Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) made a public statement about the messaging in a Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign’s rolemodels ad, which we found shocking and unhelpful in terms of issues around sexual violence. Since then those opposing our viewpoint have not only said we are mistaken in our interpretation of the messaging, that what we saw was not what we should have seen, but indeed despite the campaign’s call for a debate that us raising questions about the messaging was unworthy and somehow damaging to ourselves.
What we saw was an ad portraying a young woman who has returned home from a night out drinking. She is depicted as visibly distressed – something bad happened to her. In isolation that bad thing could be anything. But add the tag line containing the words ‘following’ and ‘footsteps’, and it begins to tap into girls’ and women’s fears of our vulnerability to assault while walking home, drunk and alone, late at night giving an inference of sexual assault. Add the message about ‘consequences’ and ‘role modeling’ and you have an inference of victim-blaming.
As one of the leading specialist bodies on sexual violence in Ireland with an expertise of both how sexual violence is perpetrated and on whom as well as how sexual violence is explained, understood and hidden in our culture, this was what we saw. Having seen that message which we know to be unhelpful and damaging we put out a public statement. The Board of Out of Control responded by saying we should be ashamed of ourselves.
At the time the Board of Stop Out-of-Control Drinking accused me as spokesperson for Rape Crisis Network of ‘wildly’ misunderstanding, making a ‘series of completely inaccurate claims’ and amongst other things, of making ‘entirely unworthy assertions’ – shame on me! Many other commentators weighed in, including Matt Cooper on these pages, echoing the tone of paternalistic censure of the campaign Board and asserting their interpretation of the ad which is at odds with the RCNI’s. The Board also said they would continue to run the ad and the campaign.
Shame is a theme that runs through the ad campaign which we objected to and is also a strong theme in sexual violence. Shame is a powerful and visceral personal feeling which can be used to make people look anew at their behavior. Therefore it can be seen as a useful tool in creating cultural change towards preventing alcohol harm or sexual violence, both of which necessitates naming uncomfortable truths. But naming uncomfortable truths about alcohol harm by promoting shaming and threatening tropes about young women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is not justifiable because the end result of shaming rape survivors is silence and added trauma.
Another way to look at shame is that it helps maintain social order. It is something that those who are outsiders, discriminated against or are in some way different or disadvantaged are often targeted with. Shame for being unemployed, being gay, for being poor, for having different needs because of being differently abled, shame for being Muslim, for being old, shame for being a teenage mother, a ‘working mother’, an addict, a migrant, a victim!
Shame tells us our place in the world or more importantly it tells us when our presence, our actions, choices or our misfortunes are unsettling or burdensome to the status quo. Shame helps keeps us all in our place. Those who feel least shame tend to be the privileged who aren’t generally targeted for lessons in silencing. By extension they are likely to be the last to see or understand the impact of others’ shaming, they simply don’t have the training.
In our culture it is unfortunately commonplace to ascribe shame to victims of sexual violence, and many survivors struggle with those internalized feelings. We often hear survivors’ choices and actions, particularly their choice not to disclose, being described as motivated by shame. This is both disrespectful and underhanded as it makes disclosure all about survivors’ responsibilities and choices and nothing about the context within which they find themselves over which society as a whole has control and responsibility.
The shame we heap on survivors helps us avoid our responsibility to make change happen to make it safer and easier for survivors to break their silence. For if the problem is survivors’ shame then the cure is survivor ‘treatment’ sometimes combined with pressure to ‘do the right thing’. Thus we avoid asking hard questions about garda resourcing, practice and specialization, about our laws and our courts, about our prison and rehabilitation systems, about our risk assessment and monitoring regimes. And for all of us it helps us avoid the questions about how we respond to a loved one or someone in our community disclosing, because each disclosure challenges us to do the right thing and doing the right thing can come with costs.
We also very commonly hear victims’ choices in the immediate run up to being targeted for assault as cause for shame and blame; why did she choose that route home, why did she go home with him, why did she wear such a revealing dress on a Thursday and yes, easily the most popular one in Ireland, why did she get herself so drunk? These shaming questions makes it at least in part her fault and therefore the perpetrator is at least partly off the hook and so are we. This blaming silences victims.
It is vital that we challenge that shaming and silencing of survivors of sexual violence and it is the RCNI’s role to do so.
We challenged the shaming of women and particularly young women made vulnerable by alcohol consumption that was being activated in the Rolemodels ads. The ad depicting two females one upset home from a night out drinking and one in the doorway behind in a nightgown. The upset girl’s misfortune it is inferred was caused by her out of control drinking, any perpetrator is out of the frame.
Let’s clear up one thing, the figure behind in the doorway I presumed to be the young woman’s mother. I was wrong. Out-of-Control have explained it was meant to depict a younger sister. This is a much more plausible interpretation. Of course this makes the messaging even worse than I originally thought.
The Out-of-Control board of 10 men and 5 women (before subsequent resignations), all leaders in their fields with a median age leaning towards the upper end, and some of whom I have worked with and respect for their commitment in their relative fields, tell us that
when they signed off on the ad they did not see the inference that I named. I believe them. The point of course isn’t that they put it there, which I don’t believe they did, the point is that it is there!
Out-of-Control’s public response condemning the RCNI’s statement says that ‘nobody associated with this campaign would tolerate for a minute the inference that victims of sexual assault are ever to blame.’ I believed that too. That inference in the ad has now been pointed out to them by RCNI and a quick glance at social media can confirm that it is one many others also take from the ad. Yet their response in turn has been to defend the ad and state they will continue to run it despite RCNI’s ‘unworthy’ interjection. This is perhaps explained in the next line of their statement which says, we ‘would never allow [my emphasis] any untrue inference of that kind.’
The reading I or anyone takes from the ad is, I’m afraid, not in their power to allow or disallow. With respect to the audience the unpalatable, albeit unintended, inference that many take from this ad is such that it should at least be deserving of reflection.
RCNI Acting Executive Director