No matter how drunk, don’t blame the victim

Copyright NHS

Copyright NHS

‘One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking.’

This is the message of a poster being circulated by the NHS as part of the Home Office’s ‘Know Your Limits’ campaign. It has been criticised widely as perpetuating what is known as victim-blaming, a big problem in how rape is treated in our society and worldwide. A change.org petition is running to have the poster removed.

Victim-blaming is when a rape victim is held responsible, whether partially or totally, for their rape. It covers a variety of behaviours: a victim is often asked what they were wearing, and whether they were dressed ‘promiscuously’, a definition that includes an outfit standard for a night out. Usually responsibility is assigned if they are deemed to have ‘led him on’, by talking, flirting, or doing any sexual acts prior to the rape. Often, as here, whether or not the victim was drunk seems to play a part in deciding who is to blame. There are many other potential factors, but the ultimate problem with any of these considerations is their effect. They promote the idea that clothing, behaviour, drunkenness or anything else can negate a person’s lack of consent.

This is at odds with the way any other crime is viewed. A useful simile is that of a hate crime. If a member of a minority is assaulted on a night out, nobody condemns them for being drunk, interacting with their assailants, or making themselves a target by displaying what makes them a minority, such as their faith or sexuality. The responsibility for a crime starts and ends with the perpetrator, and rape is no exception.

The statistic also overlooks the fact that a victim may have been plied with alcohol beforehand. Rapists target drunk people because their ability to reason is impaired and they feel less at risk, and so can be persuaded to drink more. Furthermore, the statistic seems to include people whose drinks have been spiked.

The law on alcohol and sex is clear: a drunk person cannot consent. The definition of drunkenness includes that reasoning is impaired, and it’s common knowledge that drunk people make choices that may put themselves at risk. However, if someone is exploited, they are not to blame.

The poster is trying to highlight that alcohol makes you vulnerable, and one of the things it makes you vulnerable to is rape. But this is because rapists look for vulnerable targets, and not because a vulnerable target invites a rapist. It’s believed that as many as 90% of rapes are never reported, and much of that is because it’s common for a rape victim to feel as though they are to blame. What the Home Office, the NHS, and society in general should be saying is the opposite: alcohol is irrelevant, and rape is always the rapist’s fault.

3 comments

  1. “The law on alcohol and sex is clear: a drunk person cannot consent.”

    I have to take issue with this comment you have made.
    You are misrepresenting the way the law functions regarding alcohol and sex. The term ‘drunk’ is synonymous with the term ‘intoxication’. It is this second word that is the subject of examination in the law. An intoxicated person is able to consent to sex under the law. What is examined is the degree of intoxication of the person concerned, whether their intoxication was achieved through the voluntary consumption of alcohol (or other drugs) and whether there is evidence of reasonable belief (on the part of a possible defendant) that the person consented.
    An intoxicated person has the capacity to consent to sex under the law providing they are not intoxicated to the extent whereby they could be deemed incapable of consenting – the relative facts and circumstances being decided by reference to the context of the individual case in question (this generally involves evidence from third parties). Generally, case law states that a person who has consumed a ‘substantial amount’ of alcohol can consent and that consensual sex with that person would not be rape.
    The law works on the basis of case law, not the strict letter of formal Acts of Parliament – I assume you were referring to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 when you made your comment.
    You are being ambiguous in how you are addressing the subject and your article leaves the impression that drunk sex between people (the kind that goes on up and down the country in towns and cities every weekend) is rape. It is not and the practice of the law does not recognise it as such, especially when the voluntary consumption of alcohol/drugs is concerned.
    This is all covered in the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines concerning rape and sexual offenses, that are linked below. Reference to it should have been included in your article for the purposes of clarity, since it represents the manner in which the criminal law operates – very important considering that criminal offenses are being discussed.
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/rape_and_sexual_offences/consent/

    Reply Report

    • 17 Aug ’14 at 10:30 pm

      Kate Marshall

      Thank you for the point. I am not a law student and was not aware of the CPS resource available. I hope that readers of the article will understand ‘drunk’ to mean as it is clearly intended. Language around drunkenness is difficult, usually informal and inspecific. The rest of the paragraph, and the article as a whole, thankfully stands.

      Reply Report

    • 17 Aug ’14 at 10:30 pm

      Kate Marshall

      Thank you for the point. I am not a law student and was not aware of the CPS resource available. I hope that readers of the article will understand ‘drunk’ to mean as it is clearly intended; language around drunkenness is difficult, usually informal and inspecific. The rest of the paragraph, and the article as a whole, thankfully stands.

      Reply Report

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