Monday, 23 February 2009

asking for it

Towards the end of last year, there was a spate of sex attacks in Bristol. No-one was caught. The local police issued advice on being safe. My daughter came home from school with a leaflet entitled R U Asking 4 It? She was really quite worried about this business. It was not good; fear is not a good thing to feel. And we were both really quite annoyed by the title of that leaflet.

It's a phrase we've all heard before, of course; it is probably used unthinkingly. I remember talking with one of the ABs on board Pride of Bilbao. We were standing in the crew mess at the time. One of the Spanish female crew walked by; she was off-duty, and dressed in her civvies, quite stylishly, as lots of my Spanish colleagues tended to do, and looking good. The AB looked disgustedly at her; his face was quite transformed. "She's asking for it, dressed like that," he said.

And some time later, when I reported an assault upon me, I was told that I'd been asking for it, so that my own (imagined) behaviour became the focus of criticism rather than the (very real) assault, which was ignored.

Perhaps this attitude comes from a world view in which women are predatory creatures, using their wiles to get the better of men and then to ...well, presumably use them or something. I've worked with men who think like that. None considered for a moment that their personal vileness or insanitary habits might make them anything less than irresistible to women. I was reminded of Seth, in Cold Comfort Farm:

You women are all alike! Fussin' over your fal-de-lals to bedaze a man's eyes, aye?
And what you really want is 'is blood, 'is pride, and the 'eart out of 'is body.
And then when you've got 'im, bound up in yer fal-de-lals, and yer softness and he
can't move - 'cause of the longin' that cries in 'is blood, what do ya do then, aye?
Ya eats 'im, same as a hen spider eats a cock spider. But I don't let no women eat me -
I eats them instead. You don't understand what I'm sayin' do ya? - littl' innocent.
I see that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, has been declared 'fit to be considered for release from Broadmoor'. It is proposed that he should go on little outings to re-familiarise him with the routines of everyday life, like buying bus tickets and shopping. He is, according to 'a source close to Sutcliffe', a model patient, and is liked by the staff. This figures, I suppose. At the time that he was committing his series of murders, the police charged with hunting him seemed to feel some kinship with him too; as a West Yorkshire detective, Jim Hobson, said at a press conference in 1979,

He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. That indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need gof medical attention. You have made your point. Give yourself up before another innocent woman dies.
...which appears to indicate that somehow it's OK to hate prostitutes, and to attack them. And which further indicates that the police characterised the women whom Sutcliffe had attacked as being mainly prostitutes. Which they weren't. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were therefore, evidently, asking for it.

I was distantly aware of the Sutcliffe case at the time; what I know of it, I learned from Joan Smith's excellent Misogynies. Two of my friends, living in that part of Yorkshire at the time, were more immediately affected; one remembers the fear and the never going anywhere at night without her mother; the other remembers the murder which took place next to her bus stop. It is safe to say that they do not share the Broadmoor staff's liking for Mr Sutcliffe, and view the prospect of his release with dismay.

Anyway, the Bristol Feminist Network organised a Reclaim The Night demonstration last Friday. It was timed to coincide with the opening of a new Rape Crisis Centre in the city. Here's one of the intentions behind the event, which the BFN puts rather more eloquently than I can:

Educate on safety and respect to prevent sexual violence We need to bust myths and misunderstandings about sexual assault which create a tendency to blame victims, exclude male victims and excuse behaviour such as verbal abuse and domestic violence. This is a human rights issue and needs to be understood in the wider context of abuses of the right to safety, freedom and equality. We need proper rape prevention education made available in schools and communities in our city to encourage more respectful behaviour and attitudes. we all came together on College Green...

...and lit candles...

...and then the samba band struck up and led the several hundred demonstators through the city.

It was very cheerful making. Heck, for one night at least, we reclaimed that night!, by the way, is my friend Annie's take on the night, which gives a more detailed account of the march