London Police Tell Women Not to Use Headphones Following a String of Sexual Assaults

Illustration for article titled London Police Tell Women Not to Use Headphones Following a String of Sexual Assaults
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After 10 women were assaulted in northwest London over the past nine months, local police are now urging women to not use headphones when they’re out walking alone.

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“I would appeal to women in the local area to take care when they are walking, especially if they are alone,” Metropolitan Police Det Const Laura Avery said, BBC reported. “Always stick to well-lit streets. If possible, let someone know when you are coming home and the route you are taking and always be alert in your surroundings, so don’t use earphones or handheld devices.”

The latest of a string of assaults in London’s Cricklewood neighborhood happened early Sunday, according to the BBC. The woman was reportedly approached by a man who tried to talk to her and then proceeded to sexually assault her. Most of the attacks, which began in February, occurred near the Willesden Green Tube station, happened over the weekend, and began with a man “asking for a kiss or a hug,” the BBC reported.

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Police have cautioned women in the wake of assaults before, and it’s not inherently a bad thing for officials to warn the public of an uptick in local violence. The issue with the Metropolitan Police’s statement after Sunday’s attack in London, though, is the specificity of it. By advising women to avoid wearing headphones or using devices while they’re out, there’s an implication that the burden of not being assaulted is at least partly on women.

Such warnings are not isolated to this latest incident. In October 2015, police in Manchester advised women not to walk alone at night after the release of footage of a rapist in the area. And in March of 2016, a Swedish police chief cautioned single women not to walk alone at night after a litany of assaults. “It is always a consideration whether to go out with this kind of thing or not,” Ostersund police chief Stephen Jerand said, the Telegraph reported. “But we don’t want to sit here for another week and have more crime victims on our desk.” And after the murder of a teenager in Melbourne in 2015, Detective Inspector Mick Hughes told ABC News: “I suggest to people, particularly females, [that] they shouldn’t be alone in parks.”

“These recommendations for public safety that only seem to apply to women are a clear symptom of a gender-unequal society,” Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly told the Guardian in June after a Superintendent in Australia told women to be aware of their surroundings after a comedian was raped and murdered in the region. “Women are already cautious. Telling women to behave more cautiously will not reduce violence against them, but rather will limit their freedom and reinforce the belief that if violence is perpetrated against them, it is their fault.”

[BBC]

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DISCUSSION

Victim blaming is a real and particularly heinous thing, but I’m not sure what the police are supposed to do here. Victim blaming and rape apology are systemic, cultural problems, but what the police are facing here is a specific attacker or group of attackers that aren’t likely to be swayed by slow-changing societal norms.

It’s not like police are telling women to not wear short skirts, or not go out dancing. They are saying to be aware of your surroundings by not wearing headphones if you are walking in certain areas at night. I’m sure this is good advice for everyone, but this/these attackers have been focusing on women, so in the context of these specific attacks, it seems like this warning is...fine?

I understand the context of warnings like this within the larger framework of victim blaming and how they can be problematic, but I’m curious what you think police should do when offering advice here. I guess just avoid using the word woman and say no one should be walking around with headphones in, but wouldn’t everyone know who the message was for anyway?