Sexual Assault and Alcohol: It's Not Common Sense, It's Not True, and It's Not Helping

Blogger and "media personality" Mia Freedman was making waves at her blog again this week and as much as I dislike responding, I kind of felt I had to. See, she's said that when her daughter is old, enough, she'll advise her to reduce her alcohol consumption in order to avoid the risk of sexual assault. Now, I'm not suggesting that Ms Freedman courts controversy just to get page views, heavens no, but in this case she seems to have seen the controversy coming. This isn't victim blaming, she insists, it's just common sense to tell women how to reduce their risk of sexual assault. Well, maybe it would be good advice - if any of it were true.

The statistics Ms Freedman cites actually show that females' risk of sexual assault peaks between the ages of 10-14 - an age which girls are highly unlikely to be binge drinking. The AMA information paper on risky drinking shows that drinking actually increases throughout the lifespan - as the risk of sexual assault goes down. Lacking evidence on a general correlation, is there any evidence of links in individual assaults? To quote Ms Freedman:

“Victims of sexual assault were more likely to believe alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to the most recent incident they experienced if the offender was a friend (76%). This was significantly higher than the overall proportion of victims of physical assault who believed alcohol and/or any other substance contributed to their most recent incident (59%)." 

Hang on a minute. Let's read that again. So we're not saying that the victim was drinking, merely that alcohol contributed to the assault? It's got nothing to do with whether the victim was drinking or not; what is true is that crimes are far more likely to be committed by people who've been drinking.

Are women responsible for not only their own drinking behaviour but the behaviour of those around them? Because let's be honest, anything that's labelled common sense is a value judgement, and the "common sense" advice given to women to reduce their risk of sexual assault - don't travel late at night, stick to well-lit paths, don't drink to excess - sounds suspiciously like the advice given on how to be a "good girl" in the 1950s. If a woman defies the notions of subservient femininity to venture into the dangerous masculine domain of the night, she has to expect that bad things will happen to her. Are we really saying that the temptation for men to rape is so strong that it's up to women to police and guard it? It's hard not to draw an uneasy comparison between Mia Freedman and Sheik al-Hilaly, he of the uncovered meat. When Mia Freedman writes ‘teaching girls how to reduce their risk of sexual assault is not the same as victim blaming’, she ignores that it is still placing responsibility for the prevention into the hands of the victim. It’s corollary is that if you had the information available that would have enabled you to reduce the risk of assault, ignored it, and were assaulted, at least some of the blame must fall to you for failing to heed the advice.

And there's another very good reason for coming to recognise these "common sense safety tips" are rubbish  - they don't work. The same tired advice has been handed out for the last several decades, and it has done nothing at all to reduce the proportion of women who report being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In fact this "advice" is worse than useless - it actually has a deterrent effect on women reporting sexual assault, fearing being asked why they didn't follow this "common sense" advice. Why were you walking back from the train station at night? Why didn't you call for a taxi? If you were just watching movies together, why did you have so much to drink you fell asleep on his sofa? Don't you think this might just be partly your own stupid fault?

It's very easy to have an idealistic view of the world - that you can't stop rapists from raping, so just follow these common sense tips to help stay safe. But they don't work. They're not helping - as well as discouraging victims from reporting assaults to police, it also perpetuates myths about sexual assault amongst the readers these clickbait articles bring in. And all this victim blaming - whether you want to call it that or not - is taking time we should be spending talking about sexual ethics, education, and ways to reduce sexual assault that might actually work.