April 13, 2005

Are you thinking what they're thinking?

Are you thinking what they’re thinking, or are you thinking that they’re not thinking (which is what I’m thinking). Yes, like pretty much everyone else, I’m talking about the Conservative Party poster campaign for the 2005 election. Well, they did ask us what we thought, right? And I thought this was a good point to start a journal on.

I first came across the poster which has attracted the most criticism to date: ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’. Scapegoating immigrants and refugees for social and economic problems and heightening racial tensions in a society where incidents of racially motivated assaults are rife in a cheap ploy to win votes, and suggesting that we should impose a limit on the number of refuges we accept into Britain and turn away people whose lives are in danger, seems both abhorrent and misinformed to me. A poll conducted by MORI showed that on average young people believe the UK takes 31% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers (the actual figure is 1.98%), with only 4% correctly selecting the right figure. (Findings of a MORI poll cited in Indymedia, 13 March 2005). I’ve been partially appeased to see that other people have not restrained themselves from indulging in as spot of spray paint activity to let the Conservative party know exactly what they think: link

However, the poster that is currently infuriating me (partly, I suspect, because it takes longer to unravel and thus can’t so easily be demolished by a witty one liner) is the poster which asks “How would you feel if your daughter was attacked by some bloke on early release?”

Just to start with, why is this poster not asking ‘How would you feel if you were attacked by some bloke on early release?’ Surely it is the actual victim of an assault whose opinion should be solicited. However, the assault victim is treated in this poster not as a subject but as an object of discussion concerning the issue of violence. The use of the word ‘daughter’ rather that ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ in this poster instantly creates the image of a young woman, and given the gendering of the victim is female and the assailant as male, the implication in this context of the word “attacked” is “sexually assaulted” or “raped”: I’d argue that this poster is calculated to appeal to the cultural stereotype of the father worried about the risks his daughter faces from dangerous strange men outside of the safe environment of the home, while women are marginalized and excluded from a debate about something that has happened to them.

The second problem with this campaign is that despite a handful of high profile incidences that have achieved media coverage out of all proportion to their statistical significance, most women are not ‘attacked’ by men they’ve never met before who are on early release but by family members and acquaintances. Women are most likely to be raped by men they know and 50% of attacks involve repeated assaults by the same man. Rape is most likely to take place at home, with only 13% of assaults happening in a public place (Guardian February 25 2005). If the ad campaign thus reflected actual statistics we might be left with the question ‘how would your daughter feel if you attacked her?’

Presumably this is less of a vote winner.

If we can move beyond the fantasy nightmare world the Conservative campaign seeks to create it thus becomes obvious that we are not going to make any significant difference to the number of attacks on women by increasing the length of prison sentences. What might be a starting point would be to actually convict some rapists: Home Office research in 2005 showed that only 5.6% of rape cases reported to the police end with the rapist being convicted in court, a radical fall from the 33% conviction rate in 1977 (discussed in A. Travis, ‘Rape Conviction Rate Falls to an All-Time Low’, Guardian February 25 2005). Moreover, only a small minority of women who experience rape report the attack to the police: these reported cases are estimated by the charity Rape Crisis to amount to only 1 in 5 of the total (see link). To me this state of affairs is summed up neatly by the cartoonist Jacky Fleming in one of her postcard designs.

‘I hear they’re reforming the law to try and get rapists convicted’, comments a woman reading a newspaper.

‘Are they?’ ruminates the other. ‘So soon after the Middle Ages?’

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in the way of tackling violence against women is to tackle the myths and misconceptions that surround rape, assault and domestic violence. Not only do these misconceptions help to stigmatise victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, but they are ingrained within the legal profession and the police, making it virtually impossible for women to secure convictions. Efforts in this direction are being made by Rape Crisis and Refuge with their ‘Truth about Rape’ and ‘Don’t Ignore It’ campaigns which highlight the ways in which society hides, excuses and ignores domestic violence.

However, the scenario brought to mind in the Conservative poster of a young woman attacked by a stranger simply reinforces these very myths – the myth that only young, attractive women get raped, or that rape is worse when it happens to young women; the myth that women are only raped by strangers in dark alley ways, or perhaps more frightening still the myth that rape by acquaintances in the home of the victim or attacker – which accounts for the vast majority of rape cases – are not really rape at all.

So what am I thinking? The Conservative Party have addressed an issue which is desperately in need of attention and reform if violence against women is to be stemmed, but rather than encouraging critical discussion and thinking, they have actually perpetuated the myths that allow large numbers of women to be attacked with little recourse to protection or justice, while their proposed ‘solution’ will do nothing to halt the stem of attacks or improve conviction rates and will only heighten misplaced fears about the danger young women face if they dare to walk outside the home at night on their own (I’ve left aside for the moment the – in my view – flawed argument of the poster that longer prison sentences would solve the problem of violent crime). Moreover, silencing victims by excluding them from the debate about rape and assault seems to me to just reinforce the violence they’ve already experienced.

I feel better just writing this, but I am gettign anxious about May 5th.

‘Incitement to Racial Hatred’, 13 March 2004. View online at:
A. Travis, ‘Rape Conviction Rate Falls to an All-Time Low’, Guardian February 25 2005: view online at:

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