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
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
Actually rehydration is my nemesis. I was making a cup of tea the first
time to make sure I didn't wake up with a headache after a few drinks in
my house just before Christmas when my rapist snuck into the kitchen.
We all thought he'd left, everyone else had gone to bed and it turned
out he'd been hiding. I was only up because I was waiting for the kettle
boil. If I'd merrily staggered down the stairs to bed singing Santa
Baby and keeping everyone up, I'd have been fine. But that peppermint
teabag put a target on my back and the quiche I'd had for dinner didn't
protect me at all in the end. I was still raped.
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
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.
*This post originally appeared at The Vagenda in rebuttal to a previous less favourably received piece on the West Mercia campaign. They offered me the chance to write something when I complained on Twitter and I thank them for that. The original piece was upsetting, but it's good they didn't go on the defensive and allowed for a piece to educate.
I started this blog as a way to talk to myself as I worked my way toward rebuilding my life after experiencing two rapes. Then other people started reading it too and I realised talking about myself wasn't enough and expanded it to having an opinion on everything, especially women and sexual violence. I want this to be a safe welcoming space so please assume all posts need a trigger warning for rape, PTSD, general trauma related crappiness and bad jokes. I'm thrilled anyone reads it and want everyone to feel welcome, including men who may have been victims. I talk about rape from a woman's perspective as that's my own experience, but don't want to exclude anyone who doesn't feel their experience is the same. Feel free to browse or make comments. These are moderated so any apologist crap hits the bin, but not to boost my ego. Anonymous comments or pseudonyms are fine by me since I only blog anonymously myself. Thanks for reading. I do reward you with the odd lighthearted post as well...