Thursday, 17 October 2013

Safety advice and victim blaming - an open letter to my local police force

I’m sorry to have to be having this conversation again. I really am. I thought, after our Reclaim the Night marches, BFN’s good relationship with Operation Bluestone and my BFN colleague meeting with you after the Jo Yeates murder to talk about safety advice, that you’d got it. That you understood that it wasn’t ok, in the wake of male violence, to respond by policing women’s behaviour. That you had listened to us, and to Bristol Fawcett, and agreed with us that, when a man is deliberately attacking women, we shouldn’t respond by restricting women’s freedom. 

So I was really, truly disappointed to read the following in local newspaper, The Post: 

 “Urging women in particular to be vigilant when out at night, Mr Haskins [Senior investigation officer] advised 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 drinking alcohol can make them vulnerable.”

Avon and Somerset Police, I work near where the assault happened. If I have to work late, how should I get home? Should I spend my money on a cab? Should I sleep in my office? Perhaps I should not go to work at all? 

It is not good enough to tell women not to live their lives, not to do the things they need or want to do, because a man is choosing to assault women. It is not ok to tell women to live in fear, to be watching their back, to restrict their freedom, because a violent man has chosen to attack women. Women – we have to walk around. We have to go to work, go to school, go to uni, and visit friends or family. Our lives shouldn’t have to stop because of the actions of violent men. You should not expect us to put our lives on hold because of violent men. 

Alcohol. You mention alcohol. And how it makes women vulnerable. 

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. 

I was sexually assaulted on a bus at 9am. Not as seriously as this young woman, but it happened. I was stone cold sober, in a well-lit area, sitting on a bus. I wasn’t walking. I wasn’t in the dark. I wasn’t drinking. And I was assaulted. Why? Because walking, drinking and darkness do not cause sexual assault. Men who abuse women cause sexual assault. 

It’s so easy, isn’t it? It’s so easy to tell women to lock themselves away, stay hidden. 

My BFN colleague once asked you why you didn’t have a safety campaign targeting men. You told us ‘because men find it offensive’. 

I find it offensive to be told to police my own actions and restrict my own freedoms because of the actions of violent men. I find it offensive that if anything happened to me as I walk home from work, your safety warnings will have groomed people to believe I was somehow to blame. I find it offensive that people would ask why I was walking home, not why he feels he has the male entitlement over women’s bodies. 

When a man sexually assaults women – both at home and in public places – please, I beg of you, focus on men. Focus on their behaviour. Because in every single situation, the only cause of sexual assault is the man who chooses to be violent. 

I know you know this. I know because Operation Bluestone has done fantastic work in tackling victim blaming narratives, in bringing perpetrators to account – in doing everything right. I’ve collaborated with Operation Bluestone on campaigns and I know they do really good work. That knowledge is one reason why I’m so disappointed. So hurt.

But I also know that it’s easy. It’s easy to tell women not to go out, not to drink, not to walk home in the dark. It’s far easier to offend women than it is to risk offending men. It’s far easier to restrict women’s freedoms, than to try and show the public that we live in a society where there are nearly 500,000 sexual assaults every year, that nearly half a million men in our society are assaulting, attacking and raping women. 

It’s those men we need to be talking to. It’s the society that excuses them, allows them, and victim blames that we need to be talking to. 

Don’t tell women not to live freely. Don’t tell us that we can’t expect the right to freedom of movement. Don’t tell us not to live our lives, because a man is choosing to attack women. Tackle the causes of violence and stop offering ‘advice’ that fuels a victim blaming rape culture.

Thank you. 

Bristol Rape Crisis0808 801 0456


Anonymous said...

So what should the police advise have been then? I'm interested in what your police statement would be? please share...

Anonymous said...

This is one of those articles which should be read by its intended recipients once a day, every day, forever. It should be on the bulletin boards of every police force.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those articles which should be read by its intended recipients once a day, every day, forever. It should be on the bulletin boards of every police force.

sian and crooked rib said...

I think they should tell men to be vigilant. To tell men to confront their friends if they think they are behaving in a sexually aggressive way. To focus on men's behaviour.

