Yesterday, the news reported that on New Year’s Eve in Cologne nearly 1,000 men descended on the city centre and sexually assaulted dozens of women. Many women complained to the police, although from what we know about reporting rates we can surmise that the number of assaults was higher. We know that there was at least one rape.
In the wake of the attacks, the Mayor of Cologne has issued a ‘code of conduct’. But this code of conduct is not, as one might assume, directed at men. It does not seek to remind men that groping, assaulting and raping women are crimes for which they will feel the full force of the law. It does not seek to remind men that it is illegal to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. It doesn’t even bother to give a cursory reminder of the importance of consent.
No, this code of conduct is focused on women. It aims to tell women how they had better behave should they want to avoid being groped, assaulted and rape.
The code of conduct advises women to keep men at an arm’s length – something that is very difficult to do if a man has decided he is determined to grope, assault and attack you, as many women including myself can attest to. It reminds women to stick together with friends, and not to be near men who they don’t know and trust (never mind the fact that around 90% of women are raped or sexually assaulted by men known to them). To finish off her victim blaming nicely, the Mayor warned women to remember the potential dangers of drunken events.
It’s shocking that in 2016, we are still hearing the same, tired messages that tell women it is up to us to change our behaviour to prevent rape and sexual assault.
The code of conduct sends a clear message: that women are not entitled to the same freedoms as men. It tells us that while men can go out and enjoy their New Year’s Eve, women must follow a set of rules that we are falsely told will keep us ‘safe’. These victim-blaming attitudes restrict women’s freedoms – our freedom of movement and our freedom to occupy public space in the same ways men do.
But it’s not just the impact victim-blaming messages have on women’s freedoms. The dangers are more extreme than that. Firstly, telling women to change their behaviour does nothing – absolutely nothing – to prevent male sexual violence. And secondly, the more we repeat the idea that women are responsible for preventing the violence committed against us, the harder it becomes for women to access justice.
Let’s take that first point – that telling women to take ‘precautions’ will stop male violence. Well, we know this isn’t true. After all, we’ve been trying this tactic for decades and on average 85,000 women are raped in the UK every year and there are nearly half a million sexual assaults. If telling women not to drink, not to walk home alone, not to wear short skirts was an effective way to stop rape, then we wouldn’t see these numbers.
The reason victim-blaming prevention messages don’t work is because the responsibility for rape lies wholly and solely with the rapist. Although it might seem comforting to imagine that if women just did x, y or z then rape would go away, there is really nothing women can do to prevent rape. Our best way to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults is to educate men and women about consent, respect and our rights to our own bodily autonomy. Telling women that they can’t enjoy the same freedoms as men offers no solution.
The victim-blaming narrative has other dangerous consequences: that the more we send out a message that it's up to women to prevent rape, the more we risk women’s access to justice.
Today in the UK, only 6.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction and on average only 15% of rapes are reported. These devastatingly low numbers are inextricably linked to the idea that women are to blame for the rapes committed against them.
It starts with reporting – women are less likely to report rape and sexual assault if they fear being blamed and disbelieved. Once in the courtroom, the rape myths that blame women and seek ways to absolve the perpetrator have an impact on juries. Research has found that jurors who hold stereotypical attitudes towards rape – stereotypes typified in Cologne’s code of conduct – are more likely to judge complainants harshly and defendants leniently.
Victim blaming attitudes seriously impair women’s access to justice. They do nothing to stop rape, they don’t help lock sexual offenders up, and they restrict women’s freedoms in a way that entrenches gender inequality by tacitly denying women public space.
So what should we do instead? Well, we could start by launching safety campaigns – such as this one in Bristol – that focuses on perpetrator behaviour. And we could encourage open and educational conversations about consent, respect and our absolute right to bodily autonomy. We could encourage training for police and the media in victim blaming and its repercussions, and put a stop to the police practise of ‘no-criming’ rape reports.
We need to change the conversation. Blaming women and telling women to bear the responsibility for male violence isn’t working. So long as we keep falling back on this tired old method to ‘stop rape’, then we are doomed to failure. And that failure is coming at a huge, unacceptable cost to women.
Need support? You can talk to Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999