When aversion to victim-blaming becomes a danger

Whatever solutions there may be to reduce sexual violence in society, as a general rule* they do not and should not involve persuading potential victims to change their behaviour.

There are two broad reasons why. The first is factual and criminological, that there is very little evidence that there is any significant relationship between how (usually) women dress, where they go, what they do, how they behave and the prevalence of sexual assault. If there is, it tends to be that the more socially and sexually confident and assertive women are as a gender, the more independent of mind and behaviour they become, the safer they are from sexual assault. The best statistics we have are from the US (and there is no reason to believe the picture in the UK is any different) and they show that over the past 40 years or so, as the social, economic and sexual liberation of women continued apace, rates of rape and sexual violence tumbled. While statistics are impossible to attain, no serious observer would doubt that in countries where women are actively oppressed to the point of being shrouded in burqas and imprisoned in the home, rape is endemic.

The second reason is political, or ideological. Throughout human history, society has used the risk and the fear of rape and sexual assault as a powerful mechanism to control women’s behaviour, to police their independence, sexuality and free expression, to demand that they remain dependent upon male protectors, male chaperones and male power. So one important front in the battle for women’s liberation over those same 40 years or so has been to step out from that shadow of fear, and that has required the development of alternative (and more effective) solutions to reducing the risk of sexual assault than persuading women to hide away.

Now, I know that many of my readers will look at the paragraphs above and snort in derision. Frankly I don’t care right now, I’m not interested in debating them today. They are there to (hopefully) explain in broad and simplistic terms why most feminists are strongly opposed to campaigns against sexual violence that focus on the behaviour of the victim rather than the attacker, and they also explain why, on this front, I think those feminists are right. You don’t have to agree, just accept that those are the arguments involved.

While I am broadly on board with the feminist consensus in this area, there is a limit to those principles, and I think it was badly breached in the column by Laura Bates in the Guardian today. Laura takes a handful of recent instances where the police have issued warnings to women, and asks: “Why do the police still tell women that they should avoid getting raped?”

The five examples she lists have something in common. Every instance referred to specific sexual offenders whose modus operandi was to attack strange women on their own in public places. Four of the five warnings were in the immediate aftermath of attacks. The fifth involved an exceptionally dangerous sadistic sex offender who had escaped from prison and was believed to be at large in Manchester (he has since been recaptured I am relieved to say.)

Sex offenders who attack strangers in public are actually exceptionally rare, as a proportion of all rapists and abusers. But they do exist. And when they are active, they will often attack several times in a short period of time in the same area using the same methods. It would be an appalling dereliction of duty were the police not to warn the public that such an offender were operating in a specific area, and that a specific section of the population (in this case lone women) were particularly at risk.

The types of warning issued in these circumstances are profoundly different to the more generalized “WOMEN! KNOW YOUR PLACE AND DON’T GET RAPED” type of posters and billboards which do, sadly still sometimes appear. However many police forces are moving on quickly. Greater Manchester Police, condemned by Laura Bates in the article for telling women to take care until Millman had been recaptured, do in fact run an exemplary awareness campaign on sexual violence, developed in conjunction with local campaigners and charities including Rape Crisis and our friends at Survivors Manchester. It concerns me that police may start to disengage from campaigners around sexual violence if they feel that they are being criticised and attacked just for doing their job of trying to keep the public safe.

It is patently obvious that a central core of Laura’s argument is simply untrue. She asks:  “How absurd would it seem if we were to apply similar logic to any other crime?”

The answer is, not remotely absurd. Here are some examples gleaned from literally two minutes on Google news search today:

Police urge public to consider some “simple steps” to combat burglaries in the darker nights. He advised that lights on timers are changed and that residents leave radios on while out for the evening. 

Police warn of risk of cyber crime 

Police warn public to avoid fake dating sites 

Thames Valley Police is urging residents to be vigilant of fake lottery scams and is warning people not to respond to any communications claiming they have won a lottery, sweepstake or prize draw.

A SPATE of garden burglaries has prompted police to warn people to be on their guard in Llanelli… Police officers have carried out a mass leaflet drop warning the public to take extra precautions. 

It is also the case that where there is a specific and heightened risk to other groups of people, the police will behave identically. Here’s a report of police teaming up with LGBT campaigners to warn men cruising on Clapham Common that they were at heightened risk.

Regular readers will know it is not like me to leap to the defence of the police. Just on this occasion, we need to give them a break. I entirely understand the need to avoid victim blaming and to ensure responsibility for rape remains squarely with rapists. That cannot involve obstructing the police from attempting to protect people from specific and immediate dangers.