This mock poster on 'how not to get raped' advice tells it better than me:

Sarah said...

Astonishing advice. Personally I'd rather take the risks than live a life constricted in that way -- afraid to walk the streets alone, having my every movement monitored by 'friends' or family members (what good exactly is this supposed to do?), feeling I can't have a drink in case it makes ever me 'vulnerable'.

In my experience, most women are already very 'vigilant' and fearful on this issue. It doesn't seem to prevent it happening. Trying to make women even more afraid is not the answer.

There have also been many cases of men being mugged or assaulted in the street (I'm sure many of us know someone this has happened to), or sadly even murdered. But I don't recall police advising all men to cower timidly at home for their own good.

Jerome said...

While I agree that blaming women is offensive, I can't help thinking that you have set up a false dichotomy.

It's not a question of either asking people to be careful at night OR going after rapists.

It is obvious that everyone should be careful at night, and I say this as a man who has several scars and a broken nose from wrong turnings in Bristol. The people who did this are criminals and should be brought to justice, but that is not an argument for not being careful.

In addition, of course people are raped at all sorts of different times of day, but you are much more likely to be raped at night.

My question would be - would this police statement be OK if they said 'if you are a woman, while we're dealing with this, please take as many precautions as you can, if you are a man and you rape we're coming for you.'? Because I feel you can say both.

charlie.allen12 said...

The police are trying to help you. Would you rather they didn't say anything? To deny the fact that being drunk is never a factor for sexual assault is ridiculous. Take precautions and you are far less likely to be a victim of sexual violence - that is true, and to say that that is 'offensive' is offensive to the police force who are encouraging vigilance and carefulness. How can a campaign be launched to stop men being violent? Surely the same should be instigated for murder, theft, etc.

Anonymous said...

This is a rant driven by bad logic.

Yes it sucks that women can't safely walk our streets without risk of being sexually assaulted. But there are things they can do to make themselves safer. Men can too.

The detective did not blame women for the problem. It's presumably not his fault he hasn't solved the case yet.

Ranting at the police for giving good advice is counterproductive. It may actually make police more reluctant to give advice in future and increase the chances of sexual assault.

Gaptooth said...

Jerome - you may be more likely to be raped at night, but statistically you're also considerably more likely to be raped by someone you know in your home or somewhere familiar to you, than you are in the street by a stranger. Yet (rightly) no one is advising women not to be in their own home with their partner. The obsession with stranger rape also gives us a distorted picture of the abuse that is actually taking place.

Anonymous said...

Okay, there is a fine, fine line between "policing women's behaviour" and offering crime prevention advice. When you walk past somebody's car, and they've left the GPS proudly displayed in the front seat and the doors unlocked, you advise them to, in the future, hide their GPS and lock their doors. That's not policing their freedom to leave their car unlocked. That's offering them some sensible tips to make sure that they don't wake up tomorrow morning with valuable things missing.

The same applies for victims of assault. When you find somebody walking alone through a park late at night, with headphones in their ears while texting on their phone, you advise them that they'd be safer paying attention to their surroundings, because that's where crime happens, and how snatch thefts happen.

Again, the job of the police is to prevent crime. They're not going to lock you up if you don't listen to their advice - it's advice, not the law - but you'll be safer. Yes, ideally they wouldn't have to talk to you, they'd be catching rapists, but they have to do what they can.

Aj Owens Dransfield said...

The nature of advice is that it does not restrict freedoms, you still have the choice to walk home at night but unfortunately people still rape others (a problem worthy of criticising the police on, given their poor response to rapes) and while they do there are measures people can take to protect themselves from assault.

I somehow feel that the converse "in the wake of a recent assault in bristol, Avon and Somerset Police advise people, and urge men in particular, not to commit rape" would not change the minds of people about to commit a sexual crime.

The only gender disparity here comes from the ridiculous number of rapes committed by men, which is the real issue to be dealt with here.

sian and crooked rib said...

Anonymous at 12.59

Women aren't unlocked cars though. The precaution of 'locking your car' is not the same as saying 'don't walk home alone'.

Not living our lives freely is not a 'sensible precaution'.

sian and crooked rib said...

