Sussex Police has produced a campaign poster encouraging women to stick together on a night out to reduce their chances of sexual assault. There are so many ways this poster is stupid: it perpetuates the myth of stranger rape as the only “real rape” (an idea which helps acquaintance rapists get away with it over and over again), it ignores male victims of rape, and it suggests women should fear sexual assault more than they value their sexual liberty.
But there’s only one issue I want to address now. On Monday, Caron Lindsay called the poster “victim-blaming”: she was right, and it’s worth explaining why victim-blaming is so much more harmful in cases of sexual assault than other forms of crime.
Campaigns for preventative action work fine when the motives behind a crime are predictable. Economic crimes like theft are the easiest, because all thieves – from Ponzi scheme managers down to Primark shoplifters – do the same cost-benefit analysis. High value + accessibility + low likelihood of discovery = a good target. That’s why it is a predictably bad idea to leave your wallet on the back seat of your unlocked car at night in a bad neighbourhood.
But sexual crimes aren’t that easy to predict. If the internet has one lesson for the world, it is that everything is a turn-on to someone. That’s why saying “don’t wear a short skirt” is different to “don’t leave your back window ajar”: because the rapist in the room this evening might not be a leg man; he might be into boobs or bob haircuts or even burkhas for all Sussex Police can predict.
In fact, given that sexual assault is usually about control – not really about sex at all – what turns him on might be the fact that all of the women in the room won’t talk to strangers because they’re too scared to do anything else.
Campaigns like this one lie to the public when they suggest the ways to reduce sexual assault are simple, predictable and within the control of the women (never men) who are potential victims. This puts all the fault on the shoulders of victims – adding guilt to the already heavy burden they are carrying – and makes it easier for the police, juries and society at large to shrug off any responsibility, because “she was warned”.
If someone punches you outside the pub, or smashes your back window and steals your TV, you don’t gain anything. It’s in the name that physical harm, or property damage or loss are negatives; things that you would never consent to. Nobody is going to take the mugger who breaks your nose literally when he says you were “asking for it”.
Obviously, sex is different: it is normally fun, enjoyable, a literal act of love, and you can consent to it.
This is the other problem with “victim-blaming” in sexual assault cases, because when we say “blaming” often what we mean, and what victims hear, is “disbelieving”. Since you can consent to sex, if you do something which suggests you might have consented – like go to stranger’s house at 2am without your friends – then it becomes more difficult to prove that you didn’t consent to the sex itself.
The police have a long and chequered past when it comes to disbelieving sexual assault victims. Given that, a police campaign that even hints that it is the victim’s, or in this case their friends’, fault – morally if not legally – if something happens to them, fuels the belief that you won’t be taken seriously, and undermines victims’ already shaky trust in the police.
If you want a society free from rape, stop telling women to stick together, and start telling victims you’ll treat them seriously and rapists not to rape.
* Alice Thomas is a member of the Federal Board and leads the FB Disciplinary Sub-Group. She is a solicitor based in Southwark who joined the Lib Dems in her hometown of Bromley & Chislehurst in 2006, just in time for her first by-election and has been campaigning ever since.