Broken heart - valentine's day article

February 28, 2019, by Kate

Valentine’s day and sexual assault- the Forensic Psychologist as an expert commentator

This post was authored by staff at the Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology, University of Nottingham. An experienced psychologist discusses his thoughts of being asked to provide an expert opinion on the relationship between Valentine’s day and sexual assault.

Valentine’s day and sexual assault

As your career develops as a Forensic Psychologist you may be asked for your views and opinions. You might be asked to provide a book chapter or maybe something for a journalist. That’s very positive; someone thinks that our field has something interesting to say and that you have something of value to contribute. It might also get your name out there. Of course this results in a potential dilemma because we want to engage with the world, share our expertise, but remain professional – and our profession prides itself on a capacity to think. I expect we’ve all seen examples of professionals who are ready to speak but have nothing of value to add!

I occasionally get asked for an opinion and thought it might be interesting to share my most recent one. A journalist contacted me, I took some time to respond, and ultimately none of it was used. My suspicion is that was because the response didn’t lend itself to a shouty headline that Valentine’s Day was like a market for perverts, but I don’t know. What I was trying to suggest was that what seemed like a simple relationship might be more complex and be worthy of some sensible consideration. There’s no commentary, just the journalist’s email question and my response*. I don’t claim it is exhaustive or perfect but hopefully it does represent a thoughtful, rather than ill-informed impulsive response just to get a mention in the media. I remain anonymous and under-appreciated.

*Please note this has been edited for length 

The question

I have a news story from a Freedom of Information request which showed that on Valentine’s Day last year, those committing sexual offences went up eight times, averaging of sex per day to almost 40 on February 14.

I was looking for a criminal psychologist’s perspective on why an offender may strike more on this day in particular, is this something you may be able to help with at all?

My response

First, it is worth having a think about the numbers. This is to rule out this being an effect of something other than Valentine’s Day being peculiar for sexual assaults. If you can rule these kinds of things out then you have to think about ‘why that day’:

1) Are those numbers reflective of male assault on females only, or any form of sexual assault? You need to be sure that the reported increase is an increase in the same thing. Similarly it might be important to check that things like the age ranges are the same for the compared numbers.

The next thing worth thinking about is what is being compared to the frequency of sexual assaults on Valentine’s Day. Six per day might be an average taken over the whole year, just excluding Valentine’s Day. This could be hiding the fact that there are similar peaks or days with no sexual assaults at all on other days. It could be coincidence that a peak happened on 14/2. Similarly, we could look at other special days, such as Halloween, Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, to get a sense of whether it is something specific to Valentine’s Day.

If it seems that Valentine’s Day stands out, then it would be worth thinking about whether there is a pattern across years. The things that I am going to suggest that will have been similar for a number of years. If these are important factors then you might expect to see a peak regularly. If you don’t then there may be some other factor, that was specific to 2018.

Last year valentine’s Day was on a Wednesday, if it had been a Saturday then that might important. We might expect more sexual assaults to happen when more people are going out late and drinking alcohol. A brief look at the news doesn’t suggest that there was anything else particularly going on that day.

There may be other important features to consider that help to distinguish between a real effect of Valentine’s Day and something about the data or a coincidence. But these are the ones that come to mind.

2) If it really seems that it was Valentine’s Day then here are some things that might help us understand why:

There are a few things that come to mind here. The first is that Valentine’s is typically seen as a day to go out. The public are bombarded with themes of love, romance, and sex. So you might have two sets of expectations, which in some will be met and bring great pleasure and happiness. In others they won’t be, or they might act as painful reminders of previous experiences. This could result in people making more risky decisions which make them more vulnerable to be both perpetrators and victims.

For the people where expectations are met, whether it is within an existing relationship or something that happens that day, it’s probably reasonable to assume that they are not of concern. Of course, people in relationships won’t necessarily have their expectations met. So being in a relationship is not necessarily going to prevent an assault from happening.

So, the kinds of vulnerabilities that exist on days when people might be out are the typical things like: drink; drugs; being out late; peer pressure etc. This is not about victim blame, this is just the simple fact that if I stay at home, on my own, sober, I am less likely to be a victim of an assault or to assault someone than if I go out, get drunk, take drugs, and am around more people for longer.

The extra vulnerabilities may be about Valentine’s Day having these expectations of romance, love, and sex. If someone is more likely to want to find a partner/kiss someone/have sex they may make themselves more vulnerable than they typically would. They may be more inclined to take risks, for example: meeting people via dating apps without going through any usual checks they would make; being more impulsive about meeting someone that night; having had a drink then agreeing to leave a club/their friends to be with someone; having that extra drink; staying out that bit later etc. People may ‘try too hard’ to hook up with someone, resulting in uncharacteristic and potentially sexually abusive behaviour. Some may be more vulnerable to peer pressure on this particular day.

People may be misreading social cues. Someone may dress up because it is Valentine’s Day, not because they have a date, but just going out. For people who think that what someone wears is somehow significant to their intentions, they might interpret something incorrectly. This could again lead to escalations in unwanted, even abusive behaviour.

People’s expectations of what they want on Valentine’s Day may make them more likely to report an assault. If someone is hoping to meet someone, but that person is more sexually aggressive than they wanted perhaps they are more likely to report. Perhaps someone’s peer group are more supportive of a victim on days that are ‘special’ in some way. Perhaps the police are more sensitive on days that stand out in the calendar.

Similarly, if someone has the expectation that they will have sex on Valentine’s Day they may be more likely to push for that. So escalating the sexual nature of the interaction without the other person’s consent, and this might lead to assault. Some people might sexually assault because their expectations are frustrated, either by a particular person or repeatedly by many people during the day.

Given that there are all these vulnerabilities it is important to acknowledge that some people will know that they can take advantage of these; they are not engaging in the Valentine’s Day partying but rather are looking for opportunities to sexually assault people. Plus there will be some assaults that are coincidental on Valentine’s Day rather than in any way linked to it.

Many of these ideas could be examined – for example do people make more impulsive, riskier decisions when using dating apps on Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve, or when they have been drinking, or when out with friends? There’s always room for more research!

If you would like support regarding sexual assault, the NHS has advice and resources .

Posted in commentaryExpert opinion