AJ - we need them to tell men that if they are sexually assaulting women, they will be caught and brought to justice. We need them to tell men to challenge sexually aggressive behaviour.

Sarah said...

Honestly it's not even 'blaming women' that I find the most offensive (because I don't think that's what most people who hand out this well-meaning advice are intending to do).

It's the assumption that it's perfectly reasonable to expect adult women to live as though they're children or criminals, needing to be accompanied everywhere they go after their 'curfew', having to constantly report their whereabouts and intentions to responsible family members. The assumption that giving up autonomy, privacy, independence etc is a reasonable response to a fortunately rare danger such as this. That women should be afraid of doing normal everyday things like travelling home from work or popping out to the local shop after dark, or going out for a drink in the evening.

It's the assumption that giving up having a normal independent adult life is a simple 'precaution' akin to remembering to lock your car door or put valuables out of sight: that's what offends me, personally.

And yes, there is a nasty little implication in there that a woman who doesn't place such massive and disproportionate restrictions on her own lifestyle is somehow failing to be 'careful'. Which is getting uncomfortably close to victim-blaming.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with you, it's a slippery slope giving young women and men different advice, officials should make their statements gender neutral. But if you are talking about not policing women's behaviour, maybe you need to also address your comments to all those feminists telling women not to walk home dressed like Miley Cyrus, as supposedly that also endangers all women everywhere in some unexplained way...

Anonymous said...

Ridiculous it's like havin a go at the police for telling you to keep an eye on your valuables in an area prolific for thievery , you don't get mad and say you should be able to leave your stuff anywhere you like , you take the advice and keep your valuables safe

Anonymous said...

Okay, he didn't say "don't go home alone" - he "advised them not to walk home alone if possible" "and to remember that drinking alcohol can make them vulnerable.”

That's not "policing behaviour". That's most definitely giving advice. Both those pieces of advice are undeniably true.

I agree with you, in part - we do need more campaigns that focus on rapists, and educating people about the nature of consent - but you can't take on of the cuff piece of advice from an officer and take it as evidence of mass misogyny. All he's saying is to be careful, exercise common sense, and watch out for yourself and your friends when you go home at night. That doesn't make it your fault if something happens to you while you're walking at home pissed, and that doesn't mean the police will treat you any different when you go report a crime. It's just some helpful advice to keep your eyes open and stay safe.

But yes. I do think the police should be more involved in educating people about consent and sexual assault, and being more open about the fact that if somebody reports you to the police for sexual assault, they will break down your door and drag you out in cuffs, anytime, day or night. But I think this is just a well meaning man trying to give some well meaning, quite valid, advice about staying safe.

Anonymous said...

despairing at some of these comments.

Until the police give out advice warning all humans to avoid walking alone at night etc. then it's sexist.

To single out women as potential rape victims in this instance is contributing to victim blaming culture which makes it harder to investigate, prosecute and convict rapists.

"women aren't unlocked cars though". Exactly! And if one wants to compare the police's safety advice to that warning of theft from cars then why do the police say "lock your cars" rather than "don't drive" which is closer to what they tell women? (Although of course we're still comparing women to objects which I apologise for but this locked cars analogy is used SO often in these discussions it makes me mad)

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty tired of being compared to consumer goods by people who want to make me responsible for not being assaulted.

I have NEVER heard blanket advice to men to not walk alone after dark, avoid drinking, etc. If it's such good, common-sense advice surely that ought to happen? But even imagining it, it sounds laughable, which is revealing: it's just that much more normalised that women are expected to restrict themselves by cutting out really basic, everyday aspects of life. And if you think it doesn't lead to blaming, lucky you if you somehow haven't heard it. "What was she thinking walking on her own at night?" is a frighteningly common first reaction after hearing of an assault. For the immediate reaction to be to say what she she should have done differently is classic victim-blaming and the constant trotting out of this kind of "advice" embeds it in people's thinking.

sian and crooked rib said...

Anonymous 13.45 - again, women and valuables are not the same thing. We do not leave ourselves 'lying around' by walking home in the dark.

Anonymous said...

