Friday, 18 October 2013

Responding to responses on my blogpost on safety advice and sexual assault


There was a higher than average number of comments on my last blog post critiquing the safety advice given out by police in the wake of a serious sexual assault in Bristol. Because many of the same responses to the post kept coming up, I thought I’d write a follow-up post to try and refute some of the recurring arguments. 

Response One: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked

I’ve written it on my blog a hell of a lot of times, but let’s reiterate it again. Women are not cars. We are not wallets. We are not windows, or mobile phones. We do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ or ‘open’ by walking home on our own after dark. 

As well as being quite simply rude, this response I believe feeds into a culture where women are objectified. Our humanity, our right to live free from violence and attack, is diminished. We become the equivalent of a carelessly parked car. 

What this response comes down to is the idea of ‘sensible precautions’. We should take sensible precautions to reduce our vulnerability to crime. Therefore we lock our car doors, we keep our valuables hidden and we close our windows. They are all sensible precautions and they are precautions I take too. 

But not living your life freely is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling a woman like me, who often works late, that I should not walk home after dark is not telling me to take a sensible precaution. It’s telling me to restrict my freedoms and to change my way of life because of the actions of one or more men. That’s not the same as locking your car door. 

This argument presents the idea that simply by living their lives, women are ‘making themselves vulnerable’. And that is not ok. 

Response Two: You’re telling women to put themselves at risk

No. I’m not. I’m really not. 

There’s some confusion around safety advice, that when you criticise it you are somehow saying everyone can just behave however they like and damn the consequences. It’s not the case. We all have a responsibility to ourselves. We shouldn’t throw ourselves in front of cars or get so drunk we fall off a roof. We need to look after ourselves and – as friends or family members – we need to look out for our loved ones. 

My criticism of this specific safety advice is that – again – it’s presenting the idea that women’s presence in public space is enough to put her at risk. That by walking home alone, she has put herself at risk. 

This kind of advice presents rape and sexual assault as some kind of natural hazard that women can take action to avoid. If you just walk in daylight. If you just say sober. If you just tell people where you are. Then you’ll avoid rape. Then you’ll be safe. 

But as I say over and over again, the only cause of rape and sexual assault is the man that chooses rape and sexual assault. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to adjust her lifestyle to avoid rape. It’s up to men who choose to rape, not raping. 

Regardless of what the safety advice says, women still have strategies to ‘stay safe’. Whether it’s walking the long way home to avoid a dodgy area, or leaving early to get a bus, or fake talking on the phone or carrying keys. We all take action to ‘keep ourselves safe’. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we are attacked, it is solely the fault of the attacker. And walking home with a friend isn’t going to help if that friend attacks you. Especially when the vast majority of attacks against women come from someone the woman knows. 

Response Three: the advice isn’t gendered. Men have to be vigilant too.

The advice is gendered. How anyone can miss that is beyond me. 

Look at it this way. There are two facts that are incontrovertible about violence. Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know – at home but also at work, college, school. Men are most likely to be attacked by a stranger on the street. 

But when a man is the victim of a violent attack on the streets, the response is not to tell men to avoid walking home on their own. It’s not to tell men to understand that alcohol leaves them vulnerable. We do not expect men to modify their behaviour or not live their lives because of the actions of other violent men. 

There’s also a difference between being ‘vigilant’ and telling women to restrict their freedoms. Being vigilant is – as in point two – about self care, caring for one another, being aware. Not living your life free from the fear of violence is not being vigilant. 

Response Four: the police response.

Operation Bluestone is committed to the idea that the only thing that can stop rape and sexual assault is to ensure men don’t have sex with someone who cannot or does not consent. I must reiterate that Operation Bluestone has done so much good work tackling rape myths and victim blaming culture, and they should be recognised for that. 

I think it’s really important to acknowledge the stand the police are taking and thank them for their action in tackling male violence against women

So these are my responses to the responses to my blog. In short, women are not wallets. We do not leave ourselves open. Not living our life free from the fear of violence is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling women we have the right to live free from violence is not putting women at risk. This advice is gendered. And thank you Operation Bluestone for your positive response. 


One last thing. In my post I did something I rarely do – disclose an incident I have experienced. In that incident, I had followed all the ‘rules’. No one commented on that. Had I put myself at risk for being in a public space? Did I deserve that assault? Should I have stopped getting buses? Of course not. The problem with this advice is it is unrealistic because sexual assaults happen anywhere and everywhere. The sad and scary thing is that whilst this crime is so common, there are no sensible precautions women can take. The only thing that can make a change is by some men choosing not to attack women.  

