Shared Stories

The NHS Poster that incited Victim-Blaming

Don’t blame the victim

Rebecca Dyer

It’s a common enough story. Girl leaves work party, blind drunk, and attempts to find her way back home. Girl starts talking to some tourists at a bus stop; well, they seem pleasant enough and it helps to pass the time, doesn’t it? Girl is sexually assaulted.

Hopefully, the above scenario is familiar only as an oft-heard story and not through personal experience. I wish I could say the same, but I also know that my story could be a hell of a lot worse. In many ways, I was lucky. I was in a well-lit area, I was able to fight the guy off, despite being outnumbered three to one, and I didn’t suffer any physical violence. But how horrible to view such an event in those terms: to actually see it as good fortune to have not been more seriously assaulted – or even raped.

That happened to me a couple of years ago and I’m over it now. Like I said, it could have been a lot worse. I got myself checked out at a clinic, just in case, and I reported it dutifully to the police. This last task was particularly hard to do, such was my own burdening sense of guilt about what had happened. But I vividly remember waking up two days later and feeling an overwhelming responsibility to do it. After all, how do you stop such men from going out and taking what they want by force if no one ever holds them accountable? I owed it to myself and to every other woman out there, both those who have been – or will be – attacked and those who are “lucky” enough to escape it. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, I thought.

 So I did what I believed was right. The officers who came to my house were pleasant enough. They asked a lot of questions and I answered as honestly as I could, given that my memory was pretty patchy. It wasn’t until the following week, when an aggressive and accusatory detective called me at work, that my resolve weakened. He refused to call me back later, even at my clearly distressed insistence that I was at work and couldn’t talk right then (despite it being after a work party, I told none of my colleagues and turned up the next day as if nothing had happened). He asked me leading questions, finding it strange that I couldn’t really remember it very well and wondering why I had even interacted with these men – almost as if I was lying or trying to cover something up. He refused to believe me when I said walking back to the area would not help jog my memory, something I knew to be the case having walked that very way to work every morning since. So, in the end, I withdrew my complaint. I feel bad about it, but I was feeling pretty bad all over at the time. It was just one more thing that I couldn’t quite handle.

It was the guilt, of course. Yes, I’d been scared and yes, I’d felt stupid and yes, I was angry. But, more than anything, I felt guilt. Horrible, sickening, self-loathing guilt. I felt like I’d cheated on my then boyfriend and that I’d brought it upon myself. The people at the clinic had said quite the opposite and all my friends had been supportive. But the detective had effectively underlined the word ‘guilt’ in my psyche with a big red marker pen. So I gave up, I gave in and got on with my life.

Then I saw this poster – an NHS poster no less, under old Jeremy Hunt. “One in three reported rapes happens… when the victim has been drinking. Alcohol: know your limits.” Accompanied by a photograph of a clearly distressed young woman. I felt sick. I felt angry. But, more than anything else, there it was again: that all-consuming sense of guilt.

It is, as the campaign against this poster states, in complete opposition to advice given elsewhere on the NHS about sexual assault, which states: “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.” This is what I had been led to believe was the official line, but now here was the NHS indulging in a good old-fashioned spate of victim-blaming. It was all the more shocking to me in light of the amazing sexual health workers I had spoken to following my assault, the lovely woman who had listened with wide eyes and said exactly the right things and the lovely man who had sat patiently with me while I cried my eyes out and told me not to blame myself. They didn’t turn around and say, “Well, you shouldn’t have drunk so much, you stupid slut.” But here was a government-endorsed poster saying pretty much that.

I know intellectually, deep down, that it wasn’t my fault. But I know it in that back-of-the-mind kind of way I know a lot of things that seem to run counter to the way I feel or, more accurately, the way this culture sometimes makes me feel. I know it just as I know that I shouldn’t swallow those images of perfect airbrushed women portrayed to me as “the female norm”. I know it just as I know I shouldn’t hate my skin/my body hair/my body/my face. I know, deep down, that these negative feelings are just the result of pressures on women to look, act and be a certain way. And the guilt thing is similar: I know, deep down, that it’s just something else that has been imposed upon me. But just as I still look in the mirror and hate what I see, I still too look back at that December night in London with a deep feeling of personal responsibility, shame and – you guessed it – guilt.

