I got some stick a couple of months back around some conversations I had relating to the change.org campaign to have removed from the internet a poster from the 2007 NHS Know Your Limits campaign designed to raise awareness of the risks of alcohol. The poster in question states that one in three reported rapes happen when the victim is drunk. Change.org’s objection to the poster was that it perpetuated the ‘victim blaming’ culture in our society today. I saw the poster as the NHS trying to give the message that we should take more responsibility around our actions and especially around our use of alcohol, rather than blaming the victim. I said so in a blog (linked below) entitled Know Your Responsibilities.
But the conversations I had at the time (I was accused of trotting out all the usual excuses, that still blame the victim) led me to ask myself some questions: had I got it wrong, was I a part of perpetuating the victim blaming culture? Since then I’ve gone out of my way to consider the issue again, I’ve followed various news reports where accusations of victim blaming have been made.
One of the most recent in the news is the case of Archie Reed (20) who went out on a drinking night out with his friend, who happened to be female. They were both 19 at the time. They both got very drunk, he missed the train home and she offered to let him stay at her place overnight. Of that we can be reasonably sure. CCTV showed them holding hands and hugging. Other aspects of evidence can only be known to the individuals involved. Did he offer to sleep on the floor and she insist they slept together in her single bed? Did she rub herself provocatively against him in bed? Did he take off her pyjama bottoms while she was asleep? It’s her word against his. Whatever, he admitted making sexual advances towards her having ‘misread the signs’ of her kissing him and inviting him to sleep in her bed and stopped when he realised his mistake. He had sexually assaulted her without her express permission to have sex.
The reporting of this case got messed up with the fact that he was an ex-public schoolboy and mishandling of the prosecution and presentation of evidence by the CPS, the latter causing the judge to order the jury to acquit him of rape.
In the middle of all this Drinkaware published research (by ICM) that found a third of young women had been sexually molested during a night out drinking and that a fifth had been unsurprised by it. One in ten young men had had to deal with some kind of unwelcomed sexual attention. Two thirds of young women said unwanted sexual attention spoils a good night out, 69% felt disgust, 56% felt anger, 39% felt fear. That’s a lot of emotional fallout from an apparently good night out.
Two quotes worth repeating here: Retired judge Mary Jane Mowat (66) said it is not right to rape or take advantage of a drunken woman, but also anticipated criticism when she said that ‘rape conviction statistics will not improve until young women stop getting so drunk’. Daily Mail columnist, Amanda Platell (57), stated “young women must start establishing clear boundaries – and that means realising drunkenly kissing, hugging and inviting a man into your bed might be misinterpreted as an invitation to sex”.
I can’t help thinking their views are less about victim blaming than about generational differences. Like me, those women would have grown up in a generation when sex outside marriage was still considered risque, when a young woman inviting a young man to sleep in her bed with her really was an invitation to have sex. Back then young people got drunk at the weekends but not to the extent of the ‘drinking culture’ today. Back then if a young woman was found to be pregnant outside of marriage both got the blame and were expected to take responsibility for the consequences. Which brings me back to my original blog – Know Your Responsibilities.
It’s human nature. Young men DO want sex. Young women WILL give out mixed signals. Young men WILL read the signals according to their map of the world (“I want sex”). Throw in some alcohol and the confusion escalates. We DO live in a culture that promotes women as sexual beings, even more than ever before. Young women WILL be traumatised by unwelcomed sexual acts that may well affect them for the rest of their lives – they were in the youth of Mary Mowat and Amanda Platell, and their mothers and grandmothers and generations of women before them. Young men WILL be accused of making inappropriate sexual advances and their lives will be disrupted and possibly altered forever by those accusations.
We DON’T live in a fair society. We DO live in a society that expects rights. We DON’T live in a society that accepts responsibility. But that’s what it needs. Men and women are both victims of the rise in the social drinking culture that is prevalent today. I will go one step further than Mowat and Platell: both young women and young men should take more responsibility to protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities. And if that means saying that the culture around drinking and alcohol are to blame then that is the message that should be promoted.
And then we can get on with dealing with the problem of the objectification of women in the media and so many spheres of society.
The old 2006 UK NHS Know Your Limits Campaign to raise awareness of the risks of drinking (alcohol) is popping up in emails and social media news-feeds again thanks to a petition started by change.org to get one particular campaign poster removed in all its formats. The offending poster is the one that states that one in three reported rapes happen when the victim is drunk. The objection to this poster is that it implies that rape is therefore the fault of the victim and not consistent with more recent NHS advice that “a sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator”. Among those supporting the campaign is the NUS (National Union of Students) who state that the “only way to stop rapes is to stop rapists”.
I remember the original NHS campaign: it was designed to shock and the rape poster was just one of many shocking adverts…
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