This week we had deja vu when West Mercia police popped up with their cliche campaign saying the same old 'don't drink too much or you'll do something you regret' message. This is incredibly offensive. I didn't actually do anything when I was raped, except try very hard to stay alive and contain the immediate suffering. Being raped is by its very nature not an event you are active in. It's passive, because you don't want it to be happening. Therefore telling me not to do things I'll regret in this context is like telling the wind not to blow.
And regret is not really the word I'd use about rape. I regret wearing shoes that make my feet look like trotters. I regret that 90s purple iridescent lipgloss from Miss Selfridge. I reget nipping to the loo, missing the nightbus and having to wait 40 minutes. Not once in the 8 years since I was raped and I've lain awake at night riven with misery or trying not to cry, has the word regret seemed adequate. It seems too meek, too minimising. The fact they've used the idea of 'regretful sex' and rape in the same sentence just heaps insult upon injury.
Regretful sex is no bloody concern of the police. Waking up and realising the hot guy from last night actually wears loafers and has a cuddly golf club on his bed does not need 999. It needs lots of tea and a self deprecating anecdote with friends. Going on highly scientific discussion with friends, regretful sex has usually become amusing by the time you've left the situation and had a shower. I'm still waiting for the moment I find being raped even remotely titterworthy. There's no correlation between the two and it's extremely detrimental to suggest they go together as if rape is just sex you regret a lot and not an actual criminal offence with serious consequences.
It's the kind of myth that mutates into victim blaming on juries especially and like everything else about this campaign, it ties into the idea that rape is something that happens because of alcohol and because a man and woman were left un-chaperoned after being out and 'he said, she said'. It ignores the fact that most rapes do not happen like this and that 80% of rapes happen with someone you know and that you're most likely to be raped in your own home. And for all the 'victim warning' that these campaigns profess to offer they actually leave women more vulnerable in many ways because they teach women to look for rape in only one aspect of their life, but not to say 'it was rape' when their ex demands sex when he comes to collect his CDs after you've split or your new squeeze refuses to use a condom and keeps going or your husband hits you unless you agree. Instead of being able to clearly identify those scenarios as rape, women blame themselves, feel guilty and stay frightened and unable to speak out at all, often remaining trapped.
But being raped 'the right way' according to these police posters, still isn't a guarantee that you'll be taken seriously if you've committed some kind of infringement according to their helpful list. Partly because it's been knocked into me since I was about six to be careful because I'm a woman and partly because it seems natural, I did everything on that list on a night out. I didn't drink while stressed or tired, I ate a meal, I ordered a glass of water, I didn't leave my drink unattended, I drink incredibly slowly anyway and I'd planned my route home in detail. I was still raped. Because the barman spiked my drink. In fact he spiked my glass of water. If I'd quaffed my drinks a bit faster, not bother to rehydrate and just drunkenly lurched to the bus stop, I'd have been fine.
Of all the women I know who have been raped (and sadly that's quite a list), none of them would have been helped by that checklist or the knowledge of self defence. Even the two who had been drinking enough to admit they were quite pissed wouldn't have been helped by alternating their drinks or planning their taxi route, because they were asleep when they were raped anyway. The only thing that would have kept them safe is if their rapist had kept himself to himself. The same with the women who took John Worboys' cab because they didn't want to risk an unlicensed mini-cab or the woman who asked a friend of their boyfriend to give them a lift home because she thought it would be safer than walking alone. Being drunk may make your reactions slower, but in my experience, rapists don't actually give you that much warning they are going to rape you. It's a crime that relies on surprise and fast reactions don't always save you. For every sober reaction where self defense floods back to you and adrenaline makes you superhuman, there is the secret response no one ever mentions.
Humans don't just respond with fight or flight. There's also freeze. Sometimes the human brain in its primitive self preservation state tells you that you can't out-run this sabre toothed tiger. You've just got to go still and hide in the undergrowth til the threat stops. You have no control over this. Your body and brain take over and do this because it's the best way to stop you getting physically hurt or dying. It's just another way to protect yourself and it's totally normal. I'm never usually backwards about coming forward when I am displeased and expected I'd scrap like a mad March hare in a bag. Instead I completely froze. Even though it probably saved me from really serious injury, I blamed myself for years for not fighting back because I thought I'd done it wrong.
And that's the problem with these police campaigns. They read like an etiquette list as if there's a correct way to be raped rather than rape being wrong. Victims measure their reactions by these lists. Juries make their decisions based by them. The police and CPS investigate to certain standards because of these lists. And rapists get given a handy cheat sheet of how to spot a suitable victim. Some women are more vulnerable, especially former sexual partners, sex workers and women with mental health issues or disabilities, but these 'don't drink' campaigns don't teach them or the people round them protection, they just seek to highlight ways that can be manipulated further. It reinforces the idea of the 'right rape victim' and reduces the idea of rape to sex when most people know it's really about power. By making it seem like an inevitable consequence of a night out it diminishes the severity and hides it behind the bogeyman of 'drinking'.
Drinking actually means bugger all as a statement of fact. Saying a rape took place after drinking tells me nothing much. Who was drinking? Was it the attacker or the victim or both? How much where they drinking? Where they drunk? If I've had a glass of wine with dinner and then get the bus home, walk through my estate in the dark and am raped, it could still be said I'd been 'drinking', but it doesn't really add any information. Just using that word doesn't mean I was roaring drunk and gusset up in the gutter but it's often said in such a way to attribute blame as if when women are drinking it means being incapacitated, but when men do it, it's normal. It's just another tactic like like the newspaper telling you what colour hair a rape victim has to belittle the event and make victims seem like statistics rather than people.
The statistics that count are the conviction rates and that's where the police should be focusing their efforts. West Mercia (on the most recent figures I could find, dating from 2007) have a conviction rate of 4.5%. At least South Wales, who ran a similar campaign last year, are at 7.1%. I'm not suggesting that the police don't try and prevent crime before it happens. That's common sense after all. But I suggest they take a tack like the 'Know the Difference' campaign running in Lambeth, South London which addresses the potential perpetrators and their peers with a non judgemental ad campaign about a variety of sexual violence outside the home displayed on public transport, licensed premises and outside clubs and pubs. It combines it with training barstaff, bouncers and police in the nuances of rape and consent. This has been combined with new facilities for women needing help, sits along a council campaign about gendered violence in the home and has resulted in reports being up a third as women feel less judged to come forward about rape and sexual assault (which is often seen as less important because of the focus campaigns like West Mercia's have on rape only.)
It might seem a bit insulting to some men that they feel they are being tarred with the same brush as rapists when they would do no such thing, but it opens a dialogue and helps erode rape myths that are so ingrained around women, sexual violence and alcohol that even the government funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority routinely docked women's pay-out after rape if alcohol was involved until a just few years ago. Keeping those myths going and suggesting that women wouldn't be raped if they just tried harder to stick to these lists however is a much bigger injustice and one that destroys many women's lives and prevents rapists from being punished properly because women fear repeat victimisation on reporting. Women can't do anything about being women so we need to tackle the societal changes around rape instead and make change that way.
Editor's note: this article was commissioned as a response to the preceding article, which has generated quite a debate. Thanks to everyone who has contributed, and do let us know your thoughts in the comments.