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Catherine Marcus: No, Laurie Penny, the head of Hastings Police knows what she’s talking about

CMCatherine Marcus is a writer.

How astonishing to see Heather Keating, the head of Hastings Police, taken to task by Laurie Penny for writing, “It’s always sad to see young women become victims of sexual offences,” on her Twitter feed, followed by a gender-neutral suggestion not to drink too much on New Year’s Eve, lest anyone regret their actions.

Perhaps it’s Keating’s experience as a senior police officer that allows her to speak with degree of confidence and experience about sexual assault, and the factors which can encourage and exacerbate attacks on young women. One can only imagine how painful it must be to attend such assaults at the frontline of policing, but she will know exactly what that’s like, having done it before, again and again, as a woman, with a particular sensitivity to the violation which has taken place.

I bet she wishes she could prevent such assaults, wave a magic wand, make the world a perfect place where “no” means “no”, and everyone waits to be granted permission to progress to the next stage of a sexual relationship. But, as a police officer, she’ll be aware of the fact that sometimes things just don’t work like that. Sometimes a refusal goes ignored, sometimes things go too far, maybe he’s not such a nice guy and then you find yourself cold and alone, violated, your illusions about a world that is safe and kind shattered like broken glass on the floor.

Penny’s assertion that Heather Keating’s tweet could be (tenuously) linked to rape apologists like Todd Akin and George Galloway was followed by a direct accusation of “structural” sexism (as opposed to the sweaty-palmed, wage-suppressing, opportunity-denying regular kind?). Penny suggests that by showing care and cautioning against the dangers of getting blind drunk on a night out, Keating’s is the voice that tells us that we will only be safe “if only we stay home and keep our legs closed and our eyes lowered”. Well, if that’s the case, I don’t think anyone’s paying a blind bit of notice, judging from what goes on along any high street, on any night, across the UK.

The fact that we live in a country where rape laws are strictly enforced, where women are encouraged to bring their assailants to justice and where we are safe to walk down any high street in any town, at any time of night, wearing pretty much anything we like, is a testament to Britain’s fairness, freedom and civility. The responsibility for rape falls with the assailant, and this is the law of the land that Heather Keating has sworn to uphold and protect.

It took one girl in India, travelling from the cinema with her male companion, now cold, dead, her body ripped apart in ways that make us shudder to contemplate, to prove that we live in a society which has escaped those terrifying levels of sexual violence. And, as such, the words of Heather Keating — who upholds and defends that freedom every day; whose job it is to protect and help those unfortunate enough to fall victim to rape, sexual assault and violence; who knows the evil man can do because she’s stared it in the eye too many times to count — carry weight and should not be equated with apology for rape, sexism or paternalism.

So you know what, Laurie? When Heather Keating gets to tell women to take care, I pay attention, because she means it.


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