“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.