The politics of impotence

A systematic mode of thinking is required to ensure rape victims are not blamed for their suffering. Binarism – overly simplistic evaluation – is a default position that causes considerable damage. Sex education and support for feminist movements are vital.

Alexios Arvanitis
12 April 2014

It seems that people generally lack a true sense of justice. A recent Brazilian survey recorded 65% of respondents in a cohort largely comprised of women, who think that women who wear revealing clothes deserve to be attacked. Instead of condemning the perpetrators and showing sympathy toward the victims, respondents chose to derogate the victims of violence.

Some may argue that only Brazilians would respond in this manner and that the rest of the world would choose to differ. Others could conclude that the whole world is a cruel place and people generally lack compassion and a sense of justice.

The first Slut Walk in São Paulo, Brazil, gathered over 500 people on the 4th June 2011. Ladies holding banners in protest

The first Slut Walk in São Paulo, Brazil, gathered over 500 people on the 4th June 2011/Flickr/All rights reserved

But the survey results should come as no surprise to researchers in the field of social psychology. Similar findings are found across studies around the globe; what is more, the dominant explanation is not that people – or Brazilians, for that matter – are unjust by nature. On the contrary, the problem may be that they are all too eager to find justice around them.

In fact, all too often according to the just world hypothesis, widely studied by social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner, people believe that other people – but also themselves – eventually get what they deserve. People have an intuitive tendency to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In this regard, you might say they have a need for justice.

Early experiments in the 1960’s showed that once participants could restore justice, by making sure that a bad thing did not happen to a good person, they chose to do so. One of these experiments was published in 1966 by psychologists Lerner and Simmons. During this now classic experiment, participants watched another person receiving electric shocks. If possible, they chose to alter the victim’s fate and help her avoid another session of electric shocks.

However, if unable to restore justice, participants tended to devalue the person who received the painful electric shocks. Hence, whatever bad happened, it happened to a bad person; at least in their minds, justice was served.

Denigration of rape victims falls under this same category of reasoning. If people are present during a rape attempt, the need for justice could push them to intervene even by jeopardizing their own lives. However, if they cannot alleviate the pain of the victim in any way, the injustice is better handled by the belief that the victims brought it on themselves.

An extreme example of this sort of reasoning is that victims may even blame themselves for being raped. Evidently, accepting that the world is not as unjust as it seems is a kind of a coping strategy. The burden of the idea of an unjust world is so great for some victims of rape, that it is preferable to accept part of the responsibility themselves.

Justice is definitely not served in this way, that is, when people distort reality in order to accommodate their false sense of fairness. It is remarkable, though, how desperate for justice people can become.

Such desperation is not something we should necessarily reject out of hand. Can we take advantage of it, so long as we can think of better ways to restore justice than by denigrating innocent victims? What better way to do so, than by making sure that rape is minimized. Our feelings against rape should firstly fuel our efforts to ensure its occurrence is minimized.

The raw materials are already in place: our need for justice. What is further required is the honing of our intuitive capacity for fairness. More systematic thinking can help us realize that victims should not be blamed for their suffering. This is where education should step in. Debunking rape myths, providing sex education, supporting feminist activism - these are all crucial steps to understanding why rape takes place and why it should not. More importantly, it can help us assign blame so that future sexual violence can be avoided.

The issue of blame for rape is quite complicated and spans the whole workings of society, from the role of family and peers to the effects of general social norms. Sometimes it is easier to take shortcuts, like blaming the victims. Education on all levels could equip us with the knowledge to resist shortcuts and search for true causes and ways to stop sexual violence. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

Until we are truly aware of the causes of rape, simplifying justice evaluations will be prevalent. If we are forced to accept one of them, let us not accept that bad things happen to bad people. Let us instead accept that bad things are caused by bad people. Let us punish perpetrators, not victims.

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