You're making an arbitrary distinction where there isn't one. If you're walking home at night, alone, while drunk, you are more likely to be a victim of crime. If you leave your car doors unlocked, you're more likely to be a victim of crime. If you walk around while texting on your phone, you are more likely to be a victim of crime. That doesn't mean you're not allowed to do those things, but you should be AWARE of those things.

Don't do those things. That's not victim blaming, it's not policing your life, it's giving you advice in order to keep you safe, because all of those things contribute to you being a victim - of theft, of personal violence, and yes, of sexual assault - and it doesn't matter where you fall on the gender spectrum.

That doesn't change the fact that yes, police SHOULD be aiming messages at rapists and would-be rapists - that sex should be consensual, and if it isn't, we will come get you, and will have no qualms in dragging you out of bed in handcuffs in front of your family and friends - but what it does do is make this not victim blaming, and not nefarious misogyny. That's doubly true because these are the words of one officer, not a force campaign message.

Glosswitch said...

I was struggling to put all my thoughts on this into a comment so I wrote this:
I think what all these people arguing that it's just common sense / non-judgmental safety advice are missing is that "normal" men rape - and these "safety messages" help create an environment in which they feel entitled to do so. It is that basic. These messages do not help women stay safe - they put them at further risk. Rape is not an inevitability, it is something that is encouraged through resignation, threat and social acceptance. These messages are absolutely complicit in enabling rapists.

Skitzee2k said...

Most comments on here already said it.
If there was a guy beating up 6ft 2 guys wearing jeans, I'd like to know that information. I wouldn't feel the police were blaming me for wearing jeans or my height.

Skitzee2k said...

And to the poster that claimed that this type of safety advice causes rape. Source? Or is it the nonsense it actually sounds?

Desmond Gorven said...

To enjoy some freedom and at the same time, stay alive, we need borders around suburbs, and then, we need to deny entry to any person who is not known to be harmless.

danfactor said...

Sian. Let's say that there was a violent serial killer going around and bumping off innocent members of the public both male and female late at night.
Now let's say that the police put out advice telling people both men and women to be careful when out late at night and to avoid going into areas which are not well lit.
Would that not be victim blaming? After all shouldn't people male and female have the right to walk wherever they choose and to go about their lives without fear of being attacked or murdered?
Or do you just apply this rule to women and rape?

Tom said...

You are more likely to be raped at night but the rapist is also most likely to be someone you know, especially a significant other.

sian and crooked rib said...

But that would never happen. Give me an example of when a violent man has attacked other men and the police have responded by telling men not to walk home alone and to be wary of drinking.

It doesn't happen. The advice is gendered. And the response of any critique of that advice is to compare women to wallets.

danfactor said...

When serial killers have been lose the police have warned the public to be vigilant.

Ok so u say its never happened but do u think it should or should not?

sian and crooked rib said...

Being vigilant is not the same thing as telling men - men specifically - to not walk home alone and that drinking makes them vulnerable in the wake of a man attacking man. If you can give me an example of when that has happened then perhaps we can talk about this advice not being gendered.

danfactor said...

Ok fair enough they haven't.

sian and crooked rib said...

I've written a response to some of the most common comments on this post:

Anonymous said...

Not written well,,,, publicity stunt gone wrong !

Anonymous said...

Hi Sian,

Totally sympathise with your line of argument. I tend to agree, however, that the general advice should not have to be given but is given. The primary reason that advice here is given mostly to women in this circumstance is that unlike most crime, women are the vast majority of victims. Ideally that advice shouldn't have to be given but the way it's written here doesn't appear to be misogynistic - ie it's not saying "Don't wear short skirts and heels". It's saying "Travel in well lit areas where possible" etc, which is generally solid anti-crime advice. I'm a large guy and I tend to follow parts of this advice, especially in high-crime areas because I have been mugged and I have been assaulted.

By the way, when I say a mugging - I don't give a shit about my wallet or my cards - I'm talking about someone threatening your life with a knife. That is (at least potentially) traumatic, and shouldn't be dismissed as comparing women with wallets. You may rightly rank forcing someone to do something against their will with explicit or implicit threats of violence into tiers of harm but please believe me when I say that a man can be horribly affected by having a knife pointed at his face or held to his throat.

