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What Passes for Prevention in Rape Culture

October 15, 2009

Despite certain popular myths, feminists do not go looking for examples of misogyny; they find us, too often and too easily, as we try to live our lives. They find every woman (and every man too). Feminists, however, have the knowledge to identify it and so to begin the process of changing it—or at least reducing the ability of harmful ideas to spread.

Last week when I went to the Queen’s Student Union to see if the poster sale included anything that would look better in my room than blank walls, I saw on one of the tables the following handout:

Alcohol is the number one Rape Drug. How much have you taken already? Be S*M*A*R*T; sponsored by the Community Safety Unit Northern Ireland Office, Northern Ireland Police Service, and the Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety Alcohol is the number one Rape Drug. How much have you taken already?

Be S*M*A*R*T

sponsored by the Community Safety Unit Northern Ireland Office; Northern Ireland Police Service; and the Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety

To refer to alcohol voluntarily taken as a rape drug distorts the meaning of the phrase by removing the actions and ill-intent of the rapist. In other words, here the phrase no longer refers to a drug given to someone (usually a woman) by someone else (usually a man) to facilitate an assault. Instead, it refers to a drug which leads to rape apparently without any agency on the part of the attacker. It treats rape as if it were a force of nature so that when it happens to a drunk woman it is the fault of the alcohol (and, if she chose to drink it, the woman). This is rape culture in action.

And it only gets worse on the other side:

Many rapes happen when people are drunk

Let’s go through this text piece by piece:

Many rapes happen when people are drunk.
Follow these steps to protect yourself.

Notice that “rapes happen”. It isn’t that rapists sometimes target drunk women. It just happens.

Don’t get so drunk you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is good advice in general, but when it’s part of an overall campaign that puts the responsibility for preventing rape on the potential victims, it simply adds to the victim-blaming.

Don’t go alone to a stranger’s house when you’re drunk. Arrange to meet them when you’re sober.

Given that only about twelve percent of rapes in the UK are committed by a stranger, this advice wouldn’t have any effect on the vast majority of rapes. Its inclusion indicates the extent to which such advice is about regulating women’s choices, behavior, and sexuality.

Don’t accept drink from someone you’ve just met and don’t share drinks. Only leave your drink with someone you trust.

While I do think it’s wise to be wary of strangers bearing drink, it’s worth remembering that the most common perpetrator of rape, according to some studies, is one’s partner, generally a trusted person. Again we have advice that does more to limit women’s behavior than to prevent rape.

Plan how you’re going to get home. Don’t walk home alone or go with someone you’ve just met. Stay with friends or get in a taxi.

Do I need to point to the stats on stranger rape again? If I can’t leave the pub at a time of my choosing (even if my friends want to stay) without spending money on cab fare (which can add up) then I have given up a great deal of freedom.

Be S*M*A*R*T

This acronym is probably what makes me angriest. If you can prevent someone from raping you just by being smart, what does that make women who are raped? And since this handout was produced, in part, by the police what young woman who has survived that is going to feel safe reporting the attack?

Say NO to any sex you don’t want.

Again, this is good advice in general. I would like to see more work done on teaching girls and young women that it is OK to say no. As long as society discourages women from asserting themselves, however, this sort of advice makes things seem simpler than they really are. A better approach would be to teach men only to go forward when their potential partner gives enthusiastic consent.

Make yourself clearly understood.

Placing the onus on women to make sure that their no is understood comes dangerously close to the idea that women are always in a state of consent unless otherwise specified.

Alcohol affects your judgement so watch what you drink.

Great advice. Why not direct it at potential rapists instead?

Rape stays with you for life.

What the Hell is this doing in a list of (questionable) rape prevention tips aimed at potential victims? Is there really any woman who needs to be told just how horrible rape is? Put it in a list aimed at would-be or would-be-repeat rapists. They’re the ones who need to be told.

Take care of each other and don’t go off with someone you’ve just met.

The first half of this is good general advice (though again putting the burden of preventing rape on potential victims and friends of potential victims is problematic); the second half, like so many of the other tip, emphasizes the rare stranger rape.

Overall, this sort of advice does more to limit women’s freedom and to shame rape survivors than it does to prevent rape. Some of these tips even contribute directly to rape culture by erasing the responsibility of the rapist. And it was sitting right there for any young woman who has survived rape, or who will be victimized by a rapist in the future, to see.

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  1. Kellie Turtle permalink
    October 15, 2009 9:27 am

    As a fellow QUB student I am so horrified to see this. Thank you for bringing to our attention. Is anyone organising any way to protest this with the PSNI and the DHSSPS? I think we should be putting together a clear letter critiquing this approach and getting as many students as possible to send it. Elizabeth, let me know if this is happening and I’ll help any way I can.

    I’d take this as just another example of the stupidity and sexism of the powers that be in NI but I noticed it has been taken from a leaflet designed by Sussex police. So I guess we’re not the only ones in the UK who have to put up with this shit.

