Why do police so often get it wrong with anti-rape campaigns?

Police forces still seem to find it difficult to say that rape might be the fault of the men who decide to rape.

A South Wales Police anti-rape campaign.

Christmas would be nothing without its traditions. The stocking on your bed, the Quality Streets in your stomach ... your local police force’s tips on how not to get yourself raped. "It's Christmas, ladies! Here's a reminder how not to get raped!"

Every year sees anti-rape campaigns and, without fail, every year sees anti-rape campaigns that show no understanding of rape. Nottinghamshire police hit the headlines today for basing their campaign on a re-working of The Nightmare Before Christmas (the line “it happened in a flash” didn’t do much to convey a victim’s ordeal). Compared to some efforts, Nottingham’s “Don’t think you can take what you want because you want it” campaign was almost evolved. It's not that Britain’s police forces like rape. The good news is the majority of this country's police forces know rape is definitely a bad thing. They just haven't all quite worked out who's to blame for it.

It might be the women who aren’t organised. Cumbria police have launched the ‘Keys, Money, Phone, Plans to get home’ campaign for Christmas 2013. They’ve helpfully coloured it pink so ladies know the message is just for us.

Then again, rape might be the fault of women who walk home alone. In a poster that manages to perpetuate rape myths in two languages, South Wales police are very clear that they don’t want us to GO IT ALONE, producing an anti-rape campaign that puts red, blood-tinged wording next to a scantily clad woman stumbling home. This focus is despite the fact women are more likely to be raped by the men they go home to.

Or rape might be the fault of women who drink too much. ‘Go out and enjoy yourself but think before you drink’, West Yorkshire police tell us, in their best impression of your sexist dad. It’s unclear what exactly a woman is meant to think about before she drinks but I imagine it isn’t whether she can afford the next vodka.

There’s often confusion about whether victims of sexual abuse are different than victims of property crime. West Yorkshire police have decided to answer this question once and for all by using exactly the same Christmas campaign for theft and rape – just replacing the man flashing his cash with a woman dancing. A woman having (too much?) fun and then being raped is definitely the equivalent of a man hanging an expensive phone out his pocket and then having it stolen. “Look at her, throwing her appealing body around in plain view of rapists. She should put that away for safe keeping!”

The police service of Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have announced that alcohol is the number one rape drug and ask us how much we’ve taken already. Women are so complicit in our own rape that we’re now actually drugging ourselves.

Or, y’know, rape might be the fault of the men who decide to rape. In a culture where women wearing hairy stockings and chastity pants are genuinely what some humans think are the best ways to stop men from raping, perhaps none of this should be surprising. But it has to be said, it’s particularly depressing when it's the police – those people whose job it is to be trusted to prevent and provide justice for victims of crime – who can’t address sexual violence without perpetuating victim-blaming myths.

It is true that someone who is drunk, alone, and stumbling home can be vulnerable to rape. It’s also true that campaigns that successfully got women to be sober, carry a foghorn, and be in bed by 9pm would not deal with the fact there are men out there who think it’s perfectly OK to rape them (or deal with the majority of circumstances that don’t fit the ‘stranger following a drunk girl home’ model). It does, however, reinforce the idea that plagues women from school to adulthood: it isn’t men’s responsibility not to be a rapist, it’s women’s responsibility to avoid being victims.

West Mercia and Warwickshire’s joint campaign ‘Stop Rape Now’ is a rare example of excellence. ‘Having fun is not a crime,’ their Christmas campaign says. ‘Rape is.’ It’s a message that needs getting out to both survivors and rapists. And alarmingly it seems, many of this country’s police forces.

Everyday Victim-Blaming are asking readers to submit their police force's campaigns. Find out more here.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Carl Court/Getty Images
Show Hide image

I organised so much support for Maria, I wonder if I became part of the problem

She began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Maria hardly ever came to the doctor’s. So, it was surprising when, out of the blue, I took an urgent call from an occupational health adviser. Maria, he said, was sitting in his office, having been referred for an assessment by her employers. In the course of the interview, she’d disclosed that she was contemplating suicide. The adviser sounded rattled. He wasn’t prepared to let her leave unless he knew I was going to follow her up that day. I duly fixed an appointment, and told him I would take it from there.

So began a two-year relationship. Initially, I saw Maria at frequent intervals to develop an understanding of her situation. She had been suspended from work following an alleged breach of duties. She felt powerless against the juggernaut of disciplinary action that had been unleashed. Divorced some years earlier, and with volatile relationships with her parents and siblings, she had little social support. Suicide had come to seem the only way out as her world tumbled around her.

I started her on antidepressants, but more importantly I set about shoring her up. She was in a trade union, so I encouraged her to get assistance. I referred her to the mental health service, which allocated a key worker with time and expertise to come alongside. They put her in touch with an employment support team. Fairly soon, she was surrounded by an array of professionals, all of them fighting her corner.

Over the next five months the conflict with her employers polarised irretrievably, and eventually the union negotiated a severance deal that allowed her to walk away with a reference. Still more torrid times lay ahead as she sought to rebuild her confidence to seek new employment. Every so often there would be a new crisis in her personal life to complicate matters: various family members would cut off relations with each other or with her. Her mood fluctuated between guarded optimism and despair.

Then came the breakthrough: a job at a department store. It was seasonal, so not a permanent contract, and in many ways that seemed ideal, allowing a time-limited try-out of a new environment. And once she’d overcome her initial fear it went swimmingly. She enjoyed the customer contact, and found the return of structure and income positive. It was fantastic to see her happier again, and all the work of the preceding months seemed to have borne fruit.

As the temporary post drew to a close, she became despondent at the prospect of leaving. Her managers were evidently pleased with her and there was talk of a permanent contract. But, crushingly, it came to nothing.

That proved to be the last straw. What confidence Maria had regained, disintegrated. Over the ensuing year she became ever more entrenched in the sick role, the professionals around her now merely validating her fragility, rather than helping her move forward. I continued to certify her unfit so that her benefits were maintained, but persisted with our cognitive work, encouraging small steps, my memory of how transformed she had been when she worked at the department store still fresh. Maybe that was a misjudgement: she began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Eventually Maria was summoned for an independent medical to assess her ability to work. She was placed in the “support group”, meaning the benefits agency accepted that she was long-term unfit. I tried to establish how she felt about this, but couldn’t work out if it was a relief, or whether deep down it felt like being consigned to the scrapheap.

Shortly afterwards, she left my list and registered with a neighbouring practice. Perhaps she blamed me for her redundancy; or maybe my reluctance to give up hope was no longer compatible with how she saw herself. Either way, the rejection hurt – an inkling, perhaps, of the way Maria herself experiences the world in which she lives. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war