Thinking of getting merry this Christmas? Think again, if you're a girl. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), women who don't want to be raped have a responsibility not to get drunk. A new campaign, launched on Monday, aims to deter "potential victims" from drinking too much - implying once again that women are to blame for rape.
Dave Whatton, ACPO lead on rape, explained that “A large proportion of reported rape cases feature alcohol as a factor. Ultimately we want to prevent rape from occurring in the first place, by arming potential victims with key advice on how to keep themselves safe."
The campaign, which also contains advice aimed at potential rapists, encourages women to "let your hair down, not your guard down". News associations across the country, including Reuters, Associated Newspapers and the BBC, have predictably honed in on the message that women have a responsibility to protect themselves from rape by staying sober. This may be news to potential rapists, but most women do not need to be told how to protect themselves from rape.
The 'safety work' that women do to avoid male violence is ingrained in young girls from an early age. We learn to choose clothes which will not 'provoke' men, to be sexually timid, to avoid walking home in the dark without an escort. We learn to mistrust men we do not know: better safe than sorry. Anti-rape activist Hilary McCollum explains that "Many women curtail their freedom because of their fear of violence, especially rape. Fear of rape limits women's lives, as do stereotypes about who gets raped and when."
I am all too familiar with how damaging these stereotypes can be. Three years ago, after drinking an unhealthy amount of white rum at a party, I was raped by an acquaintance of mine. What I found most distressing about the incident wasn't the non-consensual sex, nor even the STD that I contracted as a result. In fact, what really left me traumatised were the subsequent years of guilt, silence and shame, fuelled by a deep belief that because I had been drinking, what happened to me was my fault.
For years, I didn't mention that night to anyone, because I had internalised the message that girls who drink and flirt with men deserve to be raped. That message did not come from my parents, nor even from the man involved, who was appalled and apologetic when he realised what he'd drunkenly done. The message came directly from social propaganda, some of it as horrifically well-meaning as the current ACPO campaign.
The still-current idea that women who drink are wantonly putting themselves at risk of rape does untold damage, both to women and to men. Men watching the ACPO campaign will internalise the sexist notion that men cannot control their carnal impulses. Worse still, the violent, misogynist minority of men will once more be informed–by the police, no less - that women who have been drinking are fair game for their unwanted attentions.
Alcohol is the short skirt of the 21st century – an excuse designed to limit male culpability for sexual violence. Victim-blaming messages like the current ACPO campaign have been around for centuries, disguised as advice to help women ‘protect’ themselves - but with tens of thousands of rapes occurring each year in Britain alone, the strategy has hardly worked so far. Although alcohol is involved in many instances of sexual violence, staying sober is no protection against rape. In Afghanistan, a country where the majority of women do not drink or attend parties, rape is “a human rights problem of profound proportions”, according to the UN.
The ACPO campaign takes a step in the right direction by partnering these messages with adverts and posters reminding men that sex without consent is rape. But telling men that if they rape, they can expect to be jailed is of little use if, in the same breath, you also tell women that if they drink, they can expect to be raped. It is never a woman's fault if she is raped: not if she's drunk, not if she's sober, not if she's standing on a table wearing a thong and baby oil. The responsibility for rape lies, always and only, with the minority of men who rape.
I’ve learned the hard way not to get drunk around men I don’t know well. But even if every woman and girl in Britain stays entirely sober all winter, hundreds of us will be raped this Christmas – and every Christmas, until we live in a world where men, rather than women, learn to take responsibility for ending sexual violence.