Police messaging around alcohol and sexual assault is outdated, according to critics. (Getty Images)
Police messaging around alcohol and sexual assault is outdated, according to critics. (Getty Images)

SocietyJune 14, 2021

Police alcohol advice amounts to victim blaming, say critics

Police messaging around alcohol and sexual assault is outdated, according to critics. (Getty Images)
Police messaging around alcohol and sexual assault is outdated, according to critics. (Getty Images)

While women push back against victim-blaming narratives, NZ Police promote outdated and harmful alcohol messaging. 

New Zealand has come a long way since a university suggested women wear running shoes and carry whistles to evade rapists in 2014. It’s been more than a decade since the Louise Nicholas case, which sparked a commission of inquiry into how police deal with sexual assault cases. In that time, the global #MeToo movement has raised awareness about sexual assault and harassment.

Following the death of backpacker Grace Millane, police and the New Zealand public stood alongside Millane’s family to ensure the man who killed her was held responsible. Sexual assault survivors, and women more generally, are refusing to accept messaging that places the onus on them to feel safe. But the mindset and rhetoric of those tasked with keeping Kiwis safe from assault appears to be lagging.

Until recently, a section on the NZ Police website titled, Alcohol – stay safe when going out, stated: “Excessive drinking can impair your judgment and make it easier for an offender to take advantage of you.” It goes on to say: “Alcohol is the most common drug used to assist sexual assault. Someone could also add a drug to your drink without you knowing, an action called drink spiking. This is rare, but it can happen.”

Police says people can reduce the risk of becoming a victim by doing things like charging their phones before heading out, having a substantial meal before drinking, staying with friends, making a plan for getting home, and having a glass of water between each alcoholic drink.

This police “advice” is calling on young women to be responsible for their potential victimisation from sexual assault. It reinforces victim-blaming rhetorics and what are known as “cautionary tales” veiled under the guise of common sense – think UK police telling women not to go out alone after dark, following the murder of Sarah Everard who was kidnapped and killed by a police officer while walking home along a lit path at night.

Following a recent complaint from Victoria University criminology, sociology and gender studies student Britney Kalin, police updated the page to note “alcohol contributes to social harm in our communities” and that “excessive drinking can impair your judgment, making you vulnerable to committing an offence or becoming a victim of crime”.

Britney Kalin
Britney Kalin is trying to change NZ Police’s alcohol messaging when it comes to sexual assault.

The bulk of Police messaging remained unchanged, reinforcing the pervasive myth that alcohol causes assault, and that those who are raped when drunk are at least partially to blame – something 14% of New Zealand still believes.

Kalin says Police advice was frustrating and distressing. “As a sexual assault victim myself, it is extrememly easy to question your decisions leading up to an assault,” she said. “You are constantly thinking: What could I have done to prevent this? What if I hadn’t made this particular choice? Would the end result still have been the same?”

She has since realised her decisions leading up to the assault have nothing to do with it occurring. “Rather than providing information on how not to get assaulted, (NZ Police) should provide information on why you shouldn’t assault or abuse people,” she says.

The worst part was that police genuinely thought they were being helpful. “It is infuriating, as the police are meant to protect and care for us, and they are taking a victim-blaming approach rather than working to reform the normalisation of rape culture.”

Kalin made her initial complaint in March, alongside a group of peers. Until now, the only correspondence from police was an email saying her complaint had been passed on to the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA).

However, following questions from The Spinoff, police admitted an error had been made.

Both police and the IPCA have since contacted Kalin, with police apologising for the administrative error and informing her of the minor rewording on the page. In a statement to The Spinoff, the IPCA said it had now been notified of the complaint, and would assess the complaint in two-to-four months. Police rejected the assertion the advice placed the onus on victims to keep themselves safe.

In a written statement, community focus prevention manager Inspector Brent Register said the web-based guides and associated documents were intended to help the public keep safe. “These guides aim to provide practical advice to help the public reduce their potential vulnerability. In no way is the content intended to place any blame on victims,” Register said, adding that police took a victim-centric approach.

Police did not respond to questions about when the advice was written, who wrote it, or whether independent experts were consulted. While police refused to accept their alcohol advice contained problematic content, it stands in direct contradiction to its own public messaging on sexual assault and consent. In the page titled, Sexual assault myths and facts, police say alcohol can reduce inhibitions, “but does not remove the responsibility of raping, or justify a victim being raped”.

Victoria University of Wellington criminology lecturer Sarah Monod de Froideville says the stark inconsistencies in police messaging were also present in the wider justice system. For example, a sentencing judge cannot take an offender’s alcohol use into account as a mitigating circumstance at sentencing, but a trial judge (or jury) can take the victim’s alcohol use into account as a mitigating circumstance in the offender’s guilt.

These functions of the justice system contribute to lower reporting and prosecution rates in sexual assault cases. And Monod de Froideville said this contributed to women’s drinking being socially regulated in a way male drinking was not. Meanwhile, rape victims know evidence of drunkenness can undermine their credibility in court. Research from criminologist Jan Jordan found women often lie about their drinking to police so as to be believed – something that can then backfire and expose them as liars. 

Further research found about 40% of victims were intoxicated at the time of the alleged rape, but analysis of police files suggested cases were less likely to be prosecuted if the victim was intoxicated. Where victims were intoxicated, police often expressed doubts about the accuracy of their accounts of the event. The idea that a drunk victim is untrustworthy is particularly worrying, given that significant intoxication means people are unable to legally consent. 

This research also identified at least 10 cases where the file note suggested the victim had been legally unable to consent due to intoxication, but which had been classified by police as “no offence”. New Zealand continues to suffer high rates of sexual assault, rape and gendered violence, but only a small number of those are reported, and an even smaller slice make it to prosecution. Only 1% of all sexual assaults result in a conviction.

Victim-blaming, slut-shaming and harmful rape myths all play a part in allowing these crimes to happen, and in perpetrators evading responsibility. Police should be at the forefront of changing the conversation on alcohol and sexual assault, not playing into it.

Kalin is working on another “harsher” complaint, calling on police to withdraw the advice page entirely and change focus. “The amount of people that are now coming out with their sexual abuse stories is saddening, and the NZ Police seem to think victims often could’ve done something to prevent it,” she said.

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