You could argue, of course, that the poster is ‘well-meaning’. It’s only trying to protect people; it’s trying to warn them. Fair point – to an extent. But only to an extent. After all, when was the last time you read a poster that said “Don’t get drunk or you’ll get robbed” or “Don’t get drunk or you’ll get run over”? You haven’t, have you? Because accidents happen and bad people exist and we all know, as rational adults, that the more sober and aware we are the more able we are to look out for such hazards. This poster is not a general safety message directed at the populace about drinking. It’s an entirely gendered and very specific message aimed solely at half of the population, forcing them to take at least partial blame for the actions of a twisted minority.

No one gets assaulted without there being people who are ready to assault. Assault is the fault of the perpetrator and a perpetrator will find a victim if he – and it is usually a “he” – wants to. All the incidentals – how much she’s drunk, whether she knows him, whether they’ve slept together before, whether she’s wearing a so-called “provocative” outfit – are just that: incidentals.

What’s more – and importantly – posters such as this stop people from coming forward. If I’d seen a poster like that on the day I decided to report it, I think it would have made me think twice, just as the detective at the end of the phone made me wish I had. This poster makes a woman say, “Well, I was pretty drunk, I suppose… I guess I’ll leave it. I don’t want to tell them I’d had x, y and z to drink that evening; it will only weaken my story and make me less believable. Put it down to bad judgement.” The crime goes unreported, the perpetrator may well strike again. And, as previously stated, my experience was fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. I can only imagine that the effect of such a message is much worse for a more serious crime.

An NHS spokesperson apparently replied to the campaign against this poster with the comment that the NHS “doesn’t see what the problem is”. And, yeah, I suppose many people would fail to see the problem. My parents, for example, would likely see nothing wrong with it, I’m sure. I never told them I was assaulted. I did, however, tell them when I was mugged because, somehow, that incident seemed like far less my fault. Even though I was just as drunk on that occasion and in a much less safe place, taking a stupid shortcut through a council estate rather than in well-lit central London. But a mugging is just a mugging, right? They happen to men as well as women so, funnily enough, the blame game doesn’t translate quite that far.

Of course, you should protect yourself and try to be sensible. I’m not saying anything different, but I believe that’s just common sense. I fully accept that I have put myself at risk on occasion. But a message such as this one basically suggests that it’s the woman’s responsibility to avoid rape rather than the man’s responsibility not to fucking do it. It suggests that men can’t fucking control themselves, so women had better not make it easy for them. And, to me, that message is just as offensive to men as it is to women. It is, thankfully, only a minority of males who behave in this way and it is those individuals that should be told how not to behave – not women who, last time I checked, were free to drink what they want, wear what they like and walk wherever they need to in order to get themselves home.

I also question the statistic. Most rapes are by people the victim knows, so what is the relevance of alcohol in that scenario? Most of them happen at night too, I would assume, so it’s hardly surprising that the woman has “been drinking” in a society where most people consume alcohol on a near-daily basis, is it? What does “been drinking” even mean anyway? A couple of pints? A glass of wine? An all-night binge? Make a poster that says “90% of all rapes happen when the victim is female” and you’ll be reporting something with almost as much significance. People drink. That’s a separate issue. Rape and sexual assault happens. That’s another issue. Conflating the two helps no one – except perhaps a perpetrator.

Seeing that poster dredged up the guilt, but it also dredged up a lot of feminist ire that I hadn’t accessed since my teenage riot girl days. And it made me remember that it’s right to be angry. It’s right to be angry about rape culture, about instances of being felt up at gigs or on the tube, about the guy across the street who makes me feel increasingly uncomfortable, about being followed home, about all the horrible little experiences that all the women I know and love have had to endure. And it’s right to be angry about what happened to me. It made me feel wretched – and no one has the right to make you feel wretched, no matter how much you’ve had to drink. The last thing any woman needs is for the NHS to do just that.

To see the poster and sign the petition, visit https://www.change.org/petitions/jeremy-hunt-nhs-home-office-remove-all-copies-of-this-poster-and-stop-victim-blaming.

 

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