‘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.