I'm going to wade into a pretty controversial debate here. Definitely more controversial than suggesting that Daily Mail readers should stand public trial for stupidity, and possibly more controversial than an audience member calling Louise Mensch a cunt on Question Time. I realise that I might get a lot of hate for this, but I can't help feeling that there are some things that need to be said. Here goes.
Yesterday, UK blog the F Word and their followers got very angry about West Mercia Police's new 'Safe Night Out' campaign that aims to help women protect themselves from rape. I'll state those words again, just so we're clear 'protect themselves'. As many of the F Word's followers pointed out, this wasn't a campaign that was saying 'don't rape', it was a campaign that said: 'don't get raped.' As a result, West Mercia Police were accused of Victim Blaming.
Before I begin my argument, I'd just like to set some things straight so that we're all on the same page. The rape conviction rate in this country is appalling. I know this. I would even say that the legal system, a system created by men, may have an ingrained bias against women who make rape allegations. Certainly, more needs to be done to ensure that women are treated sensitively and with respect when they alert the police to rape. And yes, the message 'don't rape' is immensely important and is not used enough. Rape culture is alive and well, and needs to be destroyed like the evil fucking beast that it is. I believe all this.
But at the same time I also believe that, in getting really really angry about campaigns such as this, feminism is on the way to shooting itself in the foot.
The campaign is not a sophisticated one. The tag line 'don't let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret', does, in some aspects, put the onus of responsibility on the woman who has been raped. Or it would, if there wasn't also a male version of the poster, in which a man holds his head in his hands. But let's just park that for a second and concentrate on the wimmin, seeing as everyone else is.
What worries me about the angry backlash to campaigns such as this is that, in yelling accusations of victim blaming, we actually end up in a position where we ignore some potentially lifesaving advice. According to West Mercia police, here are some things you can do to have a safe night out (not get raped):
Alternate your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or low-alcohol ones
Drink more slowly
Consume alcohol with food
Don't drink when you are stressed
Getting home safely:
Plan how you are going to get home before you get out
Book a licensed taxi or agree to be the designated driver and then don't drink
Never get into a stranger's car or with someone who has been drinking
Never walk home alone and don't let your friends do so
Always dial 999 if you are in immediate danger
This is all good, solid, sensible advice. Yes, the emphasis is on things the potential victim can do to minimise risk, but I will come to that in a moment. Let's first look at the advice itself, which focuses on a.) how alcohol can make you more vulnerable and less able to defend yourself, and b.) preventative measures that women can take on their way home late and night to ensure they don't end up in a horrible situation.
Now, in an ideal world, I would like to be able to waltz through Tottenham at 4am without having to worry about some nutcase attacking me. That would be awesome. But unfortunately, we don't yet live in that world, and until we do, I'll be taking a cab or walking with an escort, motherfucker.
It's just basic safety advice. I can understand why it angers women that the onus is so heavily placed on them, of course I do. But until some men stop raping, we all have a duty to protect ourselves the best we can. Now, while it's important that the message 'don't rape' is as prominent as the message 'don't get raped', if not more so, but in campaigning for that we must not ignore the other message. It's important.
The role of the police is to protect civilians from harm and apprehend those that break the law. They are not, by any means, a perfect organisation (and at the moment, thanks to the coalition, they are also grossly understaffed.) Perhaps as result of the fact that there is only a certain amount of shit they can do to stop crime, many of their campaigns have placed the victim as the focus for quite a while now.
Let's take a look at burglary (by the way I am in no way making a direct comparison between the crimes of rape and burglary. This is in many ways self-evident but if there's anything I've learnt about the internet it's that you guys are amazingly able to find meaning where there is none). Burglary is a crime. We all know this. It is bad to burgle. It would be good if we could eradicate burglary. Certainly the police should be saying 'don't burgle' more. Yet, possibly in the knowledge that there will always, always be burglars in our society, in recent years their focus has been on preventative measures the public can take to minimise risk. So you'll get posters saying 'don't leave your keys by the front door, don't leave your windows open' or 'lock up or lose out' (West Yorkshire police). Is this victim blaming? No. If some dickhead breaks into your house, it is not your fault. But there are things that you can do to make it less likely. So do them.
Likewise, telling children not to take sweets from strangers doesn't mean that society is ignoring the problem of paedophilia. Why does it have to be one or the other?
The feminism of the 1980s very much focused on teaching women how to defend themselves against male aggressors. By giving women assertiveness training, and self defence classes, they empowered them to protect themselves in a society that was unsafe. Where has all this gone?
If you are raped, it is absolutely not your fault. I don't think I need to say this, but again, this is the internet, so it's best to be explicit. But at the same time shouting VICTIM BLAMING at every police anti-rape campaign can be counter-productive. The more women learn how to protect themselves, the better. Until rape is tackled at its roots, these cunts are out there, and being prepared for an encounter with one of them is a good idea. Which is why I believe that, while people should be going into schools and explaining the legislation surrounding rape to young men, they should also be going into schools to teach young women self defence. A fight on many fronts is better than a fight on one front, and that advice could save your life.
In the 1980s, my mother was involved in the women's movement and taught self-defence to victims of domestic violence. She also taught me. From a young age, I knew how do hit a male aggressor in the nose and render him temporarily incapacitated so that I could run away. I knew how to trip him up. My mother taught me how to scream, and that advice saved my life.
I was attacked while walking home from a party a few years ago. It took the form of a prolonged attempt at strangulation which could have been a prelude to rape or murder. I don't know, because I got away. I got away because of the advice my mother gave me. Good, sensible advice.
One of the police officers asked her, 'what was your daughter doing out on the street at 4am?'
While I do not feel guilty, it is a valid question. What the hell was I doing? I am more careful now.
I do not feel in any way responsible for what happened to me. But there are measures which I take now to prevent the likelihood of it happening again. One of them is the belief that, no matter how skint you are, a taxi fare is never wasted. At no stage in the subsequent proceedings, did I ever feel that the police held me responsible for what had happened. I know I'm one of the lucky ones, though, and that other women are not treated as kindly.
The police should always, absolutely, be held to account. But in terms of this campaign, I think that anger is wasted. If anything, it shows an understanding of the ways in which rape has come to be redefined and the issue of consent has become controversial where alcohol is involved. In this sense, they are categorical: If someone has not given their consent for sex or touching, you are breaking the law and could be arrested.
In a society where people like the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips imply that you deserve it if you're wearing a short skirt and drunk, I really don't think West Mercia Police are the biggest problem. If their campaign saves one woman's life, then it is not wasted. There are people out there who are victim blaming in ways which are infinitely more frightening. All West Mercia police want is to see Shropshire girls get home safely. What is so wrong with that?