Re: 'But that would never happen. Give me an example of when a violent man has attacked other men and the police have responded by telling men not to walk home alone and to be wary of drinking.

It doesn't happen. The advice is gendered.'

I have to disagree with this too. I understand why this may be your perception, but it is incorrect. When I was studying at university, for example, there were incidents of racist assaults against Asian (male) students (this is in the Coventry/Tile Hill area). Police advice was that when travelling around Tile Hill, asian students should stay in groups, stick to well-lit paths, avoid late-night travel etc. Admittedly this was to all students, rather than men, but the primary target of the string of assaults were solitary asian men. I don't think the advice was racist. I don't think the advice was insensitive. I think there's a great problem when advice like that has to be given, because I should be able to walk in public where ever I like and whenever I like.

This is just an example. I have encountered many in my life.

sian and crooked rib said...

It's not a publicity stunt. It's a blogpost I wrote for my blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you can cry foul at the Evening Post reporting on this. Its written as an 'open letter', and one that addresses local policing policy- if you hadn't wanted it to get out to the public you could have written a private letter.

Anonymous said...

"It’s those men we need to be talking to. It’s the society that excuses them, allows them, and victim blames that we need to be talking to"

Also that's all well and good, but I don't think its actually going to stop any sexual assaults in the short term.

Naomi Wilson said...


I agree with most of what you have said in this open letter. I agree that we shouldn't have to be vigilant when walking alone at night, that we shouldn't have to be vigilant, that we shouldn't have to walk in well lit areas for fear of being attacked, but the blame should not be put on the police force, when it is not the police force in control of the men who attack.

The only thing the police force can control is how to prevent these situations by addressing the party who is most likely to listen - the woman - the party who does not want these things to happen - the woman - the larger party - the woman - and the party who is more likely to be mentally stable in the grand scheme of things - the woman.

Who is more likely to listen: the minority of men who want to attack, or the majority of women who don't want to be attacked? I don't take offense to being told to not walk home alone in the dark because there are dangerous people about. I agree that it is unfair and selfish of the men who attack, but my pride is something I am willing to sacrifice for the sake of staying safe and avoiding trouble.

We have to protect ourselves. I agree that in an ideal world we would all be able to walk home alone at night and drink alcohol without the fear of being approached by a dangerous man, but the reality is that that is not the world we live in. It is not the police force who are to blame for this - no one is to blame but the dangerous people in society who make these incidents happen. And, unfortunately, there will always be sporadic, uncontrollable crime.

The best way for the police to address the situation in the short term is to warn women of these dangerous people and advise them to not walk home alone. Unfortunately this is because women are physically weaker than men, and men seem to be the gender that attack. A long term plan would be a good idea, and something worth suggesting to the police, instead.

If what the police force are saying isn't good enough, what do you suggest? It goes without saying that attacking a woman is not acceptable - it is embedded in our social norms and values, but the men who attack are not always mentally stable, and they need professional help, not a general message released by the police. Anyone can tell a mentally ill man not to attack and kill a woman, but that won't stop him.

Again, I have to say I agree with the core of your message and argument, but placing the blame on the police force is not the answer. The police agree that women shouldn't have to do these things, but unfortunately we are the one variable that can be controlled in these awful situations, however right or wrong that may be.

I agree that the comment the police made about alcohol is sexist and unnecessary, and for that they should be ashamed and be pulled up on, but the general warnings and advice on how to help women stay safe is coming from a good place, and I think you might have done better to send this to the police so that they actually read it, (or have you done so already?)


Anonymous said...

Looks like the police are doing what they should be doing - doing their best to make people safe.

Are you going to write and thank them?

sian and crooked rib said...

Please see this post

Anonymous said...

So, if we accept (as the latest Evening Post article appears to confirm) that the original police statement made no reference to gender, should your open letter not be re-addressed to The Post?

sian and crooked rib said...

Please read update:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I only see praise for the original correct police statement. There is no retraction or amendment to your response to the misreported statement