Thursday, 26 July 2012

A classic case of victim blaming from West Mercia police

*trigger warning*

“Don’t let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret”, says the headline on West Mercia Police’s web page dedicated to tackling rape. “Did you know”, they ask “if you drink excessively, you could leave yourself more vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape?”

It seems ridiculous that in 2012 we are still having to have the same conversations with police forces about how they try to raise awareness and prevent rape and sexual assault. To the women in West Mercia, rape is presented as some kind of natural hazard that we can avoid, keep safe from, by staying sober. In one sentence, the police have reduced the causes of rape to one thing – alcohol. 

When, of course, there is only one thing that causes rape. And it isn’t Pinot. It’s rapists. 

By focusing entirely on women’s drinking behaviour, West Mercia police are indulging in a classic case of victim blaming. Don’t get drunk! they warn. You might become a victim of rape! The perpetrator, the single cause of rape, is completely invisible. To a woman who is raped when she’s been drinking on a night out, the message is clear. You made yourself vulnerable. You let yourself become a victim. And it is this culture of victim blaming that makes it so much harder for women to come forward to report rape, for them to feel they will be believed and not blamed. West Mercia’s assurances that they will listen to and support the women who come forward to report rape and sexual assault don’t seem particularly solid when preceded with the message that rape is caused by women drinking. 

The West Mercia police are also running a campaign focusing on men, explaining to them that rape and sexual assault are a crime. It's therefore a shame that they are pairing it with one that so insistently focuses the responsibility for preventing rape on women's behaviour as well. 

Back in early 2011, representatives from the Bristol Feminist Network met with Avon and Somerset police to discuss their safety warnings for women in the wake of Jo Yeates’ murder. The warnings told women to stay indoors and not walk around after dark (it was January). One of our co-ordinators asked the police if they would ever consider running a safety campaign that spoke to perpetrators about not committing violent crimes against women. 

Their answer? Such a campaign would be ‘offensive’ to men. 

Never mind that campaigns telling women to curb their freedoms is offensive to women. Never mind the fact that campaigns telling us that our behaviour could lead to rape are offensive. Apparently it simply doesn’t matter if we offend women. 

There are plenty of campaigns that focus on the perpetrators of crime. Drink driving ads spring to mind. I’ve never felt offended by ads telling me not to drink and drive – a crime I would never commit. 

The only people I can think of who would be offended by a campaign telling rapists not to rape are, well, rapists. 

What I would like to see are more campaigns like the one in Scotland that speak to men about what they can do to prevent rape. This campaign understands that the responsibility for rape lies with rapists, not with women. It reminds those who choose to rape that they are committing a crime, and they will be punished, they will be sentenced. 

It isn’t up to women to prevent rape. Because, no matter what West Mercia say, there is nothing we can do to prevent rape. The only person who has the power to prevent rape is the one who chooses not to commit the crime. Women are raped when they are drunk, when they are sober, when they are wearing jeans, when they are wearing short skirts, when they are outdoors, when they are indoors, when they are at home or at work or at school or at a club. When they are awake and when they are asleep. Women’s behaviour is not the linking factor when it comes to rape. The rapist’s is. 

A survey by Amnesty International in 2005 found that 30% of people believe that a woman is partially to blame for the violence committed against her if she is drunk.   Campaigns like West Mercia’s should be tackling these beliefs, not perpetuating them. Because it isn’t alcohol that leaves women vulnerable to rape. It’s only and always the rapists. 


gherkingirl said...

I particularly liked how they remind you to alternate your alcoholic drinks with a glass to water to keep rapists at bay. Who knew sexual predators were hydrophobic?

Didn't seem to work for me when I ordered a glass of water after a few drinks to make sure I was ok to travel home and my rapist spiked it...

According to the Fawcett's 2007 figures (which are the first I could find with a really quick Google search) West Mercia's conviction rate was only 4.5%. Yet next door in the West Midlands force it's 7.1. I doubt all of that can be explained by differing social attitudes.

Matthew Smith said...

I'm not sure that poster would be effective as a police anti-rape campaign - any such campaign needs to emphasise two things - (i) that certain things are rape, such as having sex with a woman when she's not in a position to consent (such as being extremely drunk) and (ii) that they might be the 'unlucky' one and get caught, even if they've heard of others getting away with it or thinks nobody ever gets caught or convicted for rape in certain circumstances. Emphasising the absolute figures of how many men were convicted for rape might help (rather than the percentage). A poster that just says "don't rape" won't convince anyone who actually intends to rape someone.

sian and crooked rib said...

Matthew - sorry, am bit confused, which poster? I think the Scotland one works really well. after all, not that many men get convicted for rape (plus the reporting rate is so low) so i'm not sure numbers would be effective. Especially as they can be twisted into misogynistic statements on Unilad!!

Gherkingirl - thank you for the figures, it would make sense. And thank you for sharing your story xx

rscotland said...

Apart from everything else, "regretful sex" has nothing to do with the police, so it shouldn't even be mentioned - and especially not in the context of 'regretful sex/rape', which is such a widespread and offensive cultural trope.

