Shifting Responsibility in Sexual Assault

Photo by Eric Parker

While I fully agree with the basic premise of this article that blaming the victim is inappropriate I think the article perpetuates the longstanding tradition of oversimplifying the fundamental issue. Here are two examples of that. First:

Males and females alike must know they are responsible for their bodies and their actions — that they have an unassailable right to decide whether someone else can touch them or not. They have a right to be safe. And they have an absolute duty to respect those rights in others.

At first glance that’s all true but it’s obviously oversimplified because stating that everyone has an absolute duty to respect the right of others to decide whether someone else can touch them or not hints that people ought to be able to rely on those around them to uphold that absolute duty. In other words, nothing the victim chooses should bear any scrutiny because the aggressor had an absolute duty. To say that how a potential victim dresses, acts, or talks has no bearing on the actions of potential aggressors is naive at best. While the aggressor should bear full responsibility for their actions, we must acknowledge that aggressors rarely choose their victims at random. The vast majority of the time they will be seeking some specific characteristics or vulnerabilities in their victims and the dress, speech, and actions of the potential victims will play into their calculations regarding whether any given target is the kind of victim they would seek.

Second Example:

The view that how one dresses leads to victimization is a warped perspective that diminishes both genders…

It also ignores the fact that rape or any form of assault is not some case of affection gone awry. It is an attack that’s about hatred and power and violence and a bunch of other things.

A simplified view of sexual aggression might assume that rape is a case of affection gone awry – that the aggressor acted because “I like blondes” (or children, that girl, etc.) – but the truth is that rape, like any other kind of assault, is about power and other motivations that are entirely independent of affection. Once again this is an oversimplification because sometimes rape is rooted in genuine affection but the affection of the aggressor is combined with cognitive impairment so that they act contrary to that affection. An article in Slate exploring the damage that comes from turning a blind eye to the existence of false accusations of rape highlights the biggest culprit for this kind of situation:

A 2010 paper by psychologist David Lisak … mentions another type of complaint that did not proceed: cases in which “the incident did not meet the legal elements of the crime of sexual assault.” … such allegations stem from conflicting definitions of what constitutes rape and consent—particularly in sexual encounters that involve alcohol. (emphasis mine)

Once again, no amount of alcohol or other chemical impairment mitigates the aggressor from bearing full responsibility for their actions but we must acknowledge that the presence of alcohol and/or drugs can blaze the trail from affection to rape.

Finally, I think a major element of oversimplification in the rape discussion is the implication from people of all perspectives that there is a single narrative or message for all parties. Considering that there are always at least two parties involved in a rape (at least one victim and at least one aggressor) there should be multiple distinct messages. One for aggressors and potential aggressors (both male and female) and another one for victims (both male and female) and another for potential victims – which obviously encompasses victims (both male and female). Let me share what I think three distinct messages should be. (Please note that I have no illusions that any of these are the messages that we are actually sending as a society to these people.)

Message to aggressors and potential aggressors

You will be held accountable for your actions. No amount of alcohol or drugs in your system or in your victim will mitigate anything you do or cause us to be more lenient in our judgement of your actions. Some of you don’t think of yourselves as potential aggressors. You would never intend to make people feel victimized by anything you do. You may even be in a situation where you have been called an aggressor and you feel it was a misunderstanding. You will wish that we don’t lump you in with those who are willing to do whatever they want without any pretense of decency or restraint (these are the aggressors who would victimize basically random people). We may recognize that most aggressors would prefer that their victims not feel victimized but we also recognize that many people will feel no need to distinguish between those who only victimize others while chemically impaired and those who do so out of pure evil intent. It’s your job to give people no excuse to view you as an aggressor. You should avoid ambiguous situations and any hint of intimacy with people who might not have the capacity to consent or who might change their minds after the fact.

To be completely frank, if you are drunk or using drugs that impair your cognitive function you may miss indications from someone you want to be intimate with that your attentions are unwanted but you will be treated legally as if you were in full control of your faculties. If someone that you want to be intimate with is drunk or otherwise impaired they may give ambiguous signals or even clear invitations and later decide that they didn’t consent. In that case you will be held accountable as if they had clearly declined consent at the time. If you don’t want to be treated as an aggressor avoid such situations.

Message to victims

We will seek justice for what you have gone through. We recognize that no amount of justice can undo what you have experienced but we hope that you will be able to find healing personally. We are here to help you seek justice and be able to take every possible precaution against being victimized again.

Message to potential victims

Sometimes people are victimized at random with no way to prepare or protect themselves. In such cases we can do nothing more than deal with the fallout after the fact. Thankfully there are things to know and do to minimize your risk for the majority of rape cases which are not random. First and foremost, keep in mind that while aggressors will be held accountable for their actions even if you or they are cognitively impaired by alcohol or drugs, no amount of holding them accountable will prevent you from having to deal with the mental and emotional consequences of being victimized so you should pay attention and avoid high risk situations whenever possible.

Specifically consider that if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs you will be physically less able to defend yourself and mentally more likely to give ambiguous or misleading signals to those around you which increases your risk. Also consider that those around you who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs will have their inhibitions lowered so that even if you are giving clear signals they may ignore those signals and seek to act on their urges anyway. Spending time in places where alcohol and/or drugs are in use automatically increases your risk of being victimized. Also, whether we like it or not, the truth is that for many people provocative or revealing clothing or actions are taken as an indication that you are open to sexual advances. This is especially true for people who have had their inhibitions lowered. This doesn’t mean that dressing in revealing clothing puts the blame on you but it does increase your risk and deserves your consideration if you are hoping to minimize that risk.


We should never blame the victim or justify the aggressor in a sexual assault but there is a time and place to discuss risk factors and teaching potential victims how to minimize their risk. Talking about specific, current cases and talking to those who have been recently victimized or who are in the process of seeking justice isn’t the time to dissect risk factors and suggest that the victim should have done something different. On the other hand, talking about specific risk factors and ways to minimize risk isn’t blaming the victim.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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