This comment article is written by Sian Norris
Over the holiday period, feminists across the UK have watched with gritted teeth the launch of various council ‘safety’ campaigns that purport to aim to prevent rape.
Throughout the years we have see campaigns warning women to “let your hair down, not your guard”. Other campaigns warn women that drinking too much can lead to a “night of regret”, illustrated with a blurred picture of a woman in clear, physical distress, a shadowy male figure leering over her (as if rape is just a drunken regret, and not a cruel and violent crime one person chooses to commit against another).
Another featured a young girl pinned to the ground, her face in a grimace of pain, with the message “Her mum bought her the cider”.
Others attempt a little more tact, asking women if they knew that “drinking excessively leaves you more vulnerable to rape?”
Focus on women’s behaviour
All of these campaigns have one thing in common. They all focus on the women’s behaviour. The perpetrators of rape – male rapists – are invisible. Rape is instead treated as a natural hazard that women have to take steps to avoid. Rather like a cliff edge, which you wouldn’t be advised to walk along when drunk.
But, of course, rape is not a natural hazard that women can take steps to avoid. Rape isn’t caused by an extra glass of wine, by being alone on the streets at night, by wearing a short skirt. Rape is only and always caused by the rapist choosing to rape.
These safety campaigns reiterate the message that women are to blame for becoming victims of rape. The posters tell women that we make ourselves vulnerable by having a drink, by wearing what we choose, by walking where we want. Meanwhile, the responsibility of the rapist not to commit a crime against women is ignored. We leave it up to women to keep ourselves safe, and if we are attacked then the blame is laid squarely at our door.
Rapist to blame
It isn’t up to women to prevent rape. Because, no matter what these ill-advised safety campaigns say, there is nothing we can do to prevent rape. The only person who has the power to prevent rape is the one who chooses not to commit the crime. Women are raped when they are drunk, when they are sober, when they are wearing jeans, when they are wearing short skirts, when they are outdoors, when they are indoors, when they are at home or at work or at school or at a club. When they are awake and when they are asleep. Women’s behaviour is not the linking factor when it comes to rape. The rapist’s is.
Whenever I write about this issue, I’m always met with the response that I take these safety campaigns too seriously – that all the campaigns do is tell women to take “sensible precautions”. People tell me that it’s the same as not leaving your wallet on a bar table, not leaving your laptop on the car seat, not leaving your window unlocked.
But what this response misses is that women are not wallets. We’re not laptops. We don’t leave our vaginas unlocked when we head off on a night out and have one too many white wines.
There is a difference between taking sensible precautions and not living your life freely. Not walking around your town, not having fun with your friends, not being free to wear what you want to wear – none of these are sensible precautions. This is telling women to restrict our freedoms and change our way of life because of the actions of men who choose to rape.
We don’t expect men to restrict their freedoms – even though men are more likely to be attacked by an unknown man on the street. We don’t blame men for the violence committed against them.
It’s brilliant, then, to see that Bristol has led the way with a safety campaign that targets victim blaming attitudes, rather than enforcing them. The city re-launched its safety posters from last year that share the message “this is not an excuse to rape me”, showing women out drinking, kissing a man, wearing a wedding ring, and wearing a low cut top.
The posters enforce the message that there are no excuses for rape. They send a message that women are never to blame for rape. And they put the focus where it belongs – on the perpetrators of violence.
This campaign is important. It sends out a message loud and clear that there are no excuses for rape. Rape is always and only the fault of the rapist. But posters are just the start. Now we need to follow through with what this campaign promises.
We need to make sure that women feel supported to go to the police and report. We need to give women the confidence that if they report rape, they will be listened to and believed.
We then need to make sure the message that there are no excuses for rape is heard throughout the criminal justice system – by the CPS, by lawyers, by judges and by jurors. We need to make sure the message is heard by our media, who still publish victim-blaming editorials.
And we need to make sure the message is heard by every single member of the public. After all, we all live in a rape culture that blames women for the violence committed against them.
Today, only 15 per cent of rapes are reported and only 6.5 per cent of reports end in a conviction. A campaign like this can have a real impact in improving those numbers. But it needs to be more than words. We need to see the promises made in this campaign – the promise to believe women – followed through at every level.
These posters have a real chance to challenge the persistent belief that women’s behaviour causes rape, because rape is something that men just “do”. It can do it in a way that safety advice focusing on women’s actions never could. By bringing the rapist’s attitudes and actions into the picture, the campaign challenges the belief that rape is something that only women can prevent. It refuses to pander to the idea that preventing rape is women’s responsibility, that it is our responsibility to stop rape by restricting our freedoms and modifying our behaviour.
These posters have a real opportunity to challenge attitudes, to encourage reporting and to change minds about who holds responsibility for violence against women and girls.
It’s not going to change everything tomorrow. But it’s a beginning.