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please give the statement you would have given as the Police officer to clear up what the correct response should be.. still waiting.

sian and crooked rib said...

I put this in the comments section on the other post. That they should tell men that if they sexually assault women, they will be held accountable. To tell men to be vigilant and to challenge sexually aggressive behaviour from other men.

You might enjoy this poster:

http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/anti-rape-campaigns-men-and-offence.html

Also, you're fairly aggressive demand of 'still waiting' - you might want to avoid making statements like that. It makes you sound rather demanding and rude.

sian and crooked rib said...

I put this in the comments section on the other post. That they should tell men that if they sexually assault women, they will be held accountable. To tell men to be vigilant and to challenge sexually aggressive behaviour from other men.

You might enjoy this poster:

http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/anti-rape-campaigns-men-and-offence.html

Also, you're fairly aggressive demand of 'still waiting' - you might want to avoid making statements like that. It makes you sound rather demanding and rude.

danfactor said...

"That they should tell men that if they sexually assault women, they will be held accountable. To tell men to be vigilant and to challenge sexually aggressive behaviour from other men. "

But you could apply this to any other crime. For example instead of telling people to lock their doors and close their windows the police should just tell burglars that they will be locked up if they burgle people's homes.
You advocate the police telling rapists not to rape but what about other crimes? We do not tell murderers not to murder.
My point is not that one is right and one is wrong but the rule of anti victim blaming should apply to all crimes not just rape.

danfactor said...

"But when a man is the victim of a violent attack on the streets, the response is not to tell men to avoid walking home on their own. It’s not to tell men to understand that alcohol leaves them vulnerable. We do not expect men to modify their behaviour or not live their lives because of the actions of other violent men. "

True but if a male friend was violently attacked in a dark ally would you not ask him why he walked down the dark ally? Or would you say to do so is to blame him?

Amelia Cuss said...

danfactor:

To do so *is* to blame him. You're saying, "well, sure they attacked you, but what were you doing in a dark alley? Next time you should know better! Sheesh."

It's totally irrelevant to your judgment of the situation.

Skitzee2k said...

1) not walking alone through an area with a very recent history of people being attacked whilst walking alone is pretty much the definition of sensible precaution.

Skitzee2k said...

2. From a risk assessment trained perspective, risk is everywhere. You find risk by hazard x likelihood of occurrence.
It makes no moral judgement, risk is risk whether it should exist or not.

I hate the idea that anyone is more at risk than they should be in any situation, doesn't stop it being fact.

Skitzee2k said...

Response 3. I very much doubt assaults on men are even reported are they? Been involved personally in two incidents where I needed hospital treatment, no big police response at all. Don't think personally they are seen as that important and to be honest, I and most men I know accept this, with sadness, as a part of nightlife.
I'd hate for that to become the same for sex attacks.
A number of people I know specifically watch their intake to avoid being vulnerable. I'm sure consciously or unconsciously (no pun intended) most people do.

Response 4. Agree completely. Would add however that one of the ways to make sure rapists stop raping is to make it harder for them.
If all women were ninjitsu champs, the number would reduce, but I believe the number would reduce even further if women didn't lose the ability to function.

sian and crooked rib said...

Unfortunately that is already the case for rape and sexual assault - only about 15% of incidents of rape are reported to the police, in part because of a victim blaming culture.

Skitzee2k said...

Victim blaming can surely only be blaming where blame is mentioned?
For example, 'she was wearing a short skirt, she asked for it' is victim blaming.
Saying, 'many people wearing short skirts are being attacked' is not victim blaming

Anonymous said...

'Also, you're fairly aggressive demand of 'still waiting' - you might want to avoid making statements like that. It makes you sound rather demanding and rude.'

Na.. it was written in a very passive manner. Was literally still waiting for an actual 'statement', that the police might read out (without sounding stupid).

No offense.. but I think we all know assault is a crime, and people can be vigilant or not, but the majority won't get involved if they see something.

If i walk home late at night and see a group of lads that might be trouble I don't think.. 'its ok.. there are vigilant people around'.. or 'the law will protect me!'

I step aside.
Job done.

Tell me of a society where there is no violence or crime? Or one where there is, but everyone gets caught and punished?

