How Many Ways To Interpret "No"? Just One

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | February 15, 2010 12:23 pm

So a ‘survey‘ (via online polling) of over 1,000 people in London supposedly reports:

‘a majority of women believe some rape victims should take responsibility for what happened.’

But considering:

– how frequently we blame the victim rather than taking the time to address the real social and cultural norms that allow this mentality to persist…

– how many victims of sexual violence already do not report the crime out of shame, fear, or public embarrassment…

–  Silence Is The Enemy

It’s necessary to speak up. And the truth is relatively simple: Regardless of how a person dresses or behaves, there is only one way to interpret No.” Case closed.

That said, I’m skeptical that the results of this so-called survey reflect reality.


Comments (24)

  1. Alexa

    Ridiculous survey indeed. As if putting more blame on the victims of rape helps matters..

  2. Cain

    I’m curious if SK had objections to the survey other than not liking the results.
    When I dip litmus tape in to lemon juice it will come up red no matter how much I want it to be blue. Using scare quotes, referring to the tape as “so called litmus paper” and linking to XKCD does nothing to negate the fact that I am testing lemon juice. Maybe I should instead except my results no matter how disheartening they are and devote myself to finding some lyme.

  3. @3 Cain,

    Too many reasons to list in a blog post that I wanted to keep simple–but most notably, this was an online poll.

  4. some guy

    Orwell on steroids! At least, this survey confirms British morals are purely religious.

    Judges 21:10-24 NLT
    Deuteronomy 20:10-14
    Deuteronomy 22:23-24 NAB

  5. Cain

    @4 SK
    LOL nevermind, I didn’t realize it was an online poll. sorry

    …why are you or anyone else even mentioning it? It’s not even wrong.

  6. I’ll add the ‘online poll’ part in the main post as it’s important.

    I mention it bc I’m seeing this ‘story’ circulate in the news and all over facebook, so in this case, it’s important to speak up about how ridiculous it is rather than stay silent.

  7. Doct Orb

    Hah, here’s my comment about it from my Facebook! It’s all a matter of poor question choice and wording (isn’t that always the problem with surveys?):
    If they had asked “Is rape an acceptable course of action?” I would imagine (or at least hope) that the vast majority of people would say no under any circumstances. What they basically asked was “If a woman makes poor personal choices for her safety, would you have sympathy if something bad happened to her?” Well, in the abstract, the second kind of question makes it hard to have sympathy for the victim, even if you would vehemently say that rape is never acceptable. The poorer the choices made in the survey example, the less sympathetic the respondents were.
    So the survey definitely has issues beyond just being an internet survey. It’s giving a slice of reality, just not the one the surveyors probably intended, or indeed the one that most others picking up the story are talking about.

  8. Doct Orb makes an excellent point.

    Also, it would not surprise me if many women do feel this way. We absorb certain cultural beliefs without consciously realizing it. And that is one of the oldest ones. Women invite rape by being flashy, assertive, sexual, (insert any adjective)… No matter how logical you are, somewhere in your darker self, those ideas can be there.

    It means we need to continue to pound in the idea that there are two issues here:
    a. No One deserves rape. No is No.
    b. Taking responsible steps to keep safe is reasonable.

    One issue is not a cause of the other. Separate issues. We need to remember to keep those two issues distinct.

  9. Women must have the support of the community to recover from such horrific acts of voilence. Societies around the world sympathize toward laws and traditions that hold women literally agaist the wall. As a man, uncle to two young girls, and a being of the 21st century, I can only hope that women continue speak out, defend themselves, and the future (that’s why I teach my niece kung-fu…)

  10. Busiturtle


    I hope you are not so naive as to suggest a lady shares no responsibility if she chooses to get in bed with a man and then complains about the outcome.

    Likewise for women who liquor up and then find they are taken advantage of.

    Perhaps the women polled are simply acknowledging the awareness that choices have consequences.

  11. Em


    I agree with the first part of your comment.

    If women consent to sex I don’t think they should be able withdraw their consent later.
    Of course then there will be the problem of proving they consented in the first place.

    I don’t believe someone should be raped even if they are drinking. Someone close to me had this happen to them and unfortunately it was a case of them really believing that rapist was looking out for her and walking her back to her place so she would be safe getting there. I don’t think she should be punished because she honestly believed people were good.

  12. V.O.R.

    “Likewise for women who liquor up and then find they are taken advantage of.”

    No, not likewise.

    Responsibility is a very flexible word. To say that such a person bears “responsibility” is to stretch that word quite a bit and, in fact, make it deserving of scare-quotes.

    A woman who walks down the street with a bodyguard and an SMG who then gets raped bears the same *kind* of responsibility as the woman who got drunk. The latter just allowed herself to be more vulnerable than the former. The rapist still committed rape, and bears that responsibility.

    Every adult is responsible for their own safety and the degree to which they guard it. And, technically, when someone doesn’t enforce that safety to the maximum possible extent they bear some responsibility for what happened to them. (“Why didn’t she hire *two* bodyguards! Only one is provocative!”) But often only in a technical and rather useless sense: Rape is still rape, it’s still not the victim’s fault, and they still shouldn’t get any blame. The *rapist* is responsible.

