Meet Kate – her face was plastered all over campus on what she thought was an anti-rape campaign, and now she’s speaking out
When Kate Wilson, 22, found out that her picture had been used on a poster made by the student union at the University of Kent, she thought it was part of a rape awareness campaign. The picture showed her standing alone and leaning against a column in a car park.
But as Kate took in the caption, she realized that her image was being used to promote one of the biggest student events of the year: Party in the Car Park. The words ‘Someone will lose their friends,’ covered her face, the implication: it was going to be a wild night.
For Kate, it implied much more: “I was made uncomfortable by the fact that this poster could be interpreted as, ‘come to this party, there will be drunk and vulnerable girls that you can abuse at your will!’”
Kate contacted Cuntry Living, Oxford University’s feminist magazine on Facebook. She found that people in the group agreed with her interpretation of the poster. It even started a fierce discussion on Twitter. Hundreds of people accused Kent Union of everyday sexism and perpetuating a rape culture.
The poster seems to lure men with the implied promise of a potential hook-up.
“The phrase ‘someone will lose their friends’ means little without the image. Neither does the image without the words. But together, and in the ‘party in the car park’ context, one meaning is clearly that this young woman will be available, that without her friends she’s ‘fair game’ (i.e. her fault if anything happens), and there is no condemnation of (some) men’s implied and ‘proposed’ behavior here,” said Jane Sunderland, a linguistics and gender professor at Lancaster University.
On campuses, the perpetuation of rape culture has been a major concern. Both in the UK and the US, one in four women have experienced unwanted sexual attention in a university environment. Fifty five percent of rape cases occur when a woman had been drinking or taking drugs, according to One in Four, a non-profit organization for the prevention of rape. Almost two thirds of women have experienced verbal or non-verbal abuse on a night out, which can range from groping to suggestive comments.
And the poster of Kate shows that unwanted sexual attention is not recognized as a threatening experience for a woman on a night out.
Like many, Kate is confused about how the poster could pass a long review process. “This went through stages of creation and nobody looked at it and thought this might make women feel unsafe,” she says. “That no one in the production team saw this speaks to rape culture, because people don’t appreciate the threat of rape to women.”
But online, many argued there was nothing ‘rapey’ in the poster. “I don’t look at a picture of a vulnerable girl and think rape,” one unnamed person commented. “Anyone who looks at this advert and thinks rape is a bit sick in the head as far as I’m concerned.”
And that is the point. There are people out there who look for vulnerable women and take advantage of them and this is not “normal” behaviour, but it happens more often than we would like to think. Even worse, people don’t recognize that this isn’t normal behaviour when they see it happen. Studies show that both victims and perpetrators can struggle to define ‘rape’. They are hesitant to call an assault rape when they are acquainted or when an assault happens in the context of a party.
The discussion around the poster produced by Kent Union reflects how situations that may be threatening to women are not socially recognized.
“Just because this poster clearly didn’t intend to remind predators that we’re ‘easier to get at when we’re alone’, doesn’t mean that didn’t.” said Kate. “People can’t speak for the effect that it has on women or say that it’s not that big a deal when more than 100 women are telling them that it makes them uncomfortable.”
After being bombarded with tweets, Kent Union finally removed the poster. They also issued an apology saying, “It was never our intention for the poster and its message to be interpreted in this way.” But Kate and many others were not happy with their choice of words.
“The thing that rubbed people the wrong way – me included – was when they issued a statement and it was a faux-pology. It was a ‘we’re sorry that we offended people’ and obviously that, in and of itself, isn’t an apology. It’s not saying ‘sorry for what we did.’ It’s a pointed difference in responsibility taking,” said Kate.
Manon Verchot is a freelance journalist and alumnus of the University of Kent, 2013.