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.
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.