I was going to write a comment about a recent episode, but it got to be way too long and I still had some points that I wanted to make in addition to what I had written up and the whole thing got to be so long that I figured I ought to write a blog post. What follows is my critique of the post by a fellow atheist blogger James ‘Grim’ Desborough, who happens to run a blog on WordPress called AtheFist. This post will be about sexual assault and how it is addressed by people like Desborough. It contains curse words. Be advised that the subject matter may be stressful for victims of sexual assault to read. Since I don’t know him personally, I will address my comments to the gravatar name Grimachu and not the blogger himself. Whoever this person is, I have no ill-will towards him as a person, I merely take issue with some things he wrote recently. My quarrel is focused largely on his recent blog post and not on how he behaves outside of his blog. I will try to focus my critique solely on his writing and try not to assume too much about who he is as a human being. In incidences where I do make those assumptions, I will work to call myself out. I ask, you, the reader of this post, to call me out when I don’t acknowledge the assumptions that I’ve made.
Grimachu is questioning the validity of sexual violence statistics in the name “skepticism”, insisting only statistics of rape victims should be considered in his discussions of sexual violence. While attempting to challenge the claims of sexual assault victims, he questioned the statistic that one in every four women will be raped over the course of their lifetime, a recurring argument used against him in internet kerfuffles. In an attempt to refute that stat, Grimachu published a Fermi question, using statistics from the RAINN and the CIA World Factbook to arrive at what he considers to be a more accurate estimate of the incidence of rape in the U.K. Grimachu calculates that only between 5 and 10% of women will be raped over the course of their lifetime, a number that he uses to flaunt the moral restraint of his homeland over the “rapeiness” of the United States in a recent blog post.
His unnecessary aggression against rape victims’ testimony is untoward, but what makes this episode so offensive is the admonishment that he gives to his own critics. Grimachu has claimed that victims of rape need to be more rational about their assault or it detracts from the dialogue that should be taking place; the testimony of rape victims should be challenged like other claims. According to this guy, rape victims’ testimony should not be treated like a sacred, golden calf. Grimachu is of the belief that reports of rape could be overblown and he suggests that people should be more critical of women or men when they report rape. His responses to my frequent comments on his blog would also suggest to me that he does not consider sexual assault to be as big of a problem where he’s from, although he all-so-graciously concedes that there may be a rape problem in my country.
I take three issues with his guy in particular; first, he seems to think rape victims are the most important victims of sexual assault and that by treating other forms of sexual assault as seriously as rape, it leads to statistical error. Second, he seems to think that rape is not as big of an issue as some would claim because he claims most incidences of rape reported to the police are dealt with properly. And third, he insists that pointing to statistics to win an argument about the incidence of rape isn’t the actual issue. Instead, he claims that the real issue with rape is that rape victims aren’t being rational or reasonable in debate and when they send hostile responses in return for his testimony, it detracts from the quality of the discussion they should be having. (Although his criticisms were presented to me in this order, I will reply to these criticisms in the opposite order, first starting with last claim and making my way to his first claim…)
First of all, I have never been raped, stalked, or otherwise sexually assaulted. But I know that this is the most painful part of someone’s life. Being put into that situation can be horrific and I do not want to be callous of anyone who has been sexually assaulted. Most of these people will carry emotional scars from those tragic events for the rest of their life. And some people will not be able to ever fully recover from their traumatic experience. Worst still, some people experienced sexual assault at a very early age and have suffered through years of therapy and pain before ever reaching adulthood. I cannot understand what that feels like. But I can understand that when someone starts talking about sexual assault, especially in such an insensitive way as Grimachu has, it can stir up some powerful emotions.
And while Grimachu may not understand, I can recognize that often when people so flippantly throw around accusations against rape victims, it can be difficult to remain civil. When I found out that not one, but two of my friends had been sexually assaulted in the last two months, my first response was vitriolic anger. I didn’t remain skeptical of their testimony and I didn’t question their attacker’s intentions. On the contrary, I wanted to bash those fuckers’ heads in! It can be damn near impossible to remain impartial when someone you know is hurt. Grimachu needs to recognize that when one starts to talk about rape and sexual assault, they need to tread lightly. As a critic of rape victims, he cannot pretend to be the one victimized by people who said harsh things. He does not get the moral high ground here; he fucked up by not treating the testimony of sexual assault victims seriously. The question that needs to asked here is: who is being hurt more? A middle-class white man who got his feelings hurt? Or a rape victim who is forced to relive the events of her attack in her head, criticized for feeling violated, and marginalized into silence every time a guy opens his mouth.
