Why do the police still tell women that they should avoid getting raped?

woman walking alone

Nobody is really expecting women in Clapham to venture out only in groups, armed with rape alarms and baseball bats. But advice not to walk alone and to be on guard could be doing more harm than good

“Women warned after Gainsborough assault.” “Police warn women walking alone after riverside incident.” “Serial sex attacker strikes again as ninth victim is assaulted and police warn women to be on their guard.” “Police issue warning to women not to walk or travel alone after woman grabbed in latest incident.” “Fugitive rapist: women urged not to walk alone as chilling footage at Manchester airport released.” These headlines represent five cases in the past month alone where UK police have reportedly warned women to adjust their routines or behaviour because of crime in a particular area.

Many people reading these articles would nod approvingly and suggest that this is simply a common sense measure, given the risk. Of course the police are also doing all they can to catch the perpetrator in each case – they aren’t suggesting women should take sole responsibility for dealing with the problem. And yet, how absurd it would seem if we were to apply similar logic to any other type of crime …

“Police warn motorists not to drive after speeding drivers cause crashes in local area.”

“Police warn residents not to have garden sheds made out of wood after spate of arson cases.”

The idea of advising women not to walk or travel alone in an area where there has been a sexual assault might seem straightforward at first glance, but not everybody has the luxury of a car. Many people are dependent on walking, whether for their whole journey or to the nearest bus stop. As simple as it might sound to suggest travelling with a friend or family member, the reality of women’s daily lives means that it would be near-impossible for most to arrange this and keep to their own busy schedules.

Surely, this is obvious. Nobody is really expecting women in Clapham to venture out only in groups of three, armed with rape alarms and baseball bats. So what is the impact of issuing such advice? It starts to suggest to the general public that, specifically in cases of sexual assault, victims should be taking responsibility for their own safety and, implicitly, may be partly to blame if they are attacked.

If you think this is an exaggeration, just look at the first sentence from one of the articles: “Women are being asked to take more care while walking around alone at night after an incident involving a man who reportedly tried to grab a woman on a riverside path.” Imagine reading this sentence as a recent victim of assault, as you deliberate whether or not to report what happened last night when you hurried home from work on your own in the dark.

The way we approach and discuss these topics matters. It has a huge impact. Surveyed in 2014, more than one third of the British public – from whom rape trial juries are drawn – insisted that sexual assault victims bear partial responsibility for their attack if they have been “flirting heavily” beforehand, and more than one quarter believed they are partially responsible if they are drunk. This kind of police advice can only compound such attitudes.

The notion of telling women to take responsibility for their own safety from sexual violence is as old as it is ridiculous; from women-only train carriages (which suggest male violence is inevitable and so women’s behaviour and freedom must be altered and constrained to accommodate it), to police campaigns suggesting it is a victim’s job to try to avoid being raped.

It sends an insidious message, reinforcing attitudes that blame victims and allow perpetrators (cast as a blurry, inevitable evil rather than determined, deliberate criminals) off the hook. And, of course, as women’s campaigners shout ourselves hoarse repeating, such advice makes no logical sense. Women of all ages are raped in a huge variety of places wearing all sorts of clothing. We know that around 90% of rapes are perpetrated by people known to the victim, which blows out of the water any suggestion that women somehow provoke an unplanned attack by drinking alcohol or wearing short skirts.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, these messages are coming from the institutions that are supposed to be tackling criminals, not policing victim behaviour. The past week also saw “banter” about rape between members of the public and the official Merseyside police Twitter account; an exchange that was retweeted nearly 1,000 times. It comes hot on the heels of revelations about officers who left an abusive voicemail on the phone of a woman who had reported domestic abuse, calling her a “fucking slag” and a “bitch”.

Now look back at the recent figures revealing that more than a quarter of all sexual offences (including rape) reported to the police are not even recorded as crimes, and ask yourself how important attitudes towards sexual violence victims are.

This is a desperate situation, and demands active measures such as training at all levels to counteract rape myths and victim-blaming attitudes among those on the frontline of law enforcement. We know that 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year. We know that only around 15% of victims feel able to report to the police. Isn’t it time we started asking why?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Laura Bates, for theguardian.com on Thursday 5th November 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010