Ooh, fledgling relationships are fun, aren’t they? All sorts of things for you to get neurotic about. I recently went on a couple of dates with a nice young man, and top of my list of concerns was when to drop the R-bomb. This is a genuine dilemma for someone like me. As we all know, I’m a passionate advocate of rape being spoken about more openly, and of the fact that rape victims have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m also clear in my mind that my experiences in Malta radically changed me as a person, and have influenced much of my life since – meaning that if anyone wants to get to know me, the fact that I was raped is going to crop up. All of which suggested that I should lay my cards on the table early on.
But there are arguments that suggest the opposite. Whilst I might think rape should be talked about more openly, hearing about rape from someone with first-hand experience of it will be very unusual for most people. My date would wonder why on earth I was opening up about something so personal on the first date. Two possibilities present themselves: it’s either because I’ve decided within half an hour of meeting him that he is my soulmate (and he should back away now before he finds his pet rabbit merrily boiling away), or I’m an emotional headcase incapable of thinking about anything else. Either way, I’m not coming across as an attractive dating prospect.
But why is it that we think that rape shouldn’t be talked about more? I’ve stated many times that there is a certain stigma attached to a rape victim, but I haven’t discussed why. Many academic types believe this is because, as a society, we have failed to fully detach the idea of rape from the idea of sex. In passing, we understand that rape is about power and violence, rather than sexual satisfaction, but in fact plenty of phrases and myths perpetuate the notion that rape is a form of sex, albeit a horrific one. Of course, there are the perfectly obvious and reasonable associations: sexual organs are involved. But beyond that, we also talk about sex crimes, and countless porn websites re-enact forced sex – where the young woman inevitably discovers midway through her ordeal that hey, she’s turned on, and proceeds to enjoy the most mind-blowing sex of her life. Actually, I would argue that whilst my rape certainly screwed up my sexual relations for a while, I see it far more as a physical assault than I do any kind of sexual experience. Which is one reason why I would never think of myself as having lost my virginity during that ordeal. Nancy Raine (I promise I’ll stop going on about her soon) agrees:
I resented the fact that talking about rape produces a cringe in the people around me. This cringe feels silencing, although that is not always its intent. It confuses me when I feel it. I’m attempting to define my experience in terms of a violent assault and the residual trauma. But other people seem to be defining me in terms of a shameful sexual encounter.
And this is the real crux of the matter. Rape is shameful for the victim because we have all sorts of ideas about why they are to blame. They were drunk, they flirted, they wore a short dress. Or, perhaps, since she didn’t physically resist, she must have secretly enjoyed it. And, worst of all, maybe the woman is lying. She wanted to get back at a man who didn’t call her back, or she just feels like some attention. Wow. I mean, really – wow. Let me put my feminist hat on for a moment. A woman is raped – and she is the one that gets investigated? Rape is the only crime where the victims are given polygraph tests more frequently than the accused. When actually, studies have shown that false allegations of rape are precisely as frequent as false allegations of other crimes, around 6-8%. No wonder rape is so under-reported.
I recently found a passage which sums up all this rather nicely. Psychologists Nicholaus Groth and Jean Birnbaum wrote the following in their study, Men Who Rape:
Careful clinical study reveals that rape is in fact serving primarily nonsexual needs. It is the expression of power and anger – rape is an act addressing issues of hostility and control more than passion. To regard rape as an expression of sexual desire is not only an inaccurate notion but also an insidious assumption, for it results in the shifting of the responsibility for the offense in large part from the offender to the victim.
I am fortunate in that I am seen as one of the ‘blameless’ victims. I was young, and indoors – not roaming the streets alone. I was sober, and I was conservatively dressed. But still, I was naive enough to go into that back office at his invitation, and whilst I normally leave this bit out, I admit that I flirted with him. I was 18, and this mid-to-late twenties man was showing interest in me. I was flattered by his attention. So why do I normally leave that part out? Because I worry that admitting that I flirted might make people think that I am in some way to blame.
Let’s get real – I think we give me all too much credit here. Are we really saying that by my light flirting, I rendered this older man so breathtaken and overcome with passionate lust that he lost all control, and indeed his sense of right and wrong? I wish my powers of seduction were so powerful! I feel I should alert the home office at once, lest the men of East London impulsively riot upon my sauntering down the street.
Similarly, stories which claim that women who wear short skirts are ‘asking for it’ are absurd – not only does it leave us wondering just how spectacular those bare limbs must have been to elicit such a response, but we do seem to do a disservice to men in general. Have they really evolved so little? No, rape is a decision. Someone makes the active choice to violate another person. It is that decision that means that a rapist deserves to receive all the blame and shame we can throw at him, not the victim.
Dr. Judith Herman has another interesting perspective on why we tend to blame the victim. I will leave you to ponder her thoughts. In her 1992 work Trauma and Recovery, she wrote that:
To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or ‘acts of god’, those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
I think she has a point.