* When I say sexual violence will not be reduced by persuading potential victims to change their behaviour, that is not necessarily entirely true. There is (albeit inconclusive) evidence that coaching people to be assertive and alert to risks through such initiatives as “resistance programmes” can reduce people’s susceptibility to assault. There is also some evidence to believe that sexual offenders deliberately target those who appear vulnerable and submissive. This evidence should not be considered heretical or dangerous, it needs to be debated and investigated further, in my opinion. But it is also far removed from the traditional behaviour policing of “don’t wear a short skirt, don’t get drunk, don’t be a flirt…” etc which normally permeates these debates.

Has Chicago Sun-Times published the worst article about sexual violence ever written?

On Satuday, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell published an article that on first reading made me feel physically, viscerally sick. By the next morning my shock had drifted into anger and outrage. Only today, another 24 hours on, could I consider it with enough of a calm head to try to figure out what the hell the author is talking about and to unpick her logic. When I did, I found that if anything her argument gets worse. [Read more…]

CPS and male victims, the UK Statistics Authority gets involved

[If you are new to this saga, you may wish to catch up here, here, here and here.]


At the time we sent our letter to the Guardian, I also sent on a copy and a few additional remarks to the UK Statistics Authority, as a formal report.

The UKSA is an independent body set up by legal statute to oversee official statistics and ensure that all public bodies adhere to a Code of Practice that demands accuracy, transparency, accessibility etc in all official reports. I suggested the UKSA might wish to have a look at the CPS report into Violence Against Women and Girls. [Read more…]

Is femicide a leading global cause of premature deaths for women?

There is much in Neil Lyndon’s latest missive that is ill-informed, ignorant or downright ugly.

Under ill-informed, file his claim that since 2.5% of women experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year, according to Crime Survey of England and Wales, it cannot be true that one in three women worldwide is subject to sexual violence. Not only does this fail to allow for the fact that women’s experiences in this country may be far, far from typical of the global picture, it is simply bad maths. If you doubt me, imagine a hundred women evenly spread in ages between 16 – 66. Ask them how many of them had a 16th birthday in the last year? Then ask them how many have ever had a 16th birthday? Only 2% will answer yes to the first question, but 100% to the second.  Since sexual violence happens vastly disproportionately to younger victims, you should easily see how that analogy works.

Under ignorant, file the anecdata about how he has asked all the women in his life and none of them have been sexually assaulted. I very much hope that is true, but Neil, purrlease. We know that a huge proportion of sexual assault survivors tell virtually (or literally) nobody about the attack, and from what I know of him through his writing, I’d suggest that Neil Lyndon might not be top of any woman’s list of potential confidantes. As if to demonstrate the point:

I am nearly 70 years old. In the whole of my life, I have only known two women who claimed to have been raped. Both of them were disbelieved by their own women friends who reckoned the soi-disant victims were making up stories that couldn’t be verified to dramatise their lives.

As I say, ugly. Downright ugly.

That said, there is a question he raises which deserves an answer.

Last month a report in The Independent claimed that “Femicide has been identified globally as a leading a cause of premature death for women” and called for “increasing awareness and understanding of male violence”.

In neither instance does the writer stop to ask, “Can these claims possibly be true? Are these figures backed-up by my own experience and the evidence of my own eyes? Do they tally with the society in which I have grown up and now live? Are they verified by objective research?”

In fact there is an answer available to that question, and in broad terms no, it is not true.

There is a degree of wriggle room in the original claim – what do we mean by “leading cause”? What do we mean by “premature death” etc. However there is something approaching objective research on this question. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research centre at the University of Washington, collates the best available global data on causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide. You can search the Global Burden of Disease data here. If we use an age cut off at 49 as a proxy for ‘premature death’ then the table for women’s cause of death looks like this: [click to enlarge]


Now a little bit of caution is needed here, because the categories are not discrete, some are compounds of others. Most notably there is one category for interpersonal violence, another for self-harm (ie suicide) and another for “self-harm and interpersonal violence” however the last of those is merely a tally of the other two. There are also a variety of overlapping causes (particularly several different HIV/Aids related categories). Even tidied up a bit though, it would be a stretch to claim that interpersonal violence was even in the top 25 causes of younger women’s deaths worldwide.

As we often hear phrases used like “ever-growing epidemic of violence against women” it is probably also worth pointing out that the data show a steady but consistent decline over the past twenty years, for both women and men.


If instead of asking for mortality figures one searches the data for ‘Disability-adjusted life years’ (the preferred measure of morbidity) interpersonal violence does not even figure in the top 50 for women aged 15- 49. I couldn’t even fit the table readably on a single screen to get an image grab.

