Let’s start with the Job, the archetypal tale of the phenomenon I want to discuss. After Job loses his property, his family, and his heath, his three best friends travel long distances to comfort him. And by “comfort,” I mean, “do everything within their power to convince Job that he is responsible for his own misfortunes.” Job’s comforters are the world’s first and most famous victim-blamers.
But how did they get that way? Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are not bad people. They are scared little mammals struggling to hold on to an ideology that gives them the illusion of control. They have been taught, and desperately want to believe, that righteousness brings forth the blessings of heaven. But here’s the problem: one cannot logically believe the statement, “if someone is righteous, then God will bless them” without believing the corresponding statement that “if God does not bless someone, then they are not righteous.” Job’s friends are forced into becoming his tormentors by the internal logic of their ideology.
In formal reasoning, this is known as a “contrapositive,” or a statement derived by negating both terms in a proposition and switching the antecedent and the consequent. But you don’t need a course in logic to understand this. Human beings are natural logicians (although often not very good ones), and an intuitive understanding of contraposition is part of our natural capacity for cause-and-effect reasoning. If all dogs have tails, then something that doesn’t have a tail must not be a dog.
This phenomenon, I believe, is a key to understanding why so many people who sincerely believe that it is wrong to blame rape victims for being raped continue to do and say things that blame rape victims for being raped. Even those who reject the bare proposition—that women who are raped are at some level responsible for what has happened to them—often continue to hold on to an ideology whose internal logic requires this proposition to be true.
This is a clear implication in a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Peggy Fletcher Stack and Erin Alberty entitled “How outdated Mormon teachings may be aiding and abetting ‘rape culture.’” As it happens, I am quoted several times in the article, including one statement that is shaping up to be one of the most controversial things I have ever said: that I can trace what girls sometimes learn in Young Women’s lessons directly to what is playing out at BYU.
How shocking! Don’t I know that we don’t teach that stuff anymore? We’ve chucked all of the evil metaphors—the nails in the board, the chewed gum, the licked cupcake. It’s been years since anyone ever said that it would be better for a young woman to come home from a date in a pine box than “without her virtue.” And Miracle of Forgiveness isn’t even in print anymore. Why do I persist in dredging up the past?
What I mean by this statement is that, while we no longer directly say that women bear the responsibility for being raped, we continue to assert precisely this proposition by actively making other statements that require it to be true.
Consider, for example, the oft-repeated instruction to young women that they must dress and act modestly because men cannot control their sexual inclinations when they are in the presence of immodest women. Along with placing the enormous burden of controlling men’s sexuality on women’s shoulders, this statement embeds a contrapositive: that, when men have not controlled their sexual inclinations, it is because women have not dressed or acted modestly.
Or consider the positive statement that women (and men) should obey the principles of the gospel so that they will be safe from the world. We say this a lot. And every time we do, we also assert the contrapositive that someone who has not been safe from the world has not obeyed the principles of the gospel. We can see precisely this contraposition in the recent assertions by BYU supporters that, if women would just obey the Honor Code, they would not have to worry about being raped.
As well-intentioned as statements like this are, they often end up causing a lot of pain. Young women internalize them and blame themselves when they are the victims of sexual abuse. Young men internalize them and learn to see women primarily as sexual temptations. And some of those young men become bishops and stake presidents who judge rape victims by the contrapositives of the teachings they learned in their youth–many of which are still part of the curriculum that they supervise and teach.
All of this is just another way of saying that we are a lot like Job’s Comforters when we talk about rape and sexual abuse. We want to live in a world where we can prevent bad things from happening to the people we love. We want these things to be part of patterns that we can predict and control. When this turns out not to be true, we often continue to insist on the world we want instead of the world we’ve got–and this can lead us to blame and criticize victims at the very moment that we should be loving them unconditionally and doing everything possible to help them heal.