Rape on a busy street in Birmingham – why did no one intervene?

Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2015

It is an extraordinary piece of film: a man in a red t-shirt and jeans crosses a road, nonchalantly carrying a near-unconscious woman in his arms. At one point he almost drops her, heaving her upwards as though he’s holding a sack of potatoes. He’s purposeful and intent, and doesn’t look remotely like a Good Samaritan. Moments later, out of sight of the CCTV cameras, the woman is raped.

The incident happened in Birmingham city centre last October but the video has just been released by West Midlands Police, with the victim’s agreement. ‘She hopes that these new images may jog someone’s memory and that their call may make the difference to her attacker being caught or left to roam the streets’, explained Detective Constable Danette Calvey. ‘I implore people to take a good look at the CCTV and focus on the man.’

Allowing the CCTV images to be publicised was a brave thing for the victim to do, not least because seeing herself in such circumstances can only have been extremely distressing. She may also have been aware that the public is not always sympathetic to victims of serious sexual assaults, especially in cases where they have been drinking. Sure enough, some people who viewed the footage apparently thought it more important to focus on her behaviour than that of the man who scooped her off the street in the early hours of a Sunday morning.

We hear these frankly inhuman responses time and time again. But this video demonstrates vividly that ‘why did she allow herself to become so vulnerable?’ is always the wrong question. The incident happened at 4am when people were leaving nearby bars and clubs, not in an isolated country lane; the police wouldn’t have decided to release the images if they didn’t believe that members of the public were in the area and might have seen something. It’s clear even from the slightly indistinct CCTV images that the man was carrying the young woman without any concern for her welfare.

The question of intervention is at the forefront of all our minds after three young Americans, a Frenchman and a British man disarmed a man with an AK-47 on a train travelling through Belgium last week. Obviously it’s easier to recognise malicious intent when someone is carrying a weapon, but surely the sight of a man hurrying across the road with a near-unconscious woman in his arms should ring alarm bells? He doesn’t look like a paramedic, so why did no one challenge him? At the very least, where was he taking her?

The woman who was attacked is 25 years old, which means she belongs in exactly the age group (16 to 34-year-olds) which is most often targeted by sex attackers. Her age, combined with her obvious helplessness – at one point in the CCTV footage, her left arms trails down – should have been grounds for unease.

But research published earlier this year shows that more than a quarter of the public believe that women who are drunk at the time of an assault are at least partly responsible for what happens to them. The research, published by the Office for National Statistics, showed that teenagers and the 55 to 59 age group are less likely to be sympathetic to victims of sex attacks who have been drinking. Bizarrely, among these censorious people, a woman who has committed no crime is held to a much greater level of personal responsibility than the man who takes advantage of her vulnerable condition.

The same people often display a fuzzy and outdated grasp of the meaning of consent. Even though the law is clear that a woman incapacitated by alcohol cannot agree to sex, they persist in claiming it is an issue even in cases where the victim couldn’t possibly give meaningful consent. No sensible person viewing the CCTV footage of the Birmingham incident could imagine that the woman was in a state to agree to anything, which is another reason why the brazenness of her alleged attacker is so shocking.

It has been clear for some time that public attitudes towards sexual violence lag behind those of people working with victims and in the criminal justice system. The latter know that rapists are often both organised and opportunistic, deliberately seeking out places where they are likely to encounter vulnerable women. Far from acting on a momentary surge of lust, they plan ahead and know exactly what they are doing. Mistaken ideas about rape work to their advantage.

What’s highly unusual about this assault is that the moments immediately beforehand were captured by CCTV cameras. The police hope the footage will help catch the alleged attacker, but it should change public attitudes as well. A young woman who’s been drinking heavily is vulnerable and needs protection, not cruel comments from strangers.


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