Belfast Telegraph

Urging young women to stay safe while out at university is simply not victim-blaming

We can't look the other way in the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, says Fionola Meredith

When a woman gets raped, the entire responsibility for that horrific act lies with the rapist. It is never, ever the victim's fault, no matter what she's doing, saying or wearing.

It's important to make that fundamental point entirely clear, right at the start, because what I'm about to say is liable to wilful misinterpretation.

But I'm going to say it, nonetheless, because I think we do young women a disservice when we shy away from reality, for fear of being accused of victim-blaming. And the brutal fact is that drunk women are more vulnerable to sexual assault than sober ones.

It's obvious, really: you're far better at looking after yourself if you have all your faculties about you than if you don't.

Now is the time to be speaking this unsayable truth. The A-level results are just out and later in September thousands of students will be heading off to university for their first taste of personal freedom.

But a survey carried out at Queen's University showed disturbing levels of serious sexual assault in which drink or drugs was a major factor. More than two-thirds of those who reported being assaulted in this way said they had been intoxicated, while almost 60% said the perpetrator was intoxicated.

So we can't look the other way and pretend there's no issue. If your 18-year-old daughter is about to leave home, do you say: "Off you go, dear, and make sure you get completely and utterly wasted at the Freshers' Fair because in the name of equality you're entitled to do what you like and no harm should come to you. You're also completely at liberty to walk back to your halls alone at 3am with one shoe missing. If anything terrible does happen, don't worry about it, because it won't be your fault."

Of course no parent in their right mind would say that. What sort of imbecile would give such advice?

Instead you say something like: "Take care, have fun, stay with your friends if you're out for drinks and make sure you get a taxi home at the end of the night."

Look, I'm not telling young women not to get pie-eyed in public. They are adults and it is entirely their own choice if they want to get royally hammered, every bit as much as it's a young man's choice.

I'm simply saying that, unfortunately, it might put them at more risk of opportunistic attack from predatory men. It's not fair, of course. But it is the reality.

When retiring judge Lindsey Kushner QC made similar remarks earlier this year, she was immediately howled down for victim-blaming and told that she was putting young women off speaking out about being assaulted. But it's worth looking at exactly what Kushner said, because her words were carefully chosen.

She acknowledged that "there is absolutely no excuse and a woman can do with her body what she wants and a man will have to adjust his behaviour accordingly".

But she added that "as a woman judge" it would "be remiss" if she did not plead with women to protect themselves from predatory men who "gravitate'' towards drunken females. She said that women were entitled to "drink themselves into the ground" but their "disinhibited behaviour" could put them in danger.

Judge Kushner spoke as she jailed a man for six years for raping an 18-year-old woman in Manchester. The teenager, Megan Clark, who had taken vodka and lager as well as the party drug amyl nitrate before the attack, later waived her right to anonymity to support what Kushner said.

The American writer Camille Paglia says that mainstream feminism, with its "pie-in-the-sky fantasies about the perfect world", has put young women at risk by hiding the truth about sex from them: "Feminism keeps saying that the sexes are the same. It keeps telling women that they can do anything, go anywhere … No, they can't. Women will always be in sexual danger."

Let me reiterate a final time: if a woman is raped, whether drunk or sober, it is not her fault, it is only the fault of the man who perpetrated this outrage on her. The entire responsibility lies with him. That's not much consolation, however, if you are the victim of an attack. Being morally right, and politically liberated, is not enough.

There is a big difference between the world as it should be and the world as it actually is. And there's nothing wrong with pointing that out and taking some wise precautions.

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