Asking For It

By Mark Trodden | November 21, 2005 8:25 am

A recent study in Britain has found some startling results regarding how the public views murder victims. Here is part of the breakdown:

  • One in three people think that if the victim disagreed with things that the murderer said, and debated with them, that they were at least partially responsible for being murdered.
  • About the same proportion of people think that victims are partially or wholly responsible for being murdered if they are drunk.
  • More than a quarter believe victims are responsible if they wear clothing that hints at violence, such as camouflage jackets or trousers, or jackboots.
  • Nearly 15% of respondents thought a victim would be partly responsible for being murdered if he or she was known to take part in boxing, wrestling or kick-boxing as a hobby; and 8% thought that this would make a victim totally responsible.

OK, I’m lying – these statistics aren’t true. I made them up. What a relief; because if they were true, they would be deeply disturbing, painting an unflattering, backward image of society’s attitudes to those people who, through no fault of their own, end up stripped of their human rights by violent predators.

Now take a look at this Guardian article detailing the results of a recent Amnesty International report on rape.

I don’t see any difference and am truly disgusted. We all know that there is the occasional sociopath out there who holds views like this. Heck, some of them have blogs. But the sheer magnitudes of the numbers here amaze me, particularly since there doesn’t seem to be a marked difference between the responses of men and women to the survey questions. I don’t know what’s wrong with people, but it’s serious!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, World
  • Arun

    What women and men are saying is not just about the victims. They’re saying that these crimes are (statistically at least) part of the essential nature of men. If you stick your hand in a cage with a pit bull and get bit, it is not the pitbull’s fault. Similarly, these folks are saying that men are similarly dangerous, and women have to learn how to keep themselves out of harm’s way. A sorry commentary on human behavior!

    Here is another depressing commentary on human behavior:

  • Robert the Red

    In the US, 10-15% of adult whites think that interracial marriage should still be criminal. Many of the reasonably-normal-looking people out there are in fact bizarre and weird and unpleasant in major ways.

    Except for me, of course.

  • random

    My guess is that part of this is sexism, and part of this is how we deal with uncertainty. If we can put some of the blame onto the victim, we can convince ourselves that we, as potential victims, have the power to alter our fate in the matter.

    If you leave your door open, you don’t deserve to be robbed; but you will be blamed by your neighbors. The University of Chicago police department tells us to act confidently and as if we know what we’re doing at all times to avoid being a victim of a mugging. The shy or honest do not deserve to be mugged.

    What’s interesting is that as far as I can remember from health class, while leaving your door unlocked attracts muggers, rapists generally aren’t affected by what we commonly think of as “attractive” behaviors. Sexy clothing, etc. etc. — doesn’t correlate.

  • Stan

    I also wonder if part of these results is confusion whether the question is asking about “moral responsibility” or “contributing factors”. Certainly being drunk in certain settings contributes to the possibility of being raped, just like going outside contributes to being hit by a car. That doesn’t mean the victim is somehow morally responsible for the crime, though. Walking down the street and drinking at a party are both perfectly legitimate activities, and no one can be held responsible for being attacked while doing these things.

    Maybe people aren’t used to separating these ideas, and so what you see in these statistics is how these concepts are mixed together in the mind of the average person. The word “responsibility” contains some fraction of these two ideas for some people.

  • Johan Richter

    I agree with the preceding speaker. The article in the Guardian should have discussed the possibility that people were talking about contributing factors. I for one would say that you are partially responsible for the theft of your purse if you went around holding it in your hand.

  • Sean

    It’s amazing. Obviously it makes sense to be careful and not put yourself in harm’s way. I don’t see what’s so hard about simultaneously believing that and also understanding that rape victims bear absolutely no “blame” or “responsibility” for getting raped. There is no such thing as “rape in self-defense.” The rapist is always 100% to blame — they did something they could have chosen not to do (assuming they were mentally competent). Not that difficult, really.

  • George Musser

    To amplify comments #4 and #5, society often assumes that crimes have a single cause and that to speak of multiple causes is merely an effort to shift the blame. Mark, in his original post, seems to be arguing that “fault” is an all-or-nothing thing. I think reality is rather more nuanced. There is no contradiction whatsoever in saying that a victim’s actions make him or her more susceptible to crime (such that they share some responsibility for what happened) and that the criminal must nonetheless be brought to justice. Similarly, a depraved background or “temporarily insanity” might indeed be one of the causes of a crime, but that does not relieve criminals of their own share of the responsibility.

  • Mark

    The point about there being a difference between an action increasing one’s susceptibility to a certain crime, and saying that one is “responsible”, and the posssible lack of differentiation between these two possibilities by respondents is well taken. I can certainly see how, in some circumstances, and for some crimes, this is relevant.

    However, I fail to see how susceptibility to rape is increased by the kind of clothing a woman wears or her sexual history. Of the people I know well enough to predict (and I don’t just mean academics), hardly any would make these statements.

  • Magdalena

    I always wondered about opinions like “women who wear sexy clothes should not complain about being sexually abused.” In fact, it’s quite wide spread. I know that even my parents whom I think to be quite
    intelligent and rather progressive people hold/held such views. Dear men, don’t you feel furious about this? All those people apparently believe that you are not able to control yourselves, that your behaviour is not governed by your head but by some other part of your body.

  • Zelah

    I am sorry to interrupt the Righteous Liberal agenda but these thing are not so simple! The problem is how the question is being framed.

