The Vagenda today caused quite a stir with an article entitled 'Don't Get Raped' - An important message? They were responding to feminist criticism of a recently relaunched West Mercia Police campaign that warned, "Don't let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret. Don't leave yourself vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape. Drink sensibly". The campaign was widely perceived as victim-blaming, a stance Vagenda disagreed with. The crux of their argument was "it's just basic safety advice".
Okay. There is nothing wrong with the police advising young people to drink sensibly. Drinking sensibly is almost always an excellent idea. Having a clear head and a sober disposition can enable you to better navigate yourself away from crimes of all types - doubtless that is true. But "safety tips" like this as a means of rape prevention are wrongheaded on two counts. Firstly, they don't work. And secondly, they do encourage victim blaming and encourage self-blaming by victims.
Safety tips to avoid rape do not prevent rape. Most rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows; often a boyfriend, husband or partner; often in their own home; often in their own bed. So when I say that there are literally no lengths a woman can go to that will actually prevent her being raped, please understand how true that is. You can be the safest woman in the world and still get raped.
That is not to say that we should all just give up and go home. But it does mean that we should be highly skeptical of anyone who claims "women should [insert behaviour here], it's just safer".
The argument is a slippery slope. In this particular case, it goes, "women should drink sensibly, it's just safer". Okay. In the Vagenda piece, the author also strongly advocates that women should always take taxis home at night - it's just safer. But don't forget, taxi drivers can be rapists, so you should always make sure you have someone with you. It's just safer. And while we're at it, women should carry a rape alarm at all times and hold their keys between their fingers whenever walking outside alone, just in case. It's just safer. And obviously avoid walking anywhere that's dark, it's just safer. Ah, hell, we probably shouldn't go out at all. It's just safer. Wait, what was that about a large proportion of rapes being perpetrated by the victim's partner in her home?
I'm currently reading The Women's Room by Marilyn French. At one point she recounts the sexual politics of 1950s suburban America that keeps one of the characters confined to her home and prevents her from working. Although she'd like to get a job, her husband is too worried that she'll be out in the world - with men! - all day and he wouldn't be there to protect her. He thinks it's too risky, so he insists she must stay at home. It's just safer.
This example appears ludicrous to us in the 21st century. Of course we don't expect women to try and avoid rape by remaining confined to their home at all times. But the fact that we accept messages like "women should drink sensibly, it's just safer", and not this one, is an arbitrary distinction. Once you decide it's quite right that women should limit and restrict their behaviour in order to try and avoid male violence, it's just a question of where you draw the line. And how on earth will you decide where to draw it? Where does "basic safety advice" end and policing women's behaviour begin?
And let's not pretend we've come so, so far from the 1950s now. Do you remember that chain email that used to go around in the early 00s that contained safety tips for women? It included handy hints like, "cut your hair short, because an attacker can grab onto long hair!" (Here's a much more constructive list of top tips.)
It is true, I'm sure, that some rapes (a minority, but some) could have been avoided if the victim had not been drinking. And some people who support the West Mercia campaign will say "if it prevents just one woman being raped, it's worth it". But that is spectacularly missing the point. In the sentence "some rapes could have been avoided if the victim had [x]", x can be almost anything. Cut her hair short. Chosen a different path to go jogging. Not got into a relationship. Stayed at home. Had enough money for a taxi. Worn different shoes. Not fallen asleep at a close friend's house. We neither can nor should campaign for women to limit their behaviour in all these different ways. None of it will actually prevent rape.
END OF PART ONE.
Not only does the "safety tips" approach not work, but it also encourages victim blaming. Vagenda resolutely asserts that they are not victim blaming, they hate victim blaming, etc. Okay. But let's suppose you're a woman who sees that poster the day after you were raped whilst drunk. Let's read it again. "Don't let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret. Don't leave yourself vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape". Yes, you think. My night was full of promise. And I let it turn into a morning full of regret. I left myself vulnerable to rape.
To reiterate: the message that a police campaign poster wants rape victims to internalise is "I let this happen". That is why the campaign is perceived as victim blaming - because it actively encourages victims to blame themselves.
As a result of that, they're much less likely to confide in anyone about what happened, or call a rape crisis helpline to talk it through, let alone report it to the police. Indeed, why on earth would they want to report it to a police force that has already told them they brought this upon themselves?
I have been in the unfortunate position of having a friend turn to me after she was raped. She had been drinking and taking drugs with the perpetrator before the attack. She didn't call it rape when she talked to me about it. After all, she'd gone back to his place. She'd kissed him. And she wasn't in a sober state of mind. Not only did she blame herself for what happened, she wasn't even sure if he had done something wrong.
This self-blame is exactly what campaigns like West Mercia's perpetuate, and that's why I was so, so disappointed to see Vagenda come out in support of it. At one point in their blog post, the author writes, "If you are raped, it is absolutely not your fault." So I'm sure they would agree my friend was not to blame and that the only person responsible for her rape was her rapist. But how can they reconcile that message with this one: "until some men stop raping, we all have a duty to protect ourselves the best we can"? Is it not true that by that logic, my friend failed to do her duty and adequately protect herself? And in that case, how can Vagenda logically maintain that she does not share in the responsibility for her rape?
The best way I can think to summarise all this is to repeat something I tweeted to Vagenda earlier: "Drink sensibly" = good advice. "Drink sensibly unless you want to get raped" = not helpful. I think it's pretty clear the West Mercia campaign falls into the latter category, and on that basis, I urge Vagenda to reconsider whether this campaign is really as innocuous as it seems.