Karen Ingala Smith
This article was originally posted here.
In December, I spoke to the Yorkshire Post about the above poster produced by Calderdale Council. Anti sexual-violence posters are regularly produced by police forces to celebrate Christmas, a collection of which are reviewed in this piece by Ending Victimisation and Blame. Campaign messages are not neutral. They can either reinforce or challenge accepted narratives. Calderdale’s poster, like too many others, reinforces the message that women should be held responsible for what happens to them.
Though the poster doesn’t explicitly mention rape, the lines “when you drink too much you lose control and put yourself at risk” together with an image of a dishevelled young woman in a short dress, make clear that the risk is that of sexual violence. The article was picked up widely re-reported including in The Independent and Daily Mail and eventually discussed in a piece by Sarah Vine under the title “Sorry sisters, but girls who get blind drunk ARE risking rape” in which she stated her refusal to join “the chorus of feminist disapproval” and argued that women need to take responsibility for their own safety, going on to mention “one or two nasty brushes” that made her realise how important it was to not willingly put herself in the path of danger and “stupidly” becoming a victim.
The concept of a victim of violence ‘willingly and stupidly putting themselves in the path of danger’ is judgemental victim blaming. Whether though an act of choosing or not choosing to do something, a victim of sexual violence is never responsible for what is done to them. Rapists and abusers are the only ones responsible for rape and abuse.
Rapists and abusers use excuses to justify their actions, to discredit their victims and to shift responsibility for their choices away from themselves and on to their victims. They use exactly the kind of excuses encapsulated in the Calderdale poster and Vine’s piece, in short: “She didn’t take care. “ or “She was asking for it.”
The government estimates that there are around 78,000 rapes in the UK every year, that’s 214 every day. On top of this, there are an estimated 476,000 other sexual offences. Women and girls make up the vast majority of victims and 95% of those who experience serious sexual assault identify the offender as male. Most – but not all – victims of sexual violence and abuse are stone cold sober when they are abused. Those who are drunk or intoxicated through drug use are no more deserving of abuse. Most (an estimated 91%) victims of rape and sexual violence know their attacker before they are abused. 45% of rape victim/survivors identifying a current partner as the rapist, a further 11% identifying a date and yet a further 11% identifying a former partner. It’s hard to see how Christmas and New Year sobriety would make any difference to these women.
Sex with a person whose judgement is impaired – for example through alcohol or drugs – means they are legally unable to consent. Non-consensual sex is rape. If Calderdale Council want to run a useful campaign related to increased alcohol consumption around Christmas and New Year, they might consider addressing this issue instead. It’s hard for me to imagine that their poster would prevent any woman from drinking. Perhaps I’m naive to the powers of persuasion of a public awareness campaign. It isn’t so difficult to imagine a victim of rape who had been drunk, who had been partying, who had been wearing a short sequined dress seeing the poster and questioning her own responsibility. Self-blame, shame, fearing that she will not be believed and questioning whether what happened was rape are all reasons that contribute to an estimated 79-85% of rapes not being reported. If rapes are not reported, who benefits? Rapists whose behaviour goes unpunished and who are free to rape again. That’s why I said the only ones who are helped by the Calderdale posters are rapists. They’re provided with victim blaming excuses and are less likely to be held to account when victim/survivors are deterred from reporting
Calderdale’s poster will not reduce sexual violence, neither will it assist victims. If Calderdale Council want to reduce sexual violence, then they need to focus on men and boys. The West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioners’ September 2013 Quarterly Performance Report details that reports of sexual offences increased by 51.1% in the 12 months to June 2013. The report identifies that this is the largest increase across all police forces and compares to a national average increase of 8.9%. . Men, boys, women, girls, policy makers, support providers need to understand the concepts of consent and coercion. Consent alone is not enough, but must always be understood in the context of coercion at both the individual and societal level. Clearly there is much to be done.
If Calderdale Council want to better support victims of sexual violence, then they might want to consider funding local specialist women’s support services. It is interesting that on the council’s web-page for information and support on rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse the services listed are in Manchester, Huddersfield and Wakefield – none of which are in Calderdale. Does the council provide or fund any specialist services for victims of sexual violence? Calderdale Council may also like to consider whether future campaigns support victims and ensure that they challenge not reinforce self-blame, shame and victim blaming. At the same time as Calderdale Council ran their victim-blaming campaign, the police force responsible for Calderdale, West Yorkshire Police, were running an appeal to increase reporting of sexual violence. I’d happily raise my glass to the Assistant Chief Constable Ingrid Lee, who, taking quite a different approach to that of the council , is quoted as saying :
“Sadly society at times has negative perceptions about sexual offending and these perceptions allow sexual crime to go unreported and offenders to go unpunished, we need to change those perceptions by providing people with information that enables them to understand better the nature of the problem and what it is that constitutes rape or other sexual violence.
“And that is why my commitment is to the victims of this dreadful crime that, if they come forward and tell us what has happened, we will not only do all we can to bring the offender to justice but also with our partners provide support and counsel to help them through what is a very difficult and distressing time.
Men’s violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men. Restricting women’s movement and choices and putting responsibility for men’s violence against women and girls on to women and girls will never reduce men’s violence.
Karen Ingala Smith has worked in non-government organisations for over 20 years and has specialised in the women’s sector and services for victim/survivors of violence against women throughout this time. Her career has included frontline service delivery, management, senior management and governance. Karen’s blog can be found here