    One thing I would mention is that I think the criticisms based on stranger rape statistics are probably going to be deemed irrelevant here as the campaign deals only with stranger rape and so they would probably argue it is a targeted campaign and therefore wouldn’t be expected to cover the full breadth of rape incidents.

    I do get conflicted about this issue though as all the things on here are things I tired to do while at Uni. I’m a careful person. I liked hooking up as much as the next person but I have to say I consider it good advise to not go home with people you’ve just met. So on that count, if some women are protected by following this advice then it may have a positive effect. I totally agree however that the messages this kind of stuff give out about how rapes “happen” and who is responsible are awful. I’ll bet it wasn’t accompanied by a leaflet for men about how to not rape women.

  2. Kate permalink
    October 15, 2009 12:04 pm

    This is abso-freaking-lutely awful. I’m American- my university was more subtle about it, but this idea that rape is like a hurricane (If it happens, it’s just Nature, so prepare and protect yourself with these handy tips!) makes me nauseous. Is there anywhere I can write to complain about these posters, like the university administration or local police department?

  3. Anna permalink
    October 15, 2009 1:57 pm

    Along with the others who have posted comments, this makes me absolutely sick. why is rape being put on the victim and not the rapist? I know rapes happen by strangers but for the most part it is by people who are trusted because they think they have consent all the time; and second, girls who are raped aren’t always drunk. Yes, alcohol can affect the way you think but it doesn’t make you so stupid that you want to go get raped or even put yourself in a position to be hurt like that. It is NEVER someone’s choice to get raped so why are people making posters like this one to make those women who have survived rape feel like crap, or that they can’t talk about it because “they let it happen”? There needs to be more posters on supporting those who have survived and information on what to do when in this situation rather than posters like the one above.

  4. October 16, 2009 1:16 am

    This raises the question: where does awareness raising stop and victim blaming start? A tricky issue, indeed.

  5. October 16, 2009 4:47 am

    I just don’t know where to start on this. I’ve never been date-raped or drugged. The three times I was raped were all violent assaults either by someone I’d just recently met or had never known.

    My good friend at work was just raped tonight, and I don’t know how she’s going to handle it.

  6. Kellie Turtle permalink
    October 16, 2009 4:51 am

    OK, I put together a short letter that can be emailed to the minister for the DHSSPS Mr Michael McGimpsey at Copy and paste if you like:

    Dear Mr McGimpsey,

    I am writing in response to the advice leaflet “Alcohol is the number one RAPE DRUG. How much have you taken already?” produced by your department, along with the PSNI and Community Safety Unit, and currently being made available to students in Northern Ireland. There are a number of problems with this leaflet which I would like to make you aware of:

    1. Alcohol is only a rape drug when administered by someone who intends to rape you. You have distorted the meaning here in a way that removes the responsibility of the rapist and puts the burden of blame on the victim.

    2. The tone of this leaflet is overwhelmingly suggesting that women are responsible for not getting raped by being ‘SMART’. Clearly what this infers is that if you do get raped it is because you have been stupid. Given that just a year ago Amnesty International’s research at Queen’s and UU showed that a massive 46% of people thought women were partly responsible for getting themselves raped, should we not be tackling that disgusting attitude rather than perpetuating it? I didn’t see an accompanying leaflet for young male students advising them on how to not rape women. Why is the burden of responsibility on women?

    3. ‘Many rapes happen when people are drunk’ – again this is tantamount to victim blaming. Can I suggest a better alternative may have been ‘Rapists may target drunk women’

    4. ‘Make yourself clearly understood’ – Placing the onus on women to make sure that their ‘no’ is understood comes dangerously close to the idea that women are always in a state of consent unless otherwise specified. For women who do not manage to protest violently the main reason will be paralysing fear. It is unhelpful to perpetuate a shaming approach which suggests they should have been able to stop it. Again, where is the education campaign for young men that reminds them, “No means no”.

    5. A campaign such as this completely ignores the fact that 82% of rapes in the UK are committed by someone the victim knows, rather than a stranger. While I understand this campaign targets stranger rape in particular it is unlikely to make an impact in the situations where women are most at risk and only serves to distract from the real issues of sexual violence in our communities and relationships.

    I hope you will take this challenge on board as it is time we woke up to the reality of rape. There are many groups out there with the expertise to advise future campaigns and it would be SMART to take their advice on board. Can I suggest a campaign such as that led by Rape Crisis Scotland could be implemented in Northern Ireland:


    • October 16, 2009 12:06 pm

      Wow, I can’t believe this poster! It’s wrong in so many ways. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Elizabeth. And thanks for writing out this letter, Kellie. I’m definitely going to send it along to Michael McGimpsey.

  7. Kellie Turtle permalink
    October 16, 2009 5:30 am

    WARNING – point no 5 I got the stat wrong. It’s 88%

    I can’t believe I screwed up on maths…100 – 12 = 82 ????? wtf?


  8. chronicthinker permalink
    October 16, 2009 7:03 am


    I came across this blog post in my tag surfer.

