Today the blog, Feminist Philosophers, reported on an article from the Guardian, that describes how one police officer who specializes in sexual crimes became a victim of sexual assault and the ways in which his perspectives changed as a result of the experience. First I will quote some of his experience, with a few brief comments; then I want to say a few words about why I think this article is philosophically interesting.
This police officer’s experience began as a casual brunch with friends where he was having a good time, and decided to stay to talk with some people at the pub after his original group of friends decided they had enough fun for the day. There was nothing particularly intimidating about his assailant when they first met:
I can’t remember when I first noticed the guy who ended up assaulting me, but he stood out from the rest of the group – he was more extrovert, a bit larger than life. But he didn’t do or say anything that made me feel uncomfortable – or that gave the slightest suggestion of what he would be capable of doing a few hours later.
Often, when a woman is raped, people question her perceptions of the situation. These critics suggest that she somehow should have known that the situation was dangerous and should have avoided the situation. But, as this article describes, rapists are often difficult to identify. Even a police officer, who has extensive training in sexual assault and its prevention, was unable to identify any suspicious behaviour on the part of the to-be-assailant. The problem with suggesting that women should have been able to identify that the situation they were in was dangerous is that in many cases the dangerous situation looks and feels exactly like any other non-dangerous situation. It is impossible to identify the danger.
My next memory is at about six or seven the following morning. I woke up in a bed and that guy was raping me. My first thought was: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The second thought was fear, channelled into self-preservation: I jumped out of bed and grabbed my clothes from the floor. It didn’t occur to me to arrest him. It did not even cross my mind that I was a detective. My only thought was my personal safety. He didn’t try to stop me. We didn’t say a word to each other.
Again, this description highlights some of the problems with many typical responses to rape victims. Critics often questions the behaviour of rape victims after the assault. They have some idea in their minds about what a “real” rape victim would do after the assault, and doubt the credibility of the victim when her behaviour does not conform to the idealization they imagine (for example, in the Assange case, some people have doubted the allegations because one of the victims continued with a party she had planned in his honour). I find the police officer’s description interesting because it shows how in actual situations our reactions often do not conform to idealized expectations. It is difficult to think of our self as a victim and many of us might resist doing so.
I felt alone and dirty. I was very angry, disgusted, a bit scared. I needed help. I told myself what I know victims say all the time: that it was my fault for putting myself in that position. I’ve spent decades telling victims not to blame themselves, but now I truly understand what it means to torture yourself with “Why did I? / How could I?” thoughts. By the time I got though my front door, I had decided I didn’t want to report what had happened to the police. I knew they would do a wonderful job investigating but I was thinking ahead to the trial, with me in court as the victim. I knew that anonymity at work would be impossible. Of course everyone would be sympathetic but they’d treat me differently.
There are too many interesting issues in this paragraph to identify them all. But here are 3: first, it is interesting that even though the police officer had gone through the whole “don’t blame yourself” speech with victims countless times, he nevertheless found himself blaming his own actions and decisions. This calls into question whether the advice “don’t blame yourself” is useful for victims. Perhaps in these sorts of crimes, self-blame is an understandable response (or at least it is an understandable response given the context of current Western cultures), and should not be discouraged because discouraging the response is disrespectful of the experience. For example, we all squint when we look at the sun directly. If someone told us we should not squint when looking at the sun, this advice might seem unhelpful. Worse, it might seem like the adviser really had no idea what it was like to look at the sun. Rather than being reassuring, such advice might seem alienating: it might only serve to point out the distance between the victim and the adviser, showing that the adviser had no similar experience. Instead, it might be more compassionate to recognize how normal it is to react in this way; that would close the distance between the victim and adviser rather than increasing that difference.
A second question that can be uncovered by this discussion is “who benefits from the ‘don’t blame yourself’ reaction?” It does not seem that victims benefit from this reaction, since victims seem likely to blame themselves, and advice against self-blame does not seem to quell self-blame. So, then does it merely set the listener at ease? Is this advice more for the benefit of those listening to rape experiences than it is for the benefit of those who have undergone the experience of rape?
Third, the last point about being treated differently because one is a victim is really interesting. In several places in the article the officer identifies being a victim with an extra burden. What does it say about our society’s responses to crime (either all crimes, or perhaps in particular sexual assaults?) that being a victim of a crime is experienced as a burden?
This relentless stress means I can’t start coming to terms with what’s happened to me.
The coercion became worse. They asked if I wanted to know his name. That made me feel as sick as on the morning it happened.
In the book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, Susan Brison describes how the legal system that is supposed to deal with sexual assaults often ends up replicating the experience of the assault. I find the two descriptions above really interesting because they describe the investigation as “coercive” and as prohibiting “coming to terms with” the assault. Just as the advice “not to blame yourself” might not serve victims, this description also suggests that the “justice” system might not serve victims in cases of sexual assault. What distinguishes rape from other kinds of sex is the coercive aspect that erases one’s capacity to consent. If one then encounters a legal system that seems coercive, this might be likely to trigger memories of the rape. In trying to help the victim, the other police officers seem to reenact the behaviour of the rapist who is unconcerned about consent.
My experience has led me to seriously contemplate whether I or other officers investigating similar serious sexual assaults put undue pressure on victims. Do we push victims to go through the court process? Do we do it for the right reason – because we want to fight crime – but, in doing so, not listen to what the victims are telling us?
I’m not the first victim to decide not to press charges, and I won’t be the last. Being a cop means I know the system, and it has scared me off.
I think it is a sad indictment of the system that someone who knows it well (and so, presumably, someone who would be best situated to manipulate the system to his own advantage) is not empowered by this knowledge, but rather is intimidated (“scared off”) by the knowledge. What does that say about the system and whose interests are served by the system?
So what are the philosophical implications of this article?
In “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”, Nagel argues that consciousness has essential to it a subjective character, a what it is like aspect. He states that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” His critics have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a perfectly true fact about how one represents the world (trivially, one can only do so from his own point of view) to a false claim about the world, that it somehow has first personal perspectives built into it. On that understanding, Nagel is a conventional dualist about the physical and the mental. This is, however, a misunderstanding: Nagel’s point is that there is a constraint on what it is to possess the concept of a mental state, namely, that one be directly acquainted with it. Concepts of mental states are only made available to a thinker who can be acquainted with his/her own states; clearly, the possession and use of physical concepts has no corresponding constraint.
Many philosophers accept that there are limits to the extent to which we can understand other species, but nevertheless they maintain that we can understand one another (because we are fundamentally similar as “rational beings”). Among liberal philosopher it is quite common for them to acknowledge human diversity (in perspective, experience, belief, etc.) but then to also claim that all “rational beings” would converge on a similar decision when trying to decide what kind of society would be best.
I think this article calls that presumption into question. Here is a police officer who knows to a much greater degree than most what sexual assault is like. He has dealt with victims first-hand and has tried to bring them justice. Nevertheless it is not until he experiences an assault first-hand that he begins to understand the victim’s perspective. This raises a question slightly different than Nagel’s.
Nagel was concerned with whether we could understand the experience of species that are vastly different than our own. But the question raised by this case is whether we are able to understand the experiences of members of our own species who have experienced something that we find alien. The police officer seems to answer that, no, we cannot.
One issue that feminist standpoint theorists have brought to our consciousness is the extent to which people’s experiences are not automatically transparent to one another. It is often difficult for us to imagine or empathize with what others have gone through, and if we cannot see things from their point of view it is often difficult to get a full understanding of what it would be like to experience such an event ourselves.
What do you think this article says about our ability to empathize with those who have experiences foreign to our own?
Hat Tip to Feminist Philosophers where I first read about this report.