On Rape and Empowerment

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Sophie has a thought provoking piece on the controversy surrounding Chrissie Hynde—the lead singer of the Pretenders—and her comments regarding a sexual assault she experienced four decades ago. Sophie isolates an interesting irony among Hynde’s critics:

[T]here’s no denying that speaking publicly, as Hynde has done, about how women can be to blame for being sexually assaulted if they’re dressed provocatively is both wrongheaded and extraordinarily damaging to many victims of rape. But Hynde’s choice of words—comparing the outraged responses to her comments to a “lynch mob”—seems to demonstrate that she feels more victimized by the flood of comments and messages and thinkpieces and news hits responding to her story than she does by actually being assaulted in the first place.

Which raises the question: Is attacking Hynde for blaming herself (and yes, by association, blaming others) ultimately productive and worth the cost of revictimizing her? Or is the impulse to shame her and others like her sometimes more about self-gratification than advocacy?

Sophie continues with an incisive indictment of Twitter as a means of expression. Meanwhile, a few readers take on the highly-charged topic of rape prevention:

Chrissie Hynde is refusing to be a helpless victim. There’s a fine line between taking responsibility for what one can take responsibility for, and blaming the victim or letting bad people off the hook … but I believe she is properly walking that line. Chrissie is what a genuinely empowered woman looks like.

Shit happens, for sure. The difference between the empowered person and the victim is that the former refuses to see him/herself as a helpless object. In this instance, Chrissie is deciding to focus on herself and what part she played in the instance, and not merely saying that someone did X to helpless, innocent little her. She is a better, stronger person for her attitude.

And I’m not blaming the rape victim here. I’m applauding how she responded to her rape, by HER deciding to take back some level of control by taking some level responsibility for the obvious mistakes in judgement she made. It’s a hugely self-actualized thing to do.

At UCLA where I work, every year a dean warns young women not to get drunk out of their minds at frat parties or Spring Break, because the stats show that they raise their chances of being raped astronomically. And each year the dean (a female) gets slandered as anti-woman and a rape apologist by the kids who are angry at the fact that humans can be very ugly and that life is unfair.

Another reader has a similar stance on the dangers of college life:

In a perfect world, female students would be able to drink as heavily as they would like with no risk of sexual assault, and no amount of drinking makes them deserve to be raped. In this world, though, alcohol is the most common date rape drug. It shouldn’t be considered impossible to tell students that while a woman incapacitated by drinking is in no way to blame for her rape, she still should be aware that controlling her level of intoxication is a vital part of protecting herself.

Rapists exist and will continue to exist for some time. It’s clear to any sane person that a rapist is completely to blame for a rape. We are right to disagree with the Hyndes of the world when they seek to remove blame from the correct targets and heap it on those who suffer from their actions. But taking that to an extreme—where we ignore realities and withhold advice that could help women—isn’t positive either. We need to find a balance between the two.

All this makes me think of a quote from an article I read recently regarding a rape drug detection device in the form of nail polish that would test drinks for contamination on-the-spot:

“Whilst Undercover Color’s initiative is well meaning, on the whole,” [Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England & Wales] said, “Rape Crisis does not endorse or promote such a product or anything similar. This is for three reasons: it implies that it’s the woman’s fault and assumes responsibility on her behalf, and detracts from the real issues that arise from sexual violence.”

“For us, we work with victims to make them realise that they did nothing wrong,” she added. “Among primary cases, some do ask if they could have done anything to stop it. Products like this suggest otherwise. The emphasis must be placed 100% on the perpetrator.”

That organization isn’t suggesting the devices wouldn’t work for the intended purpose; they are literally saying that they would rather these tools did not exist because they imply even to the slightest degree that a woman might take an active role in protecting herself. They would discourage women from using them—and perhaps allow actual rapes to happen that could have been prevented—in order to protect the sanctity of this idea.

There’s something wrong with that stance.

Disagree? Drop us a note and I’ll post the strongest counterpoints.