There have been various bits of research conducted over the years which show much higher rates of death and morbidity caused by various forms of violence against women, even if when examined, they often show far less conclusive (and less arresting) findings than campaigners claim.  It is also important to understand that these are raw figures which could be riven with pollutants, inaccuracies and absent data. For example, there could be a huge number of suicides which arise as a direct consequence of gender-based violence but which do not present as such in the figures. In parts of the world where domestic violence and so-called honour crimes are commonplace there may be huge numbers of homicides being categorised as “accidental deaths” or whatever.

Nonetheless, the IHME data is considered the best available guide to causes of global mortality and morbidity, and even if we were to arbitrarily decide to double the known  figure for women’s deaths by interpersonal violence, it still wouldn’t be accurate to say that femicide is one of the leading causes of women’s premature deaths worldwide.


So why was anonymity for rape defendants scrapped in 1988?

With the debate around anonymity for rape defendants resurfacing yet again, it is worth remembering that the UK had a long experiment with the policy not so long ago. When anonymity for alleged rape victims was introduced in 1976, it was accompanied by anonymity for defendants. The policy stayed in place until 1988 when the laws changed, strengthening anonymity for complainants and abolishing it for defendants. [Read more…]

Update on the sentencing of male and female offenders

William Collins has published a response to my last blogpost, in which I criticised the conclusions he had drawn from analysis of sentencing statistics, and specifically his calculation that if men were sentenced to the same standards as women, there would be 68,000 fewer men in prison. I’ll make a few factual and statistical points below, but first let me express a regret, and issue an apology.

With hindsight, there was a scornful tone to my last blog. What I did not make clear enough was that my scorn is not for William Collins. I’m very pleased that any bloggers are addressing the issue of male incarceration, including gender discrimination in the system. While I maintain that William’s calculations are seriously shaky at best, at the risk of sounding patronising, I appreciate how complex such efforts are and we all get this stuff wrong from time to time, self very much included. Had this just been an exchange between William and I, my tone would have been much more like “Hi William, this is a great effort, but I think you’ve failed to account for . . .”

My scornful tone wasn’t aimed at William Collins, it was strictly aimed at Mike Buchanan, a man who spends most of his life ostentatiously issuing challenges and demanding corrections and apologies from other people whom he believes may have used statistics wrongly, but who then appears on national TV quoting “facts” which he believes for no other reason than he read it on a single amateur blogpost on the internet, so it must be true. Worse, he includes the same statistics in a general election manifesto, no less. [Read more…]

The astonishing secret success of campaigns around violence against women

In what is becoming an annual ritual here at HetPat, let me point out what the media is not telling us about the detailed analysis of statistics on intimate violence and homicide, released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics, because once again it contains some remarkable – and remarkably good – news.  [Read more…]

Domestic violence perpetrator programmes: A national scandal

Do domestic violence perpetrator programmes work in reducing violence and abuse?

No, says Julie Bindel.

Yes, says the University of Durham

Rehabilitation programmes for domestic violence perpetrators can work (12 January 2015)
The vast majority of men who abuse their partners stop their physical and sexual violence if they attend a domestic violence perpetrator programme, according to new research.

The research, led by Durham and London Metropolitan universities, suggests domestic violence perpetrator programmes (DVPPs) could play an important role in the quest to end domestic violence.

Steel yourself or take a seat – Julie Bindel is absolutely right. I agree with her. Cherish the moment, even if we have come to the same conclusion from very different directions. [Read more…]

Can we stomp on this rape myth now?

A news report in the Guardian today gives extensive airspace to Women Against Rape (WAR), a maverick feminist organisation which (despite its name) seems to devote vastly more time to campaigning on behalf of false accusers than against sexual assault, flavoured with the occasional bizarre foray into defending a fugitive alleged rapist.

Dramatically, the headline screams:

109 women prosecuted for false rape claims in five years

[Read more…]

Yes, we do need to talk about male violence

I was asked to contribute a piece to the series 100 Voices For Men which is being run by Inside Man in the run-up to International Men’s Day. You can read the original here, and there are loads and loads of interesting posts from right across the spectrum of the men’s sector.

But since this was firmly on HetPat territory, I thought I’d also repost here.


There is an exchange that plays out in the media on pretty much a daily basis. The moves have become so familiar we can see them performed almost as a ritual dance. In the aftermath of some tragic, violent incident – whether a mass shooting, a domestic homicide or a shocking sexual assault – a commentator with liberal or feminist leanings will describe the incident as an example of ‘male violence’ and, therefore, not just an isolated incident but part of a systematic pattern involving hundreds, thousands, millions of related incidents across the world each day.

