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Sussex police’s victim-blaming anti-rape campaign: why is it victims, not rapists, that must change their behaviour?

Decades after the first Reclaim the Night march, we are still wondering: why is it always women who are told they have to modify their behaviour in order to stay safe?

“Which one of your mates is most vulnerable on a night out?” asks the poster from Sussex police’s latest sexual violence prevention campaign. If you want an honest answer, it’ll be the male one. Most victims of violent crime taking place outside the home are male (women, on the other hand, are more at risk in a domestic environment). The safest thing for everyone might be for men to stay indoors (I suggest they do some ironing) while women go out on the lash.

And yet this doesn’t seem to be where Sussex police are taking their campaign. Instead, almost 38 years after the first UK Reclaim the Night march made the glaringly obvious point that the threat of male violence must not limit women’s freedom of movement, it’s still being suggested that women are the ones who should be on their guard. The image from the poster shows two young women, all dressed up, taking selfies and cheerily oblivious – oblivious! – to the dangers that lurk around them. “Many sexual assaults could be prevented,” the poster solemnly informs us. “Stick together and don’t let your friend leave with a stranger or go off on their own.” Danger is all around us! Especially at home and/or with people you know, but you only need worry about it when you’re actually out enjoying yourselves! Got that, ladies?

Chief Inspector Katy Woolford has defended the poster from charges of victim blaming, arguing that “it is vital to be aware of vulnerability so that steps can be taken to guard against it”. This is, as we know, the story of women’s lives. It’s not that we’re insufficiently aware of our own vulnerabilities; on the contrary, we’re all crushed by the constant reminders of how vulnerable we are. From early childhood we’re taught to be fearful of the wolf that lurks in the shadows. We’re reminded not to stray too far from the forest path or else we’ll get eaten up. We grow older, watching films and reading stories in which the rape and mutilation of women serve as common plot devices. We are told to think of ourselves as laptops, as unlocked doors, as open wallets, as property that anyone might take unless we’re locked safely away. We know we’re not meant to go outside. Outside might, statistically, be safer, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Margaret Atwood famously told us that “men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” In a world that made sense, men would also be worrying about other men killing them, but that’s not what they are taught to do. We do not expect men to live in fear of what might happen, nor do we expect them to take responsibility simply for being there when it does. After all, men have lives to lead, things to do. It is only women who are taught to experience themselves as walking targets. As Soraya Chemaly notes, “teaching girls to constantly modify their behaviour in order to avoid stranger rape is a form of social control”. The threat of stranger rape – regardless of whether or not we have experienced it – makes us feel smaller, more exposed, less capable of being active agents in the world.

Years ago I was sexually assaulted by a complete stranger in a dark lane – one of those rare “classic” attacks – and the impact has had less to do with the attack itself, more with how it has changed my feeling of entitlement to public space, especially at night. That is, I can’t help feeling, what such an attack was meant to do. Being told that such things are common (when they are not) and that women can control their frequency (by restricting our movements) hardly helps.

Of course, it is not just women who will see posters such as this one. Rapists will, too. And what does this say to a rapist, if not “this is how things happen”? When women get drunk, when they meet strangers, when they wander off alone, this is how things work. Rape is what happens when women “make themselves vulnerable.” As Jill Filipovic points out, research has shown that “cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely”:

In social groups where there is wide acceptance of rape myths – for example, the beliefs that acquaintance rape is a problem of communication or "mixed signals", that rapists simply can't control their sexual urges, that women often lie about rape, or that women invite rape upon themselves by their actions or manner of dressing – rape proclivity is higher. When men internalize rape myths, they are more likely to commit rape or see rape as more acceptable.

A woman can only make herself vulnerable if others have already learned to see her as potential prey.

Unlike Sussex police, I do not think “many sexual assaults could be prevented”. All sexual assaults could be prevented. There’s always a way to avoid sexual assault: just don’t assault anyone. But that’s too simplistic, isn’t it? You can’t just tell rapists not to rape. It’s what they are, what they do. The only people capable of changing their behaviour are potential, mostly female victims. Or so the story goes. I don’t believe it for a moment. It’s just part of that larger narrative in which women are capable of change but men are not. Male behaviour – male aggression, male violence, male sexual entitlement – goes unchallenged, even when the people it harms most are men themselves. It’s women who are expected not to smile too much, not to laugh too loud, not to walk home alone. Our “natural” adaptability means that we’re the ones who must constantly stoop in order not to get in the way. But this is not freedom, not for any of us. We must resist and claim the space that is ours.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.