Impossible.

The police advise to look out for yourself is not passing the buck back to women. its common sense, and valid for men and women.

You will talk a glass eye to sleep before your point is valid.

Anonymous said...

Response 3.
I am a man.. i have been assaulted violently, mugged, and beaten up for no reason on several occasions. I have friends who have had their faces slashed, pelvis smashed, and permanent injuries.

On ALL of those occasions I was attacked I can quite honestly say I was vulnerable for being on my own, and being in a 'dosgy' ass place late at night - and i knew it.

I never reported any of the crimes as I couldn't be assed with the hassle.

If I'd got in a taxi or 'called my mum' for a lift i'd have been fine each time, but i wasn't proactive in my own safety.

Shit happens. I have scars on my face. I never moaned about it. It's a jungle. Look after yourself.

Anonymous said...

Something that I would have found helpful (but this might be a cultural shift rather than one-off advice) is to be told that I don't need to be polite or worry about what other people think of me. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right and therefore don't think you're being rude by shouting, running, etc.

It would have helped me numerous times to feel strong enough to "make a scene" or be loud or draw attention to what was happening to me. Instead I worried that I would cause trouble by alerting fellow passengers or people on the street that I'm being harassed, assaulted, or followed. I worried that people would think that I'm making something of nothing.

And then I blamed myself after the assault because I should have done something - I should have behaved differently.

So maybe the advice could be something like:

"Follow your instincts, be bold, and remember that you aren't making a fuss, you aren't being dramatic, you aren't causing a scene by yelling, screaming, shouting, running... And, whatever happens, you will be believed."

You could also add:

"Stay alert, be mindful of who is around you, make eye contact. Be confident. And believe that whatever is happening is not your fault or your doing. Believe that you have the right to ask for it to stop happening."

"And to others who see things that make them uncomfortable, stop and intervene. Ask if there's anything you can do to help".

I don't know if that's good or bad advice but I think it's better than telling me not to go out at night or to stop living my life. It's better than telling me that we may as well live in Saudia Arabia where women are only allowed out in public with a male escort. It's better advice then imposing on my freedoms.

Anonymous said...

It is 3am. A policeman stands on the corner of Belgrave/Woodland Rd keeping watch in the light of a sexual assault incident that very recently occurred nearby.

Firstly, a group of 5 boys clearly on their way back from a night out (ie a bit pissed) approach. He lets them pass without saying anything, keeping an eye until they are out of sight.

Next, a group of 5 girls approach, also on the way back from a night out and a bit pissed. The policeman remembers that a girl had recently been sexually assaulted in this area and that though they are in a group they might go their separate ways on the journey home. His mind imagines one of these girls turning left and heading down Belgrave Rd on her own, much in the same way the recent sexual assault victim had. So he tells the girls to 'be vigilant, advises them not to walk home alone if possible, to stick to well-lit areas, always let friends and family know where they are and to remember that they have drunk alcohol and that might make them vulnerable'. They continue on their way.

A 6ft 2 big lad that doesn't seem very drunk approaches. The policeman tells this man to 'be vigilant.' He tells him to 'confront any friends he might be meeting if he thinks they are behaving in a sexually aggressive way.' He hands the big lad a pamphlet that is anti-rape and focused on men's behaviour. The man leaves but in his heightened suspicious state the policman follows the man (because a man recently committed a crime in this area and he doesn't want to take any chances) down Belgrave Road and watches him walk down Whiteladies for a bit before returning to his previous spot.

A small man approaches. Acknowledging to himself that he is being a little judgemental the policeman thinks this lad doesn't look very physically strong. He also looks quite pissed judging from the way he stumbles towards him. He tells the boy to 'be vigilant, advises him not to walk home alone if possible, to stick to well-lit areas, always let friends and family know where he is and to remember that he has drunk alcohol and that might make him vulnerable [to becoming the victim of a crime]'. He also hands him a pamphlet. The boy leaves.

