[This is a guest post from John Wenz. Trigger warning for rape culture, victim-blaming.]
Last week, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board released a series of anti-binge drinking advertisements. There is one aimed at men, the background of which is an image of the flashing lights of a police car. In a descending list, you have “Punches … In a Fight … Call the Cops … In cuffs … Arrested … See What Could Happen When Your Friends Drink Too Much.” Because if there’s one thing that drunk dudes do it’s fight and get arrested for battery charges, am I right? Of course there is a female companion ad. It is a graphic image of a woman’s legs on a tile floor, teal underwear around her ankles. It reads “His place … wasted … bathroom … passed out … date rape … See What Could Happen When Your Friends Drink Too Much.”
These advertisements are part of a campaign for ControlTonight.com, which tries to get people to watch what they drink and how much. The site itself is set up in with a few vignette stories on timelines, tracking the night as it progresses. Though the offending story has since been removed from the site, it went as follows: “Anne’s” story begins at 3:19 a.m., saying “Sexual Assault: That’s what Anne’s attorney will call it a month from now. She said no, but he kept going. And now, your friend is on his bathroom floor, bruised and victimized.” And then it goes back to the beginning of the night, and the skeevy work perv who works with “Anne,” and says “This isn’t Anne’s fault. The man raping her is a pig and a criminal. But Anne was too drunk to make clear decisions and went home with him anyway. Now, half passed out, she’s being forced to have sex, and she’s powerless to stop it.”
Which is certainly sending conflicting signals. “This isn’t Anne’s fault, but …” But it is?
We’ve got two major problems here: One, the initial advertisement using a photo straight out of the Terry Richardson playbook, except this time making it (directly) about rape. And using this provocative imagery to draw people to their site, where the two courses people take in the “Experience another story” option involve two women who drank too much (with an aside about a dude drunk driving to go get more beer.)
This campaign is using a provocative, sexualized image (objectifying the female body by reducing a person to a pair of legs on a tile floor) to tell a tale that plays into the dominant ideas of rape culture. While it pays lip service to telling those who were raped “It’s not your fault,” it pulls the rug out from under them with its victim-blaming. “It’s not her fault but she totally did drink too much and get assaulted, so …” And the production value on the ad is high, as if watching what you drink was a product. Not unlike other companies that use images of female sexuality to push a product. Except in this case, they’re using an image of the female sexuality to threaten with rape those who dare to consume alcohol while female.
In a “field guide”, the PLCB also highlights the “dangers of drinking,” one of which is “The Creep.” “The creep: that weird person you don’t want to have anything to do with, but won’t leave you alone. Staring at you. Following you around. It can be more than just an annoyance—it can be dangerous. But one of the many great things about friendship is friends look out for each other. There are things you can do to keep the creeps where they belong: as far away as possible.”
But not until Tip 3 does it highlight the kind of rape experienced by many victims: “Most sexual assaults are by acquaintances. And in many assaults either the victim, the perpetrator or both are under the influence of alcohol.”
It’s triggering to those who have been in that position and it represents a rape prevention philosophy that says “If nothing else, people are out there to get you, and it is your responsibility to safeguard yourself.” Which is an easy thing to say in a board room, but is harder to apply to reality. In reality, there are guilty feelings, self-hate and self-blame that if you’d gone just one drink less, it wouldn’t have happened or one would’ve been able to fight back more. That something, anything could have prevented it. In cases of acquaintance rape, it is often somebody who has taken advantage of trust.
This advertisement is a cheap, cynical ploy. And it’s transparently so. Like old exploitation movies and cautionary stories like Reefer Madness, it’s buying into a victim blaming mind-set. That this is splayed out all over the web in targeted ads to Pennsylvania viewers — I found it on Salon.com — is disgusting. It blatantly uses the imagery of the underwear to draw people into the campaign.
The responsibility for rape falls on the rapist. Plain and simple. But the PLCB has decided to instead reinforce negative stereotypes about complicity of the victim in rape. Never mind that, at an average bar, a woman (typically a woman) can be seen covering her drink before she goes to the bathroom, because whether it’s her first drink or her fifth drink, there’s a chance she’ll be drugged. And there’s a heavy chance that, if she is drugged, it will be by somebody she knows – not the stereotypical image of the creep that the PLCB is setting forth, but instead by someone who has gained his or her trust. And that, whether it’s the first drink or the fifth drink, their intent has remained the same.
This is the culture we live in, that’s meant to make women afraid at every turn. This is the kind of culture that has never concentrated an effort on teaching the importance of consent. This is what you get when you use sexuality as a tool of fear instead of love. This is the wrong message for state government to be sending to its citizens.
And their response? Well, they took the offending story off their website, but they also have indicated deletion of Facebook comments criticizing the campaign. They’ve also included other heavy-handed tales of moralism – women cheating on their lovers while drunk, or a condom breaking. In other words, the same messaging that puts sexual assault on the same spectrum, just as flippantly. They have offered non-apologies that don’t address the imagery used, stating:
“Thank you for all the feedback. We definitely agree that only the rapist is to blame for a sexual assault. We are also keenly aware of the sensitive and serious nature of this topic”
This after the forces of the Internet brought it to light earlier in the week – including posts on Jezebel and Feministing. And there’s no word on whether the same ad drawing controversy will be pulled from Internet advertisements and other display places now that it’s been distributed – and rightly criticized. It’s unacceptable, and the state needs to offer a formal apology.
[John Wenz is a Nebraska native currently writing in Philadelphia. More of his writing can be found at his blog John Wenz.]