    In the scare-quotes sense of “responsibility” the person to sold the drink also has some responsibility. As do the people who shipped the drinks, grew the grain, didn’t blow up the water-treatment plant that supplied the liquor factory, or didn’t throttle the rapist when he was 5 years old.

    OTOH, maybe Busiturtle simply subscribes to the belief that men cannot help themselves and women should expect to be raped if men have the opportunity. That’d make any woman alone with a man and not holding a gun on him guilty of negligence. Is that what you think, Busiturtle?

  13. Rain


    “If women consent to sex I don’t think they should be able withdraw their consent later.”

    So, a rapist can coerce consent from a woman, then?

    Why can’t a woman change her mind?

    Let’s play with gender…

    If a man consents to sex, and when the disrobing starts discovers that she has a disease, or is a man, or he simply does not want to cheat on his girlfriend, or that the booze has made him unable to function, or he has a sudden migraine, or he simply does not want to have sex…it is them the pejorative of the other person to force him, as he cannot remove consent once it has been given?

    Well, okay then…

    (what a ridiculous thing to suggest btw, that a woman should not be able to withdraw consent — women should be able to determine what they do with their bodies just as men should)

  14. V.O.R.

    “what a ridiculous thing to suggest btw, that a woman should not be able to withdraw consent”

    Em said “later.” Since the alternative is indeed ridiculous, I assumed “later” meant afterward. Three days later, for example.

  15. Sheril, the same people who “believe some rape victims should take responsibility for what happened” would probably understand honor killings just as well.

  16. Busiturtle

    No one deserves to be raped. Just as no one deserves to be murdered. But to understand the poll, even if it is non-scientific, one must understand the question and the mindset of those who might be a victim of said crime. Women who make responsible choices have sound reason to pass judgment on women who do not and then suffer adverse consequences. It is the very fact that there are dangers in life that caution and responsibility are generally rewarded. If it is assumed one is never personally responsible then one is left believing that all events in life are due solely to chance. Most people want to believe that their success and preservation in life is due to more than a roll of the dice.

    Play with fire and you might get burnt. This does not mean a victim is guilty of the crime committed against her or him but it does mean society can and should draw lessons from the circumstances of the event.

  17. V.O.R.


    Being less responsible – or irresponsible – is not the same thing as being responsible for the rape. The question was should the victim “take responsibility for what happened”. Not whether, for example, drinking within 1 mile of a male is irresponsible.

    “Women who make responsible choices have sound reason to pass judgment on women who do not and then suffer adverse consequences.”

    Sure. And the judgment should be, at worst, “They were irresponsible”: Acting unsafely and increasing their own vulnerability. Not “They should take responsibility”: They bear fault, blame or were the cause.

    A women who happened to park at a rapist’s ambush point and got raped should take responsibility for parking there, not the rape. She parked, the rapist raped.
    A women who dressed “provocatively” and gets raped should take responsibility for the way she dressed, not the rape. She dressed, the rapist raped.

    And women who drinks too much and gets raped should take responsibility for drinking too much. Not the rape.
    Why? Because the rapist committed the rape, not the victim.

    To sum up: Women who make irresponsible choices are responsible for those choices, not what someone else does when taking advantage of those choices.

  18. Busiturtle


    I believe you and I are in agreement.

    I wrote: This does not mean a victim is guilty of the crime committed against her or him but it does mean society can and should draw lessons from the circumstances of the event.

    Your wrote: Women who make irresponsible choices are responsible for those choices, not what someone else does when taking advantage of those choices.

  19. Em


    Yes, I indeed meant after the deed was done.

    If, for example, the women consents to sex and before the act is finished she finds the other person has some kind of disease, I would think it fair for her to withdraw consent then and there.

    But after the act has concluded, if the same kind of information came to light, I do not believe it fair for her to say she was raped when she had consented throughout the entire course of the act.

    And I believe that applies to men as well as women, I merely use a women as a victim in the example because that is what is more often hear of.

  20. saltywar

    Blame and responsibility are two immesely different things. Be responsible (proactively), but never blame yourself (retroactively) if something does happen.

    My guess is that a lot of people who responded to the post did not intend for “responsible” to be interchangeable with “blame”.

  21. My guess is that a lot of people who responded to the post did not intend for “responsible” to be interchangeable with “blame”.

    I disagree. When someone is told that they need to “take responsibility for what happened”, the implication is that they are at least partly to blame for what happened. It’s possible that the actual survey didn’t use that language (I don’t see a link to the original wording), but the BBC report quite specifically does.

  22. Thomas

    Sometimes a ‘no’ can be misunderstood, but a kick in the nuts is unambiguous :-)

  23. Adeist

    From the point of view of assigning ‘responsibility’, is there any difference between rape and any other form of violent assault?

    A young man, out on the town in a rough neighbourhood, gets beaten up, maybe robbed. Are there any such circumstances when the victim bears any responsibility? If everybody beforehand advised them that it was dangerous, say. If there are things you can do to make it considerably more or less likely, and you do the former rather than the latter, is that not partial responsibility? At least in an objective, causal sense, if not a moral sense? If you go back to a man’s house and get into bed with him, and then say no… well, is that the most sensible way you can think of to avoid trouble?

    Admitting that there are things one can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime does not exonerate the crime.

    Interested to see that the figures were 23% for women and 20% for men. Statistically significant?


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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