A girl named Sian approaches not looking sober. The policeman sees that this girl is walking home on her own and has turned to go down Belgrave Rd - the road where a sexual assault has recently taken place. Though he has not seen anyone else on Belgrave Rd and thinks it is highly unlikely any harm would come to her with him there, he advises her to 'be vigilant, advises her not to walk home alone if possible, to stick to well-lit areas, always let friends and family know where she is and to remember that she has drunk alcohol and that might make her vulnerable.' She tells him 'I had to work late, how should I have got home? Should I spend my money on a cab? Should I sleep in my office? Perhaps I should not have gone to work at all?' The policeman is a little taken aback by this response. The policeman suggests walking down the slightly better lit Cotham Hill towards Whiteladies Rd. She replies: 'You should not expect me to put my life on hold because of violent men' and continues on her way. The policeman follows her to make sure she gets to Whiteladies Road, then begins the internal debate as to whether he should ensure she gets home ok or just leave her be.

Vanilla Rose said...

If a man were assaulted in a dark alley, the police would probably assume he had a valid reason for taking that route. Unless they thought he was there to buy drugs or something. Either way, they would assume he was there for a reason.

Anonymous said...

I was very proud in 1983, as a Special Constable in the Metropolitan Police, to volunteer to learn to instruct women's groups in crime prevention and self defence techniques. I (a female officer) and a male colleague then gave up much time (we were unpaid volunteers) to passing on what we had learned. Each talk and training session started "More men are assaulted in the age range 18-26 than any group of women in an age range of the same length". Those statistics, based on reported incidents, were true at the time, it would be interesting to know if they are still true.

These courses were aimed at using your freedom and right to be where you want to be when you want in as safe a way as possible and replace fear with judgement. Well according to your argument I just wasted some hundreds of hours of volunteer time and my male colleague did not need all those bruises that he collected while women practised self-defence on him so they had an idea of some men's height, reach and strength. Thank you.

Oh and by the way - your statement re. alcohol "Drinking alcohol makes women vulnerable to hangovers and perhaps some regretted text messages. Alcohol does not make a woman vulnerable to sexual assault. The only thing that makes a woman vulnerable to sexual assault is the presence of a violent man." Let's break that down into 2 parts: "hangovers and perhaps some regretted text messages" is the least to worry about - how about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy? Some women, like some men, lose all ability to make sensible judgements when they are drunk. The difference for a women is they can get pregnant
a) alcohol makes you vomit and the contraceptive pill does not work under those conditions
b) drunken coupling often means that even if a condom is used the usual 15% failure rate is increased by user error. Please look after those of your own sex and don't say it is OK to drink too much alcohol - it's bad for your health and it can wreck your life. Keeping up with the lads when drinking is stupid (oh and often the lads are being stupid too).

Moving on to the second part of your statement "The only thing that makes a woman vulnerable to sexual assault is the presence of a violent man" - for balance can we say "violent man or women"? I take it you have not forgotten Rosemary West. Yes, she was highly unusual but in 8 years of volunteer policing mainly on Friday and Saturday nights I did encounter a lot of violent women, particular at around 2am when some local night clubs closed. Women on women assault was not at all unusual and usually inspired by alcohol and rivalry, imagined or otherwise, over a man. Male and female police officers were, as is too often the norm when dealing with violence, injured dealing with these incidents.

I am deeply sorry you have been assaulted. No person has any right to assault another person but please, be a feminist who is an egalitarian. Instead of being insulted that there is a level of care for our sex why not campaign to help the victims of either sex to achieve the level playing field that we all behave as carefully as necessary to safeguard ourselves while still enjoying the level of freedom of we need to fulfil our work and social aims. We should all be looking out for each other and reporting anything that can be helpful to the police in either preventing attacks or catching attackers.

Anonymous said...

In response to your response to the responses to your original blog:

You say "Regardless of what the safety advice says, women still have strategies to ‘stay safe’". No - some do, some don't. Publicising sensible strategies is useful.

Yes, advice is gendered. If there has been an attack on a woman it makes sense to tell other women. You are right, however, increasing advice to men about their personal safety makes sense and talks about knife crime at schools to both sexes are a move in the right direction. More needs to be done.

In my opinion what is really distressing is not the impact of personal safety advice on young women. Most in my opinion, if they listen, seem to either take sensible precautions, or are a bit slipshod (forgive the pun - yes, I was thinking high heels, rubbish for running away or walking home the 4 miles after the gig) or ignore the advice totally. No young woman of my acquaintance stays home every night because of what she thinks might happen, unless, very unfortunately and distressingly, it already has. What is truly distressing is the number of elderly women who are terrified to go anywhere where they might be alone even in broad daylight. This is nothing to do with police advice and everything to do with crime reported in newspapers and on the television. Perception of crime is irrationally high and clear statistics, however presented, seem to make no difference to that fear.