Pascal’s Reporter

[Trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, harassment]

I’ve been following the recent harassment discussion pretty closely, and I feel like I’ve been learning a lot. While the last year or so have given me a serious crash course in feminism, gender politics, and privilege, this last month has shown that I’ve still got a ways to go. Case in point, this comment left by Willow on Ophelia Benson’s post about how threatening e-mails have kept her from going to TAM:

look it’s all ok for people to say she can decide what she wants to do with the threats. NO IT IS NOT!

if you are raped and do not report it and someone else is raped, you are partially responsible for that rape.

In this case, Ophelia has an obligation to report the threat and to share with other women, jerk men do not just attend TAM. They ATTEND lots of skeptic/humanist conferences. NOT outing this guy and reporting him, is like “oh well, I’m safe, good luck to the rest of you women.”

No, as a woman Ophelia has an obligation to her fellow women to keep them safe, and also to make sure these guys don’t “win”. To say “I quit” is to say “you win jerk man that has threatened me” and he has learned “wow threatening women really works well! I will try it more often!”

She can not attend and should not if she feels unsafe. But not posting the threat and who made it? That is not reporting a crime against women. Women don’t do that to women.

My first, knee-jerk reaction to that was that Willow had a point. “Evil triumphs when good [people] do nothing,” and all that. As bad as it was to be the victim of harassment, wouldn’t it be worse to see your harasser go on to other people, knowing you could have done something?

So I was surprised when the commenters rose up with righteous anger at Willow’s suggestion. My knee-jerk first reaction was that they were overreacting, that they were flying off the handle over a reasonable point. It’s easy to say “the rapist is 100% responsible for the rape,” but isn’t reality a little more complicated than that?

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years, if there’s one lesson that I keep returning to re: issues that concern the non-privileged, it’s the one that PZ Myers taught over a year ago: learn to shut up and listen. I didn’t post my knee-jerk reaction, in part because I recognize that the “jerk” part is there for a reason.

And so I read the responses, I read Stephanie Zvan’s heartbreaking story and the stories of her commenters, and I put some goddamn thought into the whole situation. And I realized why my knee-jerk reaction was wrong.

One problem with Willow’s position is that it’s something like Pascal’s Wager. Unlike Pascal’s Wager, it presents an actual dilemma: report or don’t report. But like Pascal’s Wager, it makes unsupported assumptions about the risks and benefits of the choice to report.

The dilemma presented in this scenario appears to be this (I’m using rapist per Willow’s example, but it applies equally to harassers):

Risks Benefits
Report Might not be believed Prevent rapist from harming others
Keep the rapists from winning
Fulfill obligation to help other women
Make others aware of the rapist
Don’t Report Allow rapist to freely harm others
Teach rapists that intimidating tactics work
Fail obligation to protect other women
Be partially responsible for all other rapes committed by that rapist
Remain safe (?)

I hope that’s not too much of an exaggeration. The problem is that it ignores several key realities. The first is that reporting carries with it a number of costs on its own. We’ve seen a microcosm of that just recently, with the recent harassment reports and the responses of trolls, MRAs, and misogynists of every stripe to them. We’ve also seen an authority figure treat claims and complaints of harassment dismissively, and show little inclination toward supporting the targets and victims of harassment.

Now imagine that instead of harassing e-mails or creepy guys in bars and crowds, we’re talking about a rapist. And imagine that instead of the president of a particular organization, we’re talking about police officers. Imagine that the rapist isn’t some anonymous Internet asshole, but a friend, family member, or other acquaintance of the survivor, as it is in 2/3 of rape cases. You can block anonymous commenters, you can have security remove the asshole from TAM, but you can’t necessarily escape the taunts and threats and harassment of the accused and their friends and family, who you may have to encounter on a regular basis.

And you’ll probably have to encounter the rapist as well, because only about 1/4 of reported rapes lead to an arrest. Of those, only another 1/4 will spend even one day in jail, and the average convicted rapist will spend only 5 1/2 years in prison.

Which brings us to the other prong of the problem with Willow’s wager: According to at least one study most (63%) of rapists are repeat offenders, averaging 5.8 rapes in a lifetime. While superficially this might support the point of Willow’s wager–if you don’t report, he’ll rape again!–the truth is a little simpler: even if you do report, chances are he’ll rape again. 4.8 more times, in fact. Since many (probably most) rapes go unreported, since 97% of reported rapists never serve jail time, and since that remaining 3% serves an average of 65 months in prison, chances are reporting will not prevent the rapist from committing more rapes.

And so Willow’s Wager rests on two flawed premises: Reporting is not without significant costs, and overwhelmingly does nothing to prevent additional instances of rape. Which is not to say that survivors shouldn’t be encouraged to report–increased rates of reporting are partially credited with the drop in sexual assault rates in the last 20 years or so, but it does mean that one can’t reasonably shame rape survivors for deciding that the risks of reporting outweigh the benefits, and it means that one can’t reasonably blame rape survivors for their rapists’ repeat offenses.

3 Responses to Pascal’s Reporter

  1. skepgineer says:

    The figure in the UK is that 12% of reported rapes result in a conviction, and since offenses are not uniformly distributed over a lifetime, putting them away for 5 years is is going to have a significant effect on average, even if they don’t change (though the purpose of the system is supposed to be “corrections” not “useless revenge”).

  2. Pingback: Thunderf00t-in-mouth « Dubito Ergo Sum

  3. Pingback: Bigots Ruined It For You « Dubito Ergo Sum

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