This is so rage-inducing, not least because I know from experience that WM police are helpful, kind and thorough.

sian and crooked rib said...

Absolutely, was going to tackle that in the post too but didn't want it to get too long - v concerning that they're conflating regretted sexual encounters with rape especially with the right wing media narrative on false accusations.

I'm really pleased to hear that their actions don't reflect their campaign.

danfactor said...

I guess you could apply this to advise about how to avoid being the victims of other types of crime.
One could argue advise telling people not to live their windows open and doors unlocked to avoid having their homes burgled is blaming victims of burglary.
How dare the police suggest people should not leave their windows open and doors unlocked?

sian and crooked rib said...

Firstly, women are not houses. When we go out and about, having a drink, living our lives, we are not leaving ourselves 'open'.

When you understand that it isn't women's behaviour that causes rape, then you understand that this all too common analogy is just nonsense.

Women are not cars. We’re not houses. We’re not mobile phones or wallets or any other fancy goods. We are human beings. You cannot compare rape with stealing a car or burgling a house. Women do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ and vulnerable by living our lives – walking home from work, having a partner, living in a house, going to work or school or uni, having a drink, wearing clothes, knowing people.

The point is, there are not any precautions women can take to not be raped, because rapes are caused by rapists, not by women’s actions.

So it is not acceptable to tell women that drinking 'makes them vulnerable'.

danfactor said...

Sian I never said any of that, about women being houses. Nor did I say women are leaving themselves unlocked or vunerable by just living their lives.
I am just wondering whether giving people regardless of sex advise not to get dangerously drunk so that they do not know wear they are and are unaware of danger lurking near by is blaming them if they become a victim of a violent crime.

sian and crooked rib said...

The problem - to all the people comparing this victim blaming campaign with advising 'sensible precautions' like 'don't leave valuables unattended' is that being sober is not actually a precaution against being raped.

Firstly, as far as i know, there is no evidence to suggest that women are more likely to be raped when they are drunk (although i have heard stats that suggest rapists are more likely to rape when they are drunk). So therefore there is no link whatsoever between women drinking and being a victim of rape. As i say in the post, the only link between women who are raped is the presence of a rapist.

Of course telling people not to get so drunk that they can't move is sensible. It's sensible because getting really pissed is bad for your health and you might get injured. But, considering everything we KNOW about rape, telling women not to drink in case they are 'more vulnerable' to rape doesn't make sense.

Most women are raped by people they know. Women can be raped in their homes. Women are raped in schools, in workplaces, in nightclubs, in alleys - drunk and sober. If we are going to run campaigns that tell women that they need to take responsibility in order to ensure that they are not 'vulnerable' to rape, then we are asking women to not live their lives.

And 'not living a life' is not a 'sensible precaution'. It's not the same as not leaving your mobile phone in view (it's not the same for loads of reasons but that's just one).

And that's why i believe campaigns to prevent rape need to focus on perpetrators. Rape isn't caused by women being drunk, there is nothing women can do to prevent this crime except never being in the presence of a rapist. The 'sensible precautions' advised are not sensible.

We're not the same as wallets. We're not doors left unlocked. We are women, and we are being told not to go out, not to walk home after dark alone, not to drink, not to wear what we want, not to flirt with men, not to live our lives because of the actions of some men who choose to rape.

These aren't sensible precautions. These are the removals of our freedoms because of the violent actions of some men.

Forty Shades Of Grey said...

There's also the fact that a lot of drink spiking is done with alcohol purely because of these kind of campaigns reinforcing the idea that if a woman is drunk she can't be/deserves to be raped (two different schools of thought, both equally disgusting). So rapists will intentionally make women drink more than they think they are (by getting them triple measures instead of singles etc.) in order to rape them and get away with it, knowing that the victim won't be believed, if they even dare to go forward about it.

HerbsandHags said...

Sian have you seen glosswitch's brilliant blog post today? She points out that men who wish to avoid being falsely accused of rape, shd avoid having sex with women so that they can take responsibility for protecting themselves against false allegations.

Danfactor, how wd you feel if you were regularly subjected to advice like that? That it's fair enough? Reasonable? Only sensible to follow it and men who don't are partially responsible when they're the victim of a false allegation?

Because it's not, is it, any more than telling women it's reasonable to curtail our freedoms.

sian and crooked rib said...

HerbsandHags - yes i loved it!

Nat, exactly. this campaign perpetuates the notion that women are responsible for preventing their own rapes, and lets the rapists off the hook.

Ranmara said...

I don't want to get into a big discussion about it because I don't want to hi-jack and I loved the article but would you take offense if I put a reminder here for people to consider including male rape survivors in discussions about rape? Victim blaming affects them as well.

Dorian Evans said...

These dicussions reminded of those scenes of wildebeests gathering on river banks cautious of being the first into the water with the crocs in it.

I then imagine the rightous wildebeest in the herd charging through the crowd, shouting 'fuck it, its not my fault if I get eaten - it's the crocodile's...'...splash....(some of the younger viewers might liked to look away at this point)

sian and crooked rib said...

