For the last time: If you're being harassed on Facebook, or on the streets, it's not your fault

A tweet from GMP Salford gave a textbook example of victim blaming
  • @anne_l_kershaw

Mid afternoon yesterday a retweet popped up in my feed from a post by GMP Salford Central. It read “POLICE NOTICE if you are being ‘Harassed’ on facebook please follow these instructions: 1. Close your facebook account”. (Note the interesting use of inverted commas).

My initial response was “eek, victim blaming!” but I presumed rule 1 was an emergency, get-yourself-out-of-danger card, surely to be followed with: report the perpetrator, see here for internet safety advice, or something actually useful.

Nope. There were no further points. Greater Manchester Police Salford Central were simply perpetuating the notion that if you're being harassed online, get off the internet. It doesn't take too many steps of the imagination to then conclude that if you're being harassed on the street, you should stay in. Before you know it we've left the internet to abusers and streets to aggressors. We find ourselves living in a Grimm fairy tale - cooped inside a castle.

By this morning GMP Salford’s tweet had been retweeted almost 4000 times. A follow-up has been issued to apologise, and the original deleted.

Before the police thought twice, however, there were numerous outraged replies. One person responded: “Straight out the ‘if you don’t want rape, don’t wear attractive clothing’ logic book.” This ignited many “don’t be ridiculous” responses: how can you possibly compare internet harassment with rape? And yet you can.

The issue here is focus and language. In one tweet the impression was given that the response to an attack is to limit the victim’s liberties. There is no focus whatsoever on the perpetrator. They are free to slink away. And while many people recognised the outrageousness of this, some also agreed.

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Two weeks earlier, as reported in the Manchester Evening News, GM Police issued an alert following a spate of sexual assaults in the Withington area. The alert read: “Officers are warning women, especially joggers, to be vigilant and not to go out alone where possible.” And Det. Sgt Doug Cowan said: “The purpose of this appeal is not to alarm people but to alert women of the risks posed to them and to be on their guard.”

So, the police don’t wish to alarm the community that a sexual predator is prowling their streets. Instead, they simply alert ‘women’; this is their issue, watch out ladies!

Before you even look at the practicalities – for women to pair up or be chaperoned to go to work, nip for milk, even maybe go for a run – the issues of gender divide here are immense. By not alarming people, but alerting women, GM Police perpetuate the notion that sexual harassment and gender violence is a woman’s issue exclusively. Yes, there’s sense in making sure women are made aware of a potential threat – but by encouraging them alone to be on guard the police excluded men from connecting with, understanding, or dealing with the issue. Surely the police should have alerted the community - men and women - to look out for each other and the offender.

Yesterday Everyday Sexism requested a response to the Facebook harassment tweet from Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan. As national police lead on stalking and harassment, he was an ideal person to request action from. Shewan responded in less than 140 characters, saying: “No we do not advise victims of Facebook harassment to close account. Need to empower victims not isolate.”

That just about sums this whole debate up.