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25.6.05

Vulnerability To Rape, Or Resilient Rape Control

The hot topic in the modern risk literature is vulnerability. The issue goes back to the founder, Gilbert F. White, who pointed out that natural hazards are about the intersection of human and natural systems. The deaths from a flood are not just a matter of the size and strength of the water, but also of the decisions of people to live in ground-level houses along the shore without flood insurance. This theme was pushed farther by the "radical" school, the founders of Political Ecology, who blamed class relations for putting some people in risky situations and depriving them of coping resources, while others lived in relative safety. The term "vulnerability" became a major buzzword over the last 20 years in sustainability science, as social scientists emphasized that we should ask not only "how can we prevent climate change?" but also (and perhaps more importantly) "how can we make societies and ecosystems able to cope with climate change?"

The notion of vulnerabiliy is important. Addressing vulnerability is often easier than changing the hazard event. More importantly, a vulnerability focus incorporates the lessons of resilience, emphasizing flexibility and learning, whereas a hazard event focus relies on a technocratic attempt to control nature (e.g. through dams, or cloud seeding) -- an attempt that resilience theory teaches us is doomed.

However, the association of vulnerability-focused analysis with more resilient policy prescriptions is not universal. A good example comes from a recent flurry of posting by Amanda Marcotte and others about rape. Specifically, they challenge the common reaction to stories of rape, which is to ask how the victim could have avoided the rape. At its worst, this line of thinking leads to speculation about whether the victim was "asking for it." This is a vulnerability-based analysis. It's a part of the picture, and given the prevalence of rape, it behooves potential rape victims to take precautions to reduce their vulnerability.

But as Marcotte and others point out, the vulnerability analysis alone is not enough. We have a problem when the first and only discussion that happens after a rape report is about the role of vulnerability and ways to reduce it. Focusing too much on vulnerability takes what is basically a moral choice -- the choice by the rapist to rape -- and turns it into a natural hazard. This claim is often made explicit, with crude sociobiological claims that "all men are dogs" and thus it's inevitable that some of them will rape. By this logic there's no more point in trying to attack the problem from the rapist's side than there is in trying to build huge levees to stop all floods.

Marcotte and others have pointed out that the vulnerability-only focus is wrong both morally -- because it lets rapists off the hook -- and empirically -- because all men are not in fact dogs, and none need to be. What I would add is that in this case it's the hazard reduction strategy (stop men from raping) that is more resilient, rather than the vulnerability reduction strategy.

Chris Clarke succinctly explains how the focus on victims' self-protection necessitates a rigid control-based strategy:
The whole of American society's response to rape, it seems, runs along the lines of the old bad joke in which the patient says "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

Society's response: "So don't do that."

"Don't go out at night. Don't relax with your friends on vacation. Lock your doors. Don't be friendly with men you don't know. Don't trust the men you do know." It's a prescription for a very large prison, one that women are expected to carry around with them every minute of their lives.

Reducing vulnerability to rape is all about reducing women's options, reducing their flexibility and resources, protecting them from rapists at the expense of the rest of their lives.

According to the macho crowd and the sociobiologists, attacking the hazard event -- stopping men from trying to rape -- also requires a rigid control strategy. All we can do is build levees around the raging floods of testosterone, levees that will inevitably crack or be overtopped, levees that are in some cases prohibitively expensive to build. Perhaps there are a few psychopaths who that's true of -- but those few can hardly be solely responsible for the rape epidemic. What's really happening is that men face countless small and large messages every day telling them that they're entitled to power, that they should get their way with women (sexually and otherwise), that male agression is natural. This cultural theme comes from so many angles that it becomes highly resilient, able to withstand feminism, rape laws, and other safeguards that keep most men most of the time from raping.

What we need, then, is a shift to a robust anti-rape culture. If equality is woven into every strand of our culture, if it's a constant message from every corner, rape would become unthinkable. Men who are now horrified at the thought of losing the dominance they think the world owes them should become horrified at the thought of violently dominating another person. Note that vulnerability reduction contains a trade-off with other values -- a woman has to sacrifice other things she wants to do in order to avoid being raped. But a resilient hazard reduction strategy would not only combat rape, it would also reduce countless other forms of sexism that spring from the same cultural nexus. Anything we would "lose" -- e.g. the privileges of dominance and the advantages men get because unlike women they don't have to spend resources dealing with sexism -- is a loss only when seen through the lens of present-day attitudes.

Unfortunately this isn't a policy prescription. It's not the kind of concrete advice that the vulnerability-siders offer. But it suggests that resilience is an important criterion for an effective response to rape (and that resilience can be found in a hazard-size solution). A control-based reduction in vulnerability is not an adequate solution to the resilient sexism of our culture.

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