Thursday 31 July 2008

Thursdays in Black re-launch

Today I went to a forum organised by AUSA to mark the re-launch of Thursdays in Black, a campaign that was a Big Deal when I was at university at the end of last century.

The catch-phrase of the campaign has long been "demanding a world without rape and violence" and it seems to me that it's as relevant today as it ever was then. Incremental change is happening, and in many ways it was heartening to see so many people say "It's Not OK" when the story about Tony Veitch broke. But if we want that improvement to keep happening we are going to have to keep up with the demands. Thursdays in Black is one way of keeping the issues visible; by wearing black on Thursdays you stand in solidarity with those who have been victims of violence, and with those who are working to end it.

My speech is after the fold, for those who are interested, although it's probably old stuff to those who have been following the Lisa ad saga (which is what I was asked to talk about). Anyone who is present will notice it isn't exactly what I said, but as it's the first time I've actually written a speech rather than just tried to stick to bullet points I'm relieved I didn't wander more! Thanks to Sophia Blair (Education Vice President) for inviting me, to Sophie Klinger (the Women's Rights Officer) for MCing, and to all those involved in organising the forum for their hospitality. They are intending to set up a Thursdays in Black campaign group at the University of Auckland, so I hope we can feature some of their events and activities here in the future.

Kia ora koutou, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. About a decade ago, when I was at university and involved in AUSA, I used to help out a little with Thursdays in Black and I’m really glad to see it is being re-launched.

Sophia, the Education VP, asked me to speak today about ALAC’s Lisa advert, which a number of us blogging at The Hand Mirror have been pretty concerned about.

For those who aren’t familiar with the ad it shows a young woman having a few drinks with workmates to relax, a few drinks turns into a lot, she dances in a rather uncoordinated fashion in a bar, and finally she almost falls out of the door of the bar, into the stereotypical dark alley, where she is bundled up and carted away by a man we’ve seen watching her earlier. We see her struggle and protest and then the ad fades to black, with the message “it’s not the drinking, it’s how we’re drinking.”

I have three major concerns about the Lisa ad:

1. First up, it perpetuates rape myths – it reinforces the erroneous, yet common, stereotypes that rape happens in dark alleys, and that you are most at risk from an opportunistic stranger. In fact we know that rapists usually know their victims, are often already in an intimate relationship with them, and that rape is most likely to happen in the home of the victim or the rapist. Rape myths are one of the key barriers that survivors of sexual violence face when it comes to reporting the assault to the police, and to seeking support from family and friends, particularly when the person they are accusing is within that circle of family and friends.

2. Secondly the ad also continues the incredibly harmful idea that victims of rape bear some responsibility – the slippery slope that has at root the concept “she was asking for it.” The latest way to say this without explicitly stating it seems to be to use the term “sexual vulnerability” or “putting yourself at risk of harm”.

Here’s an example that my co-blogger Anjum Rahman found in the Waikato Times yesterday, in regard to a rape in Hamilton recently:

Mr Hermann said any sexual assault was horrifying, but the pure callousness of the man's actions had stumped police. "It's not as though she has put herself in a vulnerable position by say, walking home late at night after a few drinks, where you could consider your chances (of being attacked) are higher. You would think a staff member working early on a Sunday morning would be okay ... we're just appalled."

Mr Hermann is a CIB detective sergeant. And what I find appalling is that a member of the police would publicly say this, and send the message that some rape victims are more worthy than others.

3. The third area of concern in relation to the Lisa ad is something that’s only become apparent through the correspondence with ALAC. After initially getting a fob off standard response from Gerard Vaughan the CEO, I sent in a list of questions to him, which the readers of The Hand Mirror helped to draft, and after some time I received a lengthy response, which didn’t answer all the questions, but did shed some significant light on ALAC’s thinking around the conception of the ad.

Here is Mr Vaughan’s response to queries about the brief given to the advertising agency by ALAC:

“The objective of the commercial is behaviour change. Research asked women to identify their single biggest fear about binge drinking. The biggest fear to emerge was sexual vulnerability. We could not ignore this finding given that this consequence was the most likely to engage our female audience and had the potential to reduce the incidence of binge drinking among our female target audience. “

Now I tend to think that if you surveyed any group of women about their fears, rape would be pretty high on the list, regardless of their drinking behaviour. Mr Vaughan also stated that “the end goal is that women like Lisa will drink moderately in the future.”

At first I thought my reading of all this was incorrect. I thought I was being a bit paranoid in interpreting this as basically saying “We found that women fear rape, we want to stop a target group of women from binge drinking, therefore let’s use the fear of rape to scare them into complying.” But that’s how many of the readers of The Hand Mirror took it too.

Putting aside the issue of whether ALAC is being a bit wowser-ish, it does seem a bit like they don’t really care about any collateral damage that their advert might cause. That it might be triggering for women who have been sexually assaulted; that the focus groups they ran where they asked people to talk about the ad in groups of three might have been unsafe environments for women who had been raped and felt at fault because they were drunk; that the ad itself could perpetuate harmful myths about rape and sexual violence, and make life harder for victims. The aim of getting the target group to drink moderately in the future seems to trump any of these concerns.

I could go on and on about this, there are a whole lot of other bits and pieces that worry me about ALAC’s response to criticism of the Lisa ad. And I’m going to shamelessly promote our blog for a moment here – we have a whole category on this, titled The Lisa Advert Chronicles, if you are interested in following the whole saga to date. There’s also an online petition that’s been set up, and a Facebook group, and you can find those at

I’m glad we’ve raised our concerns with ALAC, and I’m particularly glad that the CEO has stated that they will involve organizations like Rape Crisis at an earlier stage of the process next time (this time they only showed them the completed ad a few days before it went to air, when it was too late to change it). I’m considering what we might do next, and whether to try to get the issue up in the media. It’s been a slow process so far, partly because all of us at The Hand Mirror have day jobs which consume much of our time.

But it’s really important that when we see something like this, something that doesn’t help eliminate rape and violence, but actually harms people, that we speak out. Often we are going to run up against the kind of bureaucratic walls that I’ve struck, and it gets frustrating, and it gets depressing. And that’s where we need to work together and support each other.

Because each time we say to an organization like ALAC, this is not OK, you need to think harder about the way you portray sexual violence, hopefully it does start to wash away that mindset that blames victims for the violence they suffer.



Stephanie said...

On behalf of those who couldn't make the speech thanks for putting it online so that we could enjoy your wise words.

Anna said...

This is great, Julie. I think it's crucially important to get out there and promote ideas which challenge rape myths in ways that Jo/anne Average can readily understand. Your speech does a really good job of that.

Anonymous said...

Hey Julie was great to see you there - I was stunned by the turnout!

Julie said...

Thanks for the feedback, I enjoyed the forum a great deal, might have been something about a big group of like-minded people talking openly about important issues, plus I didn't have to change any nappies for a few hours!

Anonymous said...

Good work Julie. Thanks for posting this.