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?

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“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.