The other day, a woman I work with (Hi Sarah!) asked me what I thought about the controversy surrounding an NHS anti-rape poster that bore the words “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking”. The poster features a disturbing photograph of a woman curled up on the ground, her hand between her thighs, obviously in pain.
A petition on change.org is calling for the NHS to remove this poster. The petition calls the poster “a blatant and appalling case of victim blaming by our own Government, putting the onus on the victim rather than the perpetrator.”
When the department of health was notified of the petition last week, their response was less than encouraging; they refused to apologize on the grounds that this particular poster campaign has not been in use for seven years. While it was a bit of a relief for me to learn that this was an outdated campaign, they definitely missed a chance to send a message to the public that is more in line with the NHS’s stated position that “If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, where you were or whether you had been drinking. A sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator.”
Reactions to the controversy have ranged from “this ad is dangerous and victim-blaming” to “it just makes sense to tell women to be careful”.
And I totally understand why people might think that this poster isn’t a big deal.
I get that it seems to make sense to teach women as many ways to stay safe as possible. When my female students were getting ready to go to college, I drilled in them ways to avoid getting dosed with a drug while at a party or bar. I told them to order their own drinks, to only drink beer if they’d seen the bottle opened, to keep their thumb over the top of the bottle so nobody could slip anything in. I told them to keep an eye on their friends, and to have a plan in place if someone looked like they might be in trouble.
I have a hard time feeling bad about giving them that advice. Even though I know that it falls into the category of victim-blaming, I also want the women and girls that I care about to have every tool they can to be safe.
However, there is a big difference between the advice we give our friends and family and the advice that is provided through official channels.
The kind of advice on this NHS poster appears in official anti-rape campaigns all the time. These campaigns instruct women not to let a stranger buy them a drink, not to let their friends go home with a stranger, and not to get into an unmarked taxi.
Of course, the main problem with ads like this is that they continue to blame the victim. And yes, we tell people to lock their cars to prevent theft, to not wear expensive jewelry when they’re in a strange city so they don’t get pickpocketed, and to be wary of strangers approaching them on the street. Hell, my mom is obsessed with handbags that have inner zipper compartments; I went to Paris last month and she must have warned me a dozen times about pickpocketers taking advantage of tourists.
However, the difference between this “don’t get robbed” advice and “don’t get raped” advice is that if the advice isn’t followed, if a person is pickpocketed, robbed, or mugged, they are rarely blamed for their own attack. The validity of their claim is rarely questioned. They are rarely shamed or re-victimized in reporting it. Even if they did not follow all of this advice to the letter, they’re shown sympathy, and there is never any doubt that the perpetrator committed a crime.
In addition to all of that, one of the things that makes me angry about these ads (besides the blatant victim-blaming) is that they’re incredibly patronizing. Do they think that women don’t know that they have to be constantly vigilant when we go out at night? Do they think that we haven’t been told time and time again that what we wear, how much we drink, and how we dance can all be used against us if we decide to report a rape? Do they think that we’re not aware that society will blame us at every turn if we dare to file charges? It’s as if they’ve decided to treat us like we’re stupid while shoving the realities of rape culture in our faces instead of working to change that culture.
It’s insult on top of injury.
Ads like this one from the NHS are especially dangerous because they aren’t rape prevention ads; they are rape avoidance ads. They aren’t trying to prevent or stop rape from happening; they are telling you to make sure it happens to the other girl. And that is not ok.
Now, all hope is not lost. There are plenty of ad campaigns that are working to address the actual issues surrounding rape culture.
If anything, I regret that there was no situation in which I felt that I could address issues of consent with my male students. And I regret that I didn’t give my female students the tools with which to discuss these issues with their male friends – that I didn’t encourage them to speak to their male friends about these issues, or to call them out if they were joking about hooking up with drunk girls at parties or their friend who slept with someone who was passed out.
So what do you think? Are these ads victim-blaming and harmful or just realistic?