One statistic that he bandied about was provided by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). According to a RAINN study, only 46 out of 100 of rape incidents get reported to the police. As Grimachu rightly points out, this is ghastly. But Grimachu failed to mention that only 12 out of of those 46 reports lead to an actual arrest and only 9 of them get convicted. Worse still, as few as 5 of those lead to a felony convictions, and ultimately only 3 out of a hundred rapists will spend a single day in prison. For the 207,754 cases of rape estimated to have occurred this year (and that only counts cases where the victim is over 12 years old), over 189,000 of those cases will never make it to court. I am here to argue that the low number of cases reported to the police is precisely because of the scrutiny placed on a victim’s testimony. Grimachu’s insistance on cold, hard reason being applied to a woman’s report is the same reason why so few women report their rape in the first place and why even fewer rapists get convicted. By and large, women are treated with untoward hostility when they report rape. Oftentimes the physical examination that follows a report is invasive and humiliating to women. The experience of reporting a rape in some ways can be as distressing as the rape itself, especially when the authorities treat the woman with hostility.
With such a low prosecution rate, women locked in abusive relationships may be kowtowed into silence for fear of retribution when that person gets free. If they do report a rape from someone they know (and two-thirds of women sexually assaulted know their assailant), the odds of getting an arrest are so low and the odds of that person spending time in jail is even lower. Until these perpetrators are caught, they are not likely to stop. And if women are too afraid to report sexual assault to the police for fear of being marginalized further, the conviction rate will only stay low. Where Grimachu is mistaken is that criticizing victims for not reporting is not going to help. It is especially galling that he insinuates because women don’t report incidents of rape, rape must not be as big of an issue since reporting incidences of rape have been all but destigmatized and when given ample opportunity to report rapes, women elect not to. Arguably, he has this dead wrong; it is because women aren’t reporting rape that this is indicative of a much bigger issue.
And finally, Grimachu’s insistence that rape should be treated separately from other forms of sexual assault and exclusively studied is asinine. Different types of violence are related; stalkers often escalate their behavior, leading to sexual assault, for instance. Grimachu needs to recognize that statistics on sexual assault are far more useful than just statistics on rape. To focus solely on incidences of rape while downplaying other forms of sexual assault is to marginalize victims further. Stalking victims are no more traumatized by their stalkers than rape victims are of their rapists. Nor can one put a hierarchy on which forms of sexual assault are to be considered more important for safety and public health. And often times women will be the victim of multiple sexual assaults over the course of their lifetime and similarly, sexual assailants will commit more than one act of sexual violence over their lifetime, too. Statistics of sexual assault on the behavior of assailants needs to be understood “to support research to identify new trends in violence as well as strategies for prevention and intervention.”
It should also be noted that the effects of sexual assault can vary widely with each case and by studying sexual assault as a whole, researchers can better understand how to respond to the needs of sexual assault survivors. According to the The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 Summary Report, “Many survivors of these forms of violence can experience physical injury, mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicide attempts, and other health consequences such as gastrointestinal disorders, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and gynecological or pregnancy complications.” Focusing on just rape incidents is an incredibly narrow-minded and unhelpful way to advance the discussion on how to prevent future sexual assault.
I do not suspect that Grimachu is intentionally being dismissive of the claims of victimized women, but it is clear that he is handling a discussion of sexual assault with brutish insensitivity to the ordeal some of these women have gone through, all under the guise of remaining skeptical. I question the validity of his critical thinking and what purpose he is trying to accomplish by questioning the claims of sexual assault victims or the authorities charged with handling their cases. Critical thinking is meant to lead towards solutions to complex problems like sexual assault, and his criticisms aren’t leading towards anything. The most significant criticism that I could level against him is that he is a weak critical thinker. According to Richard Paul, “the weak-sense critical thinker is a highly skilled but selfishly motivated pseudo-intellectual who works to advance one’s personal agenda without seriously considering the ethical consequences and implications. Conceived as such, the weak-sense critical thinker is often highly skilled but uses those skills selectively so as to pursue unjust and selfish ends.” I couldn’t put it any better myself.