Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Friday, 4 December 2015

Getting Home Safely This Christmas Season Is One Big Mission We Can\'t Get Right

Getting Home Safely This Christmas Season Is One Big Mission We Can't Get Right

The Debrief: We're told to be concerned about our safety, but how can we take safety campaigns seriously when they overwhelmingly don't focus on the cause?

As Christmas nears, we begin to cut loose and celebrate. Replacing the dullness of months’ worth of grey skies with booze and merriment is such a deeply ingrained tradition; it’s existed long before Christ even turned up. Parties, overeating, awkward itchy jumpers, and thick red wine laced with spices have festered over thousands of years to become that old reliable departure from the constant ‘feeling really cold’ and ‘getting a bit mopey’ of winter.

But with all the joy comes an entitlement. On the 25th, we’ll expect a decent roast, crispy-crunchy potatoes, crap TV and steaming gravy. And we’ll feel New Year’s is nothing unless we have literally THE. Best. Night. Ever. As for Christmas parties? The shared sentiment is that this is a last chance saloon, an opportunity to say the things you always wanted to say to an old mate, to get off with a colleague you’ve fancied all year, or just cop off with anyone to make the long stumble home a bit less lonely.

A recent Ann Summers survey found that of office workers, 39% of us have had sex at a Christmas party. This rises amongst those aged 25-34, with 62% of them reporting to have ‘done it’ at the office party. The survey is a self-selecting group of 2,000 people, so it could be worth taking with a pinch of festive salt. But with expectation comes the pressure to get laid at Christmas, and comes with a spike of something sinister at a time when we’re all so lonely in a crowd.

Christmas boozing and sexual assault on the way home have been linked for decades, with the police alerting us to the dangers of women drinking each time their Christmas anti-drinking adverts roll around. As with police warnings following a spate of recent sexual assaults in south London, where a man specifically targeted white women in their mid-twenties, the intention is protective. But as comedian Nadia Kamil put it, if a hit-and-run driver was at large, police wouldn’t tell people to stop driving, they would seek out the perpetrator. Sexual crime is one of the few types of crime – still – where the victim, not the perpetrator, is most frequently asked to change their behaviour.

Over the years, this protectivity has metastasized into embarrassingly misguided police awareness campaigns. In 2006, a poster from the Home Office and the NHS read: ‘One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking’. Only last year, Nottingham Police published a purple poster which showed girls out partying with a caption underneath declaring: ‘Alcohol can make you vulnerable to rape or sexual assault’.

Sussex Police also came under fire earlier this year for showing two grinning girls taking a selfie along with the caption: ‘Which one of your mates is the most vulnerable on a night out? The one you leave behind.’

A representative from the force tells The Debrief that they’ve learned from these mistakes and their Christmas campaign is much-improved: ‘We've worked to ensure we get the right message across, and that's why we're looking for feedback as part of this new campaign’

The new campaign is a series of videos addressing the ‘crimes of opportunity’ that happen around the festive period, including ‘tips on personal safety.’ Any relating to the journey home are yet to be seen.

Report It To Stop it, a campaign from the British Transport Police, is designed to lower our collective tolerance of sexual assault on public transport. However, it has no plans to put out any resources specifically into pre-Christmas awareness campaigns, a representative tells us: ‘It’s business as usual, we have plain-clothes police across our networks and we encourage victims of any level of sexual harassment or assault to come forward.’

Drinkaware confirms to The Debrief that Christmas can be a particularly bad time for drinking and its effects on decision-making. But while their medical advisor, Dr Sarah Jarvis, explains: ‘The more drunk you are, the more likely you are to do something risky or end up in a dangerous situation’, further advice she gives is to ‘Stick with your friends and make sure you leave any venue after a night out in pairs or as a group. It's not just the girls who need to watch out - lone men can be vulnerable too.’

She adds: ‘Plan your journey while you've got a clear head.’ The concern remains with seeing people – regardless of gender – as potential victims, instead of those who are being ‘risky’ creeping on and taking advantage of drunk people. A recent study – done in America – found that over half of sexual assaults committed by men will be after the perpetrator has been drinking. Yet, because one third of women reporting sexual assaults will have been under the influence of alcohol, we keep returning to the idea that if a she’s had a bit to drink (how much is too much?) then she’s somehow complicit.

Bryony Beynon, of anti-street harassment and sexual assault activist group Hollaback, told The Debrief how fed up she is of our tolerance for cheeky licentiousness turning into unwanted sexual advances: ‘Street harassment at Christmas is as predictable as the “grabby” boss at the office party. We all know that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of which routes they took, or whether they put a special app on their phone, so all I want for Christmas is an end to victim-blaming 'personal safety' advice, and a reframing of these issues that finally asks the question, why do so many men feel entitled to behave this way?’