No offence, but that's the stupidest analogy i've ever seen for this discussion! Crocodiles eat wildebeest because they are their natural prey. There's nothing natural about rapists choosing to rape women. Rape isn't a natural hazard we can take precautions to avoid. It's a deliberate act, a deliberate crime, committed by one person against another.

Rebecca said...

What exactly do they think is the offensive part to the men? The "don't rape anyone" part?

Hey, they are suggesting that men rape women and shouldn't do that!

Oh, wait. They do. And they aren't told not to rape women, the way women receive "don't get raped" messages on a widespread scale.

If people are getting angry about the fact that rape is brought to light, over the fact that it happens in the first place, then they massively need to restructure their priorities of what they give a shit about.

Oh and I've also received that animal analogy Sian, but mine was with hammerhead sharks, not crocodiles. Don't forget the implication that men are beasts who cannot control their urges, and aren't we stupid for not remembering that!

Dorian Evans said...

I take no offence and I hope in the same way you won't take offence with my reply.

I do not understand why you place an emphasis on a threat being ‘natural’ or not. Indeed, I am not sure what you mean by ‘natural’. What do you mean ? - The last time I heard of anything being called unnatural was ‘homosexuality’ and these days such an argument finds very little favour. Likewise, I think it's nonsensical to assign such labels as natural or unnatural to any aspect of human behaviour - especially behaviour so widespread in nature (not just in humans) as coercive sex. It makes no logical sense and no practical sense. We don't come with a manufacturer’s instruction manual.

So the best advice would be to anyone - male or female - when you are out, it's incumbent upon you to consider what levels of threats there are out there and for you to take whatever steps you think necessary to minimise such threats. It really is not ‘rocket science’.

That said too, no-one should be blamed for being a victim either. Going out, socialising and in the process getting drunk is a popular pastime in this country – has been for generations. What perhaps the poster should have said was – even if you were drunk when attacked – the Police still want you to report the crime – you are in no way to blame.

sian and crooked rib said...

Agree that that would be a sensible message. to assure women (and men) that they will be believed, they will be taken seriously, that rape myths will hold no sway in the police's reaction to you.

I still don't believe rape is natural though. because when you say it is 'natural', i.e. it is just like a crocodile eating a zebra, it implies that the person committing the crime had no choice in the matter, that it 'just happens'. And i don't believe that.

Dorian Evans said...

You mention the Police and rape myths. I can’t agree that the Police ought to believe every complaint they receive. But I would say that, prima facie, they ought to regard each one as being serious and to start off with an open mind.

I know the police are not the same as the judiciary. However here is some text of what is known as a specimen direction used for giving Crown Court judges some guidelines when it comes to summing up cases for the benefit of a jury. In this example, the scenario is obviously imagined. But it shows that the judiciary at least are aware of rape myths and they do try to dispel them from the minds of the jury without being either prejudicial to the prosecution or the defence. There are several examples given in their benchbook – online somewhere – I used to have the link. Here is one relating for example to being drunk and the making of assumptions - amongst other things.

“The complainant was in a hen party which went to the nightclub at 11pm. There were 12 young women in the party, all scantily dressed. They were drinking in rounds and many were drunk, as the complainant says she was. They danced with each other and they danced with men. The complainant told you that she danced with men she knew and did not know. She accepted that she was flirtatious with more than one of them. She danced with the defendant with whom she had had sexual intercourse on two previous occasions about 12 months before, during a relationship which had lasted 3 weeks. She kissed him and agreed that she went willingly with him outside the club for a cigarette.

In the course of cross examination, it was suggested to the complainant that she was perfectly prepared for sex that night; that she was broadcasting her willingness by the way she dressed and the way she behaved; that she would not have kissed the defendant if she had not fancied him; that she expected when they went outside that there would be sexual contact between them. I will summarise the evidence for you in a moment, including the complainant’s answers to those suggestions, but, first, I need to address the assumptions which appear to me to underpin counsel’s questions. Each of us knows, and it is certainly the experience of the courts, that people young and not so young can behaved in a socially disinhibited manner. Scantily dressed young women celebrating in hen parties is by no means unusual, nor is heavy drinking by young women during a night out, nor is flirtatious behaviour in nightclubs. We all know that alcohol and atmosphere can lead to disinhibited behaviour including sexual behaviour.

However, there appeared to be an assumption behind counsel’s questions that any one of this group of young women, just because they were behaving in an uninhibited manner during their night out, would have been prepared to engage in sexual activity with any man who happened to take a fancy to her, especially if that man was known to her and there had been a previous relationship between them. Is the realistic position this: a woman may or may not be prepared to engage in sexual activity with a particular man, depending upon the circumstances of the encounter and the mutual feelings between them? What you should not do is judge the intentions or inclinations of the complainant on this occasion by the application of a generalised assumption about people’s behaviour. What you should do is reach conclusions based upon the evidence.’

I wanted to get this text in full into the blog. I’d be over the character limit if I also posted about the word ‘natural’ – I’ll do that after.