    As a statistical fact, if you have large numbers of sexual partners as a female, you are increasing the probablility of being raped! Another statistic, is that the alleged rapist in almost all cases is KNOWN BY THE VICTIM!

    Now, I am quite sure that as males we like the idea of promiscuous women but there are a large number of people who hold other views for either moral or religious views. Especially, when in most cases the rapist is known by the victim, it may be that knowledge of the victim’s promiscuousity has led to the incident.

    What to do about this problem of rape which is at epidemic proportions in the UK? Create a new law called sexually assault which has a lower level of proof. This would lead to higher conviction rates and deter rapists. However, Women have to be educated that the world is not fair and some prudence in their behaviour would lead to happier life. In particular, do not assume that if you know a male that going home alone with that person will be alright. Just oldfashioned commonsense.

    An amateur mathematician.

  • Eugene

    Being held not responsible for a crime committed against you is scant consolation.

    The interesting question is what % of the convicted rapists actually think that it was their victims’ fault?

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Another question is the courts look on this.

    In Sweden the courts take note of the womens clothing and drunkenness, at least in cases where the perpetrator(s) didn’t know the victim. Apparently they don’t do that in the much fewer cases where a man is the victim. Is it that bad everywhere?

  • Fyodor

    Let me begin by saying that I, too, am disgusted by the idea that there could ever be any kind of excuse for rape.
    Having said that, I must also say that I find it strange indeed that *this particular crime* brings out the tough law-and-order personality in liberals. After all, you guys are eager to blame many other crimes on “underprivileged backgrounds”, “marginalization” etc etc etc. So why not ask whether rapists had difficult childhoods etc etc etc? The poor guys, they must have been sexually marginalized! Yes, it’s bullshit, but so is all the talk about how the “scum” [merci Monsieur Sarkozy!] in Paris are really victims of le marginalisation francaise…..
    “Society…does not exist!”….Margaret T.

  • citrine


    I agree with you on making the distinction between the usual culprits – clothing and the woman’s sexual history – from other factors when discussing susceptibility to the crime.

    As for the attitudes of presumably cosmopolitan and educated (?) people towards rape, you may be surprised. I knew a male medical student and a female statistics grad student who both believe that the woman is to blame.

  • Mark

    Fyodor – I would suggest you not try to tar me with such a broad brush. What crimes have I shown an eagerness to blame on “underprivileged backgrounds”? Your little rant seems somewhat uncalled for, but perhaps you can correct me.

  • Urijah

    Your comparison is flawed; there is never any ambiguity whether you want to be killed or not, there can be ambiguity whether the sex was consensual or not.

  • Michael D

    An extra point to keep in mind which the survey/article doesn’t specifically mention is their definition of rape.

    For the ‘average’ public (whoever that is) there could be a difference between a physically brutal rape by a complete stranger, and that of a close friend who doesn’t take “no” seriously. We could perhaps also ask what % would respond that unwanted sex in a marriage is rape?

    In many countries it was only recently (10-20 years?) that rape within marriage was considered a criminal offence!

    Changing society’s view on what constitutes rape is as important as the question of responsibility.


  • Fyodor

    OK, Mark, sorry. Then modify “you guys” to “those guys”. The point is still a valid one: people who sneer at law-and-order enthusiasts should be consistent. It is precisely this kind of thing that has caused the collapse of whatever credibility Amnesty ever had. If Amnesty were consistent, they should be bleating about the “rights” of rapists, just as they drone on about those poor marginalized unfortunates on death row.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    “they should be bleating about the “rights” of rapists,”

    If I remember correctly some (many. most?) rapists have themselves been abused. But, for example, you being beaten doesn’t give you the right to beat a third part at another time.

    Amnesty is, as far as I know, against death penalty on first principles; a civilised society is presumed to not use it. Of course that is a value judgement, but apparently they think that some moral behaviour can be expected from a country.

  • Mark

    Urijah, analogies are seldom exact. This one is good enough for my purposes here.

  • serial catowner

    Some years ago I worked in a hospital that got all the trauma victims. They had been beaten, stabbe, and run over with cars. Eventually I figured out that all of these people had two things in common- they had been drinking, late at night.

    Read your local crime stories, and you’ll find the same thing.

    The public, as we know, is uneducated. Please don’t be too hard on them if they think some things are just asking for trouble.

  • Jan

    One in three people think that if the victim disagreed with things that the murderer said, and debated with them, that they were at least partially responsible for being murdered.

    In a sense, I agree. Let’s say I’m in a small village in Pakistan, and start some heated discussion about politics and religion, and I hold the view GWB is absoluteley right in everything and muslims will go to hell anyway. At the end of the debate, I eventually get killed.

    Aside from ethical issues, I think I would be “at least partially responsible for the murder”. By responsibility I mean there is a probablistic causal relationship. (like “smoking is responsible for cancer”)

    Or I can take

    More than a quarter believe victims are responsible if they wear clothing that hints at violence, such as camouflage jackets or trousers, or jackboots.

    if I go trekking to a territory of ongoing civil war, by wearing camouflage uniform I increase the probability of beeing mistaken for resistance fighter and accidentaly killed. Again, I would agree part of responsibility is on me.

    Last, Urijah’s point is valid – killing is in almost all cases non-consensual and it is clear to both parties. Having sex is usually consensual. I’d guess the most common defence of rapists is “the victim actually wanted sex”. It seems probable at least part of them at least partially believs so. The obvious provocative question is, whether sexy clothing, alcohol and promiscuity contributes to the misunderstading.

    …strange where one can get searching for something on interpretations of quathum mechanis.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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