    Thank you for bringing this issue to wider attention, I agree with you about the wording of the handout. In fact I wrote a blog post here:

    a couple of days ago which touched on the same issue from a slightly different perspective. It’s disgraceful that women’ lives are curtailed so much by the rape culture we live in. Victim blaming is one of the major ways that I believe rates of reporting and conviction are hindered.

    Chronic Thinker.

  9. ninjanurse permalink
    October 18, 2009 9:22 am

    Go here for another perspective on rape prevention–

    Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work!

    1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

    2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

    3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

    4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

    5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

    (follow the link for more)

  10. Aaron Aababab permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:06 am

    I quite liked this poster

  11. Aaron Aababab permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:10 am

    oh and to be fair this is only half the story… there is a similar poster targetted at males go to

    • December 1, 2009 8:48 am

      That half of the campaign is excellent. However, it doesn’t change that the other one, and incidentally, the only one I saw in the Student Union is pure victim blaming. Do you mind explaining what you like about it in light of the objections outlined above?

      • Flatufacts permalink
        March 13, 2010 2:38 pm

        The creation of the poster aimed at females is regarding defence against rape, encouraging certain behaviours and awareness and as you say “general good advice”. You see the context of the poster as “rape”. Then evaluate all the messages within this poster under the context that it’s talking about the act of rape itself, thus the victim blaming.

        But this isn’t a solitary poster. It’s a design method of duality, creation of two different posters with two different perspectives of rape, aimed one at the potential victim, and one at the potential perpetrator. You see that the poster is about rape, and all it says is how a woman should stop her self being raped, and take that as is. The purpose of the poster (or context, if you like), is defence against potential perpetrators, hence the focus on just that aspect.

        Yes rape can be prevented by people not raping someone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I agree that “rape happens” creates a certain detachment from the event (that rape is a force of nature, not a horrific crime caused by another person), but encouraging general good advice to protect yourself against rape isn’t a bad thing.

        The poster aimed at males is regarding the discouragement and realization of rape actually is, in that poster they’re doing the very thing you’re criticizing this poster for not doing. The fact that it’s a linked two part advertisement categorically tackling the issue from two different perspectives (again, potential perpetrator/potential victim) completely changes the meaning behind the poster.

        Rape IS committed by people, people do rape other people, pretending otherwise or saying “don’t rape someone” isn’t going to help any potential victim against attack if someone does decide to target them.

  12. March 13, 2010 7:31 pm

    Gee Flatufacts, thanks for telling me that rape does occur. Being a rape survivor myself, I had no clue!

    As to the rest of your points: first off, the poster even if it was intended as part of a two-part campaign, did not appear with that other half. Second, even if it did, that “duality” would still imply shared responsibility, which is inappropriate. Seriously, did you read the original post? The flier doesn’t just give “helpful advice”, it uses a condescending acronym to imply that women can avoid being raped just by being SMART! I’m sure you can see how that isn’t helpful.

    Moreover, as I pointed out in the original post, the kind of advice given here only applies to a very small percentage of this kind of attack so actually, no, it doesn’t help the VAST MAJORITY of people who have been targeted.

    Finally, it’s kinda hard not to see the context of this flier as “rape” given that the word is right there in big pink letters, but perhaps you didn’t see that?

    • Flatufacts permalink
      March 14, 2010 10:21 am

      It’s very easy to be condescending, that entire post reeks of it. There are ways to respond to a clash of perceptions other than than defensive indignance. I never suggested that you didn’t know rape occured.

      There are various reasons the poster didn’t occur with the other half, a two part campaign doesn’t neccesarily have to have the two near each other, else it would be put into a single pamphlet. It’s called a two part campaign for a reason.

      It doesn’t have to share the resopnsibility. The campaign doen’t exist to point fingers at people it gives advice to protect against attack, and awareness to potential perp’s what constitutes rape. This isn’t a bad thing. It never stated that rape is the victims fault for drinking too much, it stated that alcohol, through it’s intoxication effects, increases the risk of rape. Then on the back the advice is still good advice even if it’s aimed at the minority rape cases.

      The “be S*M*A*R*T” slogan is a laughably terrible slogan, I agree with that one. It’s condescending in any context that you put it in, this includes the one aimed at potential perpetrators.

      In regards to it helping a minority of targets, the pamphlet is what it is. It’s like criticizing an advert for telling people to watch out for a speeding bus when it’s more likely to be a car. Even if it’s aimed at a smaller percentage if targets, it’s still there giving good advice.

      The context, or purpose if you will, of the flier isn’t “RAPE, IT’S YOUR FAULT” It’s giving tips on how to minimize or defend against being raped.

      The way the flier is worded it looks like it’s meant to be given out near bars and so on (the SU right?) so it asking how much alcohol has been drank isn’t a random accusation. It isn’t implying that rape is your fault, it’s saying that the risk of rape is greater when you’re inebriated, and when that has your attention, it gives you other advice.

      So yes, “be S*M*A*R*T” is a terrible slogan as a whole, but the fact that it’s a two part campaign cannot be ignored, and you’re determined to do so.


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