But is this the case? It seems mistaken to assume that offering advice to people as to how they might avoid being attacked is the same as asserting that it is up to them to ensure they aren’t attacked, or suggesting that they are blameworthy if they get attacked. One thing that may be going on here is the elision of causal and moral responsibility.
Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer at the time of his attack on Sarah Everard, and he kidnapped her by falsely ‘arresting’ her for breaking covid regulations. In light of this, the police have encouraged the public to challenge plainclothes officers who approach them. In a much-mocked piece of advice, the force suggested someone who does not feel safe could flag down a bus in order to escape.
It is important to keep causal and moral responsibility distinct. Someone may be causally responsible for an event without being morally responsible. If Sarah has a seizure, during which she strikes Claire, Sarah not blameworthy for bruising Claire since she had no control over her limbs during the seizure. Nonetheless there are things Sarah could have done to avoid injuring Claire, such as not meeting up with Claire, or keeping her distance. There may be things Claire could have done, such as wearing protective foam. But assuming the chance of Sarah having a seizure, or it resulting in injury to Claire, was very low, it was not reasonable to expect either Sarah or Claire to take any of these precautions. Neither of them is blameworthy for the injury that occurred.
Understandably, there has been concern that advice like this places responsibility on victims to take steps in order to avoid being attacked, rather than placing responsibility on those who do the attacking, or on the institutions which fail to prevent or appropriately punish those attacks.
The advice to women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s and Sabina Nessa’s deaths highlighted things they could do in order to reduce their risk of being attacked. Things like walking along well-lit routes and staying alert. We can think of other things women could do to reduce their risk of attack: never leave the house, hire a bodyguard (a team of bodyguards?), cultivate a large and threatening physique. To say that women have some control over their risk is to say they have some causal influence. It isn’t to say that we should reasonably expect women to take these steps, or to say that they are morally responsible – and blameworthy – for being attacked if they choose to go out without a team of bodyguards, or at night time.
“Be assertive. From the moment you step out onto the street in the morning, look assertive and act and walk with confidence. This will always make you appear in control and much less vulnerable.”
Eliding causal and moral responsibility can get us into all sorts of trouble. Undoubtedly there are people who will say women who get attacked on poorly lit paths are partly blameworthy – such people make the mistake of assuming that causal responsibility = moral responsibility. They neglect the fact it is not always reasonable or possible for women to take only well-lit routes; that there should be no obligation or expectation for women to do this. On the flip side, it is wrong to assume malice whenever advice about how to reduce one’s risk of attack is given, and to launch campaigns against those who offer ways to reduce risk on the assumption that providing such advice implies women are blameworthy for being victims.
There are things we could all do to keep ourselves safer and reduce our risk of injury. Any time you drive a car or ride a bicycle you risk being involved in a crash. Playing sports could result in a sprained ankle. Patting a dog could result in getting bitten. But in order to experience any quality of life we have to expose ourselves to some risks. It is far from reckless for people to ride bicycles, play netball or make friends with dogs.
Instead, we should be clear about where causal and moral responsibility lie in cases such as these. Only then will we understand what can be done to reduce such appalling attacks, and what must be done.
Causal responsibility applies when events are causally linked: ‘the bridge collapsed due to the strong wind’ identifies the wind as causally responsible for the bridge’s collapse. Moral responsibility applies when there is some moral agent whose action brought about some event (or whose inaction allowed some event to take pace). So, ‘the bridge collapsed due to the engineer’s neglect’ identifies the engineer as morally responsible for failing to pay appropriate attention to the design and building of the bridge. When someone is morally responsible for an event they are typically blameworthy or praiseworthy as a result (depending on whether it is a good or bad thing).
“Trust your instincts. Try to avoid walking alone at night in places such as parks and side streets or any unfamiliar environment. If you do have to walk, stick to busy places where is a lot of activity CCTV and good lighting.” [sic]
The recent sentencing of Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard, along with the murder of Sabina Nessa last month, has prompted discussion in the UK of the prevalence of violence against women and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has himself criticised the police for failing to take cases of violence against women sufficiently seriously. In particular, there has been outrage at comments made by some regarding steps women can take to ‘keep themselves safe’.
Written by Dr Rebecca Brown
Does this mean we shouldn’t even tell women about the ways they might be able to reduce their risk? For instance, take the advice to stick to well-lit paths. I have no idea how much difference this makes to one’s risk of attack, perhaps none. But say, for a moment, you are much less likely to get attacked if you stick to well lit paths. I would like to know this. I would like my friends to know this. It might not be possible to take a well lit path – I may live in a neighbourhood where the council has failed to install adequate lighting, or I might be in a rush and want to take the quickest route. But if there is an opportunity to easily and significantly reduce one’s risk of attack then it is wrong to deny people that information.
After the attack on Sabina Nessa, a community group shared advice from the Metropolitan Police website on ‘tips for staying safe on the street.’ It included recommendations to: