issues. How can we ever end war? Or rape? Or child abuse? It’s everywhere, it’s pervasive, it’s impossible to fight. But if we look to the past, it’s easier to understand why solving social problems requires idealism.

There was a time when slavery was the status quo. Yet we all recognize how bankrupt the following is as a strategy for social change:

It’s all well and good that you anti-slavery idealists want to end the slave trade, change entire economies based on slave labor, and free millions of people. But those kind of grand changes are unrealistic. If we simply fight for something practical, like convincing slave owners not to beat their slaves, we’d see tangible results in our lifetimes.

If you accept that rape and sexual violence, as they exist today, are just a given that we must all adapt to, you’ve already lost the battle.

Nothing benefits more than the system when you decide to work within it.

Meaningful social change requires people who reject the lure of pragmatism and focus on what looks impossible. Even if the change is slow and piecemeal. Even if they’re being labeled “unreasonable.”

There is, after all, more to that George Bernard Shaw quote.

Published on May 13, 2013
Cover image: Thai tuk-tuk, courtesy of Alan Haverty