Bryony's Christmas wish has manifested in some police forces' material. Hertfordshire Police has a 'consent is like tea' campaign. Dorset Police has released a series of posters stating ‘Drunk does not mean yes – SEX WITHOUT CONSENT IS RAPE’. It also addresses the fact 90% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, with the slogan: ‘No matter what our relationship…NO means NO’. And West Yorkshire Police has a new campaign with the slogan: ‘Sharing a kiss at Christmas/Walking someone home/Flirting isn’t a crime, rape is!’

As unfamiliar as it is to see potential perpetrators – instead of potential victims – being addressed in personal safety campaigns, these are positive steps in the right direction. However, they’ve got much further to go - apart from anything else, victim-blaming culture is so ingrained, we still do it to ourselves: ‘I shouldn’t really be walking home alone late on a Friday or Saturday night’ said Emma, 25, when she told us how she was followed all the way home by a man who demanded her phone number.

Charley, 27, was also followed home by a man, and found herself just as startled by people ignoring her attempts to get rid of him as her own reaction: ‘He had followed me onto the bus, even though he lived in the opposite direction. He eventually got off, after I loudly told him he was going the wrong way. I don’t know whether it was because I was pissed or that he wasn’t scary. But it doesn’t make it ok to be in my space unwanted.’

Rebuffing someone on the way home isn’t always so easy, though. Robyn, 25, was on her way back to halls when a boy shouted after her: ‘I didn’t want to talk to him, and he wouldn’t leave me alone, so I gave him the finger. He then ran up to me, slammed me against the wall and punched me in the back. He ran off when my halls’ security guard called out to him.'

And victim-blaming culture goes much further than just victims' attittudes; people who are meant to protect them can't recognise the problem: 'The guard was so nonchalant, as if it wasn’t worthy of being shook up about. It was such a “boys will be boys” approach and it didn’t leave me feeling safe.’

One big solution to the tricky journey home is offered by Uber, the private hire taxi firm that takes users door to door. It’s revolutionised so many young women’s nights out as a cheap and relatively safe way of getting home. It’s not that black cabs or minicabs – if registered – aren’t safe, it’s that Uber is cheap enough to be available to people who would have otherwise got the nightbus home.

Uber’s user-friendly interface, accessible as an app, makes it easy to complain if a driver is being creepy or untoward, but with today’s launch of UberPool comes a new dynamic. The idea is to get people doing similar journeys to hop in the car together so as to cut costs; both money-wise, and environmentally. A representative for Uber gave no comment but offered us the UberPool terms and conditions, which include these assurances:  ‘We will only share a rider’s first name with their co-rider and they will always be notified if there is another rider in the car. Rest assured, we’ll never share any personal information beyond a rider’s first name and pickup and drop off locations will never be shown on your co-rider’s receipt.’

That is all worthwhile, but if the co-rider is in a car sitting outside your address as you get out and go to your door, they probably know where you live, receipt or not. Uber do advise people to get in touch with any problems, though, saying: ‘We pride ourselves on offering a safe and reliable way of getting from A to B. Any rider found compromising the safety of any Uber users will be investigated and may be removed from the system.’

It could work really well, but just as we might joke of people finding love on UberPool, another person might feel like an UberPool-facilitated romantic liaison is an entitlement. We’ve seen how Tinder’s amassed with weirdos looking for no strings attached sex, would it be ridiculous to foresee some pricks approaching UberPool with the same priapic gusto?

The environmental gains of UberPool are obvious, but the extent of the losses is uncertain. What is known is Uber is under no pressure to offer us the level of safety that public transport should.

There are other private companies looking to make a profit out of the fear we might have walking home alone at night. Like Robocopp’s Grenade – for men and women – which, when pressed, emits an alarm as loud as an ambulance siren, for 30 seconds. The idea of this, which costs $27.99, is to scare off any attacker. This is just one of many personal safety items intended as an alternative to the more aggressive self defence methods such as pepper spray ($16.99 in America, illegal over here). But as great as the various inventors' intentions are, if none of the profits go towards the promotion of consent awareness campaigns, then here’s just a bunch of people trying to make money off the back of our fears, doing nothing to stem them. And it makes you question whether they really want our lives to be safer or not? It's harder to encapsulate 'don't assault someone' into a product than it is to sell someone a piece of self-defence kit, but someone smart needs to think of an alternative method for stopping sexual assault. Or, they simply need to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a 2010 agreement David Cameron signed, which stipulates that the UK offers a legal framework to stop violence against women. 

While we probably won't be investing in any mace, alarm buzzers or anti-rape condoms for Christmas presents, what we'd really like, instead, is a world where the causes of sexual assault are stopped at their root.

Like this? Then you may also be interested in:

Why Do We Have To Go To Such Lengths To Stay Safe At Night?

5 Apps To Keep You Safe When You Move To A Big City

Facebook On Why 'Safety Checks' Were Activated For Paris But Not Beirut

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Tags: Christmas