There follows a storm of comments, social media updates and blogs as detractors – primarily but not exclusively male – throw up their digitised hands in horror and disgust. This is nothing to do with me! I’ve never killed anyone! Why are you blaming an entire gender for the crime of an individual?

The defensive reactions may be understandable, but are largely based on a misunderstanding. Saying that men have a problem with violence does not mean that all men are violent, any more than saying Britain has a problem with obesity means that all Britons are fat. In both examples, it means the phenomenon causes immense social harm and individual suffering, and occurs at levels far above those we should be willing to tolerate in a civilised society.

What about female perpetrators?  

Yes, women can also be violent, especially towards intimate partners and family members. However in recent years the men’s sector as a whole (and I include myself in that) has often become so fixated on demonstrating and documenting the extent of male victimisation at the hands of women that we may have lost sight of the bigger picture.

According to the UN’s estimates, there were more than 450,000 homicides globally last year. Not only were 95% of the killers male, so too were 80% of the victims. In England and Wales, 800,000 adult men were injured in a violent attack in 2013 and around three quarters of perpetrators were not their female partners, but other men. On the other side of the coin, around 37,000 men are in prison today as a consequence of their own violent behaviour. To deny or turn our eyes from the extent of men’s violence is to turn our backs on one of the most pressing and severe social and health issues facing men and boys across the world today.

Only once we acknowledge the scale of men’s violence can we begin to ask why it occurs. I suspect many people are uncomfortable with the suggestion that there is something inherently violent to masculinity. What we might instead call ‘male culture’ colours our attitudes to work and to leisure, to lifestyles and relationships, even to how we communicate and interact. That culture has too often included attitudes towards violence that are directly implicated in too much death and injury.

Are men conditioned to be violent? 

How many of us grew up believing that to be a man demanded that we be ‘tough’ and ‘hard,’ or in other words to be willing to endure and inflict violence? Such traits don’t always come easy, and too many boys still have them literally beaten into us by peers or, tragically, parents and other adults. Research has consistently shown that where formal or informal physical punishment is used, boys are beaten more regularly and more forcefully than girls.

At the same time, psychologists have long known the rough recipe for a violent adult. According to one study by MurrayStraus, a child who grows up in a family where the adults are violent to each other is almost three times as likely to display violent behaviour as others. Another study found that a child subjected to physical abuse who also witnesses violent behaviour at first hand is between five and nine times as likely to become an abusive adult. It is true that not all violent adults lived through an especially violent childhood, and absolutely vital to understand that many, many people who experienced violence and abuse in childhood will never harm anyone in turn. Neither fact, however, should obscure the truth that violent adults – by which we most commonly mean violent men – are not born, they are made.

Nor does male violence exist in isolation from other male-specific issues. Only once we acknowledge and face up to the reality of male violence can we begin to unpick the complex relationship between men’s emotional isolation and unaddressed mental health needs, our tendency to self-medicate or escape into excessive alcohol and drug use and from there, the intimate link between intoxication and violent behaviour.

No I am not being anti-male 

It is not anti-man or misandrist to acknowledge that our society brutalises men and boys to a sufficient degree that some will become brutes. On the contrary, I would argue the misandrist position is to claim that men’s violence is an inescapable law of nature, some relic of evolution or neurobiology. Testosterone does not breed violence, violence breeds violence, and the evidence, I am happy to say, is all around us. Current levels of violent crime remain distressing, but are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago. The vast majority of men are not violent and the numbers who are get smaller all the time.

As mentioned above, 800,000 men were wounded in violent attacks last year, but the same statistic in 1994/5 was 2.4 million. Domestic violence, as estimated by the Crime Survey of England and Wales, has dropped 78% over the same time frame. The same story is playing out across the developed world. Nor is it just the effect of increased prison populations keeping violent offenders out of harm’s way. The number of children and young people entering the criminal justice system (ie being caught for the first time) is at its lowest since records began. Meanwhile the fastest growing section of the prison population over the past few years has been the over 65s.

The explanations for this phenomenal social change are hotly debated by criminologists but one thing is for sure, male biology has not evolved in a couple of decades. It is likely there are a variety of social and even environmental factors involved, I would suggest that it is no coincidence that the least violent generation of young men in living memory is the first to have been raised in the era of the rights of the child, in schools and homes that have increasingly eschewed violent punishments, with anti-bullying policies and where the social acceptability of violence of all sorts has been challenged and rejected as never before.

There is little doubt that men today are less violent, less aggressive, less militaristic than we have been at any time in living memory but there is still a long way to go. The journey will be driven not just by policy and politics but by the desire of all women, children and men to live in a safer, more peaceful world and the principal beneficiaries will be men ourselves.