THE BLOG

The Home Office Poster That Tells Us: 'Rape Happens When the Victim Has Been Drinking'

04/08/2014 10:22 BST | Updated 01/10/2014 10:59 BST

2014-08-01-posterphoto.png

By yesterday, a petition drawing attention to this poster had reached nearly 75,000 signatures. A photograph of it had been retweeted 55 times, and it had been written about in the Daily Mail, Huffington Post UK, Cosmopolitan and Closer magazine.

Across all of these mediums, it was accused of "victim blaming", "betraying the trust of thousands affected every year" by sexual violence, and of "threatening" those who drink with "rape by implication."

But at the time of writing, the Home Office - who had originally designed and produced the poster - said they would not be preparing a statement on the matter.

Last week, when I spoke to a Home Office spokeswoman about it, she said it was "a complete non-story." The posters had been used as part of an alcohol awareness campaign from 2005 to 2007, and she told me they had not been produced since then.

But when I showed my friend Charlene the poster, it took her back seven years, because she remembered seeing it used as part of the 'Know Your Limits' alcohol campaign.

She said: "It feels like a reverse rape conviction, because its message is that if alcohol was involved then it's your fault. It's basically a rape threat coming straight from the Home Office."

The image is of a woman lying on the floor, with her clothes dishevelled, her hand between her legs, grabbing hold of her hair, with a facial expression that's quite difficult to decipher - at first glance it looks like she's laughing, but look closer and it could be interpreted as being in distress.

Notice that the only three verbs in the sentence give you the message quickly and clearly: "reported", "rapes", "drinking".

In fact, take away the statistic "1 in 3″ at the beginning of the sentence, and it actually reads: "Reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking."

A fortnight ago this poster was spotted in Byron House, an occupational health clinic in Nottinghamshire.

It was noticed by Tracy, who had been off work for over a week due to health reasons, and was at the clinic to prepare the paperwork for a health check.

"Before I could go back to my job, I had to be passed by the occupational health unit," she explained.

"But as soon as I walked through the door, I noticed this poster. It was a black poster in a very prominent position, in the middle of lots of white posters.

"I immediately felt extremely uncomfortable and I wanted to say something to them about it. But I felt I couldn't because they held my job in their hands."

Tracy said nothing, but she did take a photograph and tweeted it from her Twitter handle @tracytruffles, to the campaigning organisation Ending Victimisation and Blame. Soon, it had attracted attention on social media and within 24 hours the unit had removed the poster.

Yet, to some extent, its damage had already been done. It caught Tracy "off guard" as soon as she walked through the door, left her feeling "vulnerable", and had probably had the same effect on dozens of other women before her.

More than anything, it had taken her power away, because she felt unable to speak out against it.

"I was worried they would say I was emotionally unfit if I complained. I thought they may decide my reaction was over the top, because on my medical records it says I have experienced anxiety due to sexual assault."

In the case of my friend Charlene, the poster resonated on a very personal level. A few years ago she went to the pub for a drink with a friend she grew up with. He drugged her drink, and then raped her.

But for over a year she didn't tell anyone, because she felt she had been "partly to blame for drinking in the first place."

She continued: "I felt that way because of things like this, that's why I didn't tell anyone, that's why he got away with it. Because I was constantly fed a subtle message.

"It's being fed to us straight from the top - from the NHS and from the Home Office - these are two major British institutions that people trust. If they are making us guilty of rape before it's even happened, is it any wonder the conviction rate in courts is so appalling?

"I had one drink, I'm not a big drinker and it wouldn't matter if I was, but because of that one drink I knew I would get the blame. So, I didn't say anything. This message had done its job and invalidated me.

"It might as well say 'Know Your Place' rather than 'Know Your Limits.'

A spokeswoman for Nottinghamshire County Council said the poster had been removed "in recognition of the distress it had unintentionally caused."