Opinion: Sexual Assault and Fear of Sexual Assault: A Civil Liberties Issue

I recently went to the Lake District for a short break. I was walking alone in a relatively remote area with no one much around and when going through a small campsite a man came out and stared persistently as I went past. The thought went through my mind I wonder if he’s going to follow me. He didn’t, but I sat down some yards on and the thought dawned on me that for virtually my entire life I have had to process the risks of sometimes travelling alone, walking in remote places alone and going home late alone. That’s when I decided to write this article for LDV.

When I was at university there was a serial rapist on the loose in Bristol so we were told to ‘be careful’’ Friends at a better university down the road had to deal with a similar scenario. Every once in a while, and certainly too often, we hear of a woman who has disappeared after leaving a nightclub, a scenario that usually ends in tragedy. Those of us old enough may remember the fate of Rachel Nickell some years ago, innocently jogging on Wimbledon Common in broad daylight. This situation represents a basic infringement of women’s human rights. Women are used to making risk assessments all the time, about where it’s safe to go, particularly late at night, by what mode of transport and in what clothes, but why should we have to?

Much sexual crime is, of course, premeditated and inflicted on ex-partners, children and young people – especially those who are vulnerable. It’s contemptible.  Just who do these men think they are?  What gives them the right? Men can be the victims of sexual crime too, but the overwhelming majority of victims are women, young people and children.

It is so taken for granted by women that they have to ‘take care’ that it is never really spoken about. When leaving friends’ houses late in the evening, if alone, the question is always ‘Have you got a lift?’ when the only thing that would prevent one walking the ten minutes or so home is the threat of a mugging or sexual assault. Yes men and women get mugged equally, but for many women the added threat of a sexual attack is lurking, even subconsciously, at the back of their mind.  This isn’t altogether surprising: recent Ministry of Justice figures indicate that around 400,000 women are the victims of a sexual assault each year.

Sexual violence should be outlawed as completely taboo, pathetic and a sign of unspeakable weakness – for that is what it is. There is just not enough willingness to confront this issue head online, to fundamentally challenge the perception that because a small proportion of men have always behaved like this, that’s the way it’s always going to be.

I thought twice about pushing the send button with this article for LDV, but at the end of the day Liberal Democrats stand for freedom. The issue of a woman’s right to be out and about without fear, whatever the hour, should be higher up our policy agenda. Reclaim the Night and the End Violence Against Women Coalition are trying to tackle the problem, but far more needs to be done to address this basic civil liberties issue. To start with I think we need a hard-hitting, Government-funded media campaign, arguing for a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence, pointing out that men who carry out such assaults are bullies who are no longer welcome in our society.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • I saw a heart-rending post on (I think) facebook a few days ago from a man who had been attacked and raped in the street, lamenting that the organisation that had helped him in the aftermath, Suvivors UK (www.survivorsuk.org) was losing its funding.

    Sexual assault / rape rips people’s lives apart. Many of these go un-reported because people feel (or fear) that having it investigated will be another hellish trauma.

    I’ve seen a fair amount of this from the perspective of male victims, and it is diffitult when we become invisible because of people assuming that the victims are always women and the perpetrators are always men.

    For me, the course that seems both radical and obvious is to go down the path of simply saying “all sexual assault is wrong” regardless of the genders involved. That both takes gender equality seriously, and exposes the stark reality of rape/sexual assault for the harrowin, soul-wrecking experience it is.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 29th May '15 - 10:35am

    I don’t think we understand sex as much as we think we do in society for all its advances. For so much is from the premise of either the moralistic stance or with regards to the civic liberties of sex. Thus, for myself, I always keep thinking that something(s) is missing from this discourse of sex in terms of its impact upon lives that is deeper than the physical aspect.

  • Kirsten johnson 29th May '15 - 11:28am

    Thank you for writing this, Judy. I had a close friend raped at university because she left her window open one night for some air. She was so traumatised she did not finish her degree at it has affected the rest of her life. Likewise, domestic violence is rife. Women are still seen by many as sexual objects rather than equals.

    I agree with you that we need a “Government-funded media campaign, arguing for a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence.” And I agree with Mavarine that society’s understanding of sex needs addressing. I am keen we increase relationship education as part of sex education, so that more emphasis is put on mutuality, respect and consent when SE is taught in our schools.

    Thank you for raising awareness of this ongoing civil liberties issue.

  • :/

    A lot of this is down to social perceptions. While stranger rape is a terrifying and traumatic experience, and it’s true that we women all have it in our minds when walking in public, the fact remains that the vast majority of rape/sexual assault is committed by someone who knows the victim.

    Compulsory SRE with an emphasis on consent and bodily autonomy is essential.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '15 - 2:27pm

    A very good article. I feel fairly confident when I walk alone at night and I want more people to feel like this. There are lots of things that can be done and I am fully in favour of more action on this.

    I think it should actually be one of the party’s main campaigns. I think people can really relate to it and it can also be extended to other generally more vulnerable people such as the disabled.

  • Thank you for comments Kirsten and Eddie, and Mark for your comments about men being affected too. Although I think official statistics say women are five times more likely to be the victim of a sexual assault than men, you are right, this is not just a women’s issue. Jennie you are also right that the perpetrators of sex crimes are usually known to their victims.

    I think you are right Eddie; we need to try develop policies in this area, primarily because the problem has been swept under carpet for too long, being seen as impossible to solve. It’s time for a change.

  • Michael. I try to be friendly to people I meet, of course, but In some circumstances, women feel they can’t be because from as far back as we can remember we have had to ‘be careful’ in situations where we are potentially vulnerable. Before posting this article I mentioned what I was going to say to a couple of other women and they said, yes we feel exactly the same. And it truly is a shame.

  • I agree with much of this posted above however I don’t agree with the notion of simply giving up on people in a liberal society. Yes there is no place for this kind of activity in a civilised society but surely part of liberslism is also about rehabilitation and indeed, prevention in the first place. Zero tolerance yes but we would be giving up our liberal principles if we simply cast people to the rubbish bin and didn’t address the deeper issues involved. I personally would never give up on anyone. It’s just not in my liberal nature. So as much as zero tolerance of the acts is important so too is research into establishing why people do what they do and tackling the attitudes/triggers etc which lead to it but also work at the other end on rehabilitation. prison doesn’t always serve us as a society well. We lock far too many people up and we need to really make sure the rehabilitation is there to ensure these people do reform and can turn into responsible, respectful human beings. To give up on anyone in society is not very liberal in my view. It has to be a full picture approach

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 23rd Jun '15 - 8:59am

    It is not harmful for a man – or woman – not to have sex. A man’s testicles will not explode if he does not have an orgasm. Men produce sperm all the time, and if they don’t ejaculate it is simply absorbed into their body without any side effects.

    In addition there are many ways in which sacred sex can be approached which gives a different aspect to the act of mutuality. As to what God decreed: “So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels.” (Holy Bible, Psalms 81:12) and why sex education is so important with a whole picture approach,

    For this is what sex should mean from a church perspective which is that: “You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” (Holy Bible, 1 Peter 1:22)

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