The Blame Shame: Why Do We Persist In Holding Victims Partly Responsible For Sexual Assault?

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WHAT makes the perfect rape victim? To most people such a question will seem abhorrent. Yet, despite decades of efforts to change antediluvian attitudes towards sexual assault, the myth persists that some survivors are worthier than others of our outrage, empathy and support.

The belief that a woman should ever be held accountable for an act of sexual violence against her is one that we in the West tend to comfortably attribute to aggressively patriarchal regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia, where women can be tried alongside their rapists for the crime of being in his vicinity in the first place.

Prick the surface of our society’s supposedly more enlightened attitudes towards gender equality however and an insidious sense that women somehow have a responsibility to prevent rape reveals itself, alongside preconceived notions of how a typical victim should behave before, during and after her assault.

New judicial directions have recently come into force in Scotland which aim to counter the still too commonly held belief that a woman who did not struggle against her attacker or immediately report it may be lying about what happened. This will involve judges (where relevant) giving juries clear, factual information to help explain that someone might not fight back during an attack, or tell anyone about what they have experienced straight away.

Controversy was stirred up recently by new Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, both for its approach to the issue of teen suicide and its depictions of rape and sexual assault. One of the show’s female stars, however, has described her shock at the nature of some of the audience reaction to a scene in which her character, Jessica, is raped by her school’s football captain after she falls asleep at a party.

Alisha Boe said in an interview with news site Elite Daily that she initially presumed “everyone would sympathise with Jessica because of what she’s been through, to me that made the most sense. She’s a survivor and she’s been trying to deal with it and she’s acting out because of it”.

After reading comments from fans of the show online, though, she realised not everyone was sympathetic to Jessica’s plight.

“Basically, people [were] slut-shaming Jessica. [They were] calling her a bitch and … saying she deserved it … and shouldn’t be that drunk at a party and it made me take a second and step back and realize, wow, we as a society are not able to not blame the rape survivor.”

Such comments, however, will ring sickeningly true for many real-life victims of sexual assault who suffer with feelings of guilt after being attacked and feel unable to report or seek help for fear of others’ reactions.

When rape survivor Megan Clark waived her anonymity to speak to the BBC a few weeks ago, the interview made headlines. The 19-year-old was being interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire following the conviction of Ricardo Rodrigues-Fortes-Gomes for raping her in Manchester city-centre last July.

Gomes had attacked Clark by a canal path after meeting her in a Burger King when she was on the way home from a night out with friends. During the the TV interview, Clark said she wouldn’t have reported the attack, if evidence of it hadn’t been filmed by a witness who called the police.

When probed further, she said she’d be unlikely to report any subsequent attack to police if, in Derbyshire’s words, “God forbid” it were to happen again. “But you had been raped!” said Derbyshire.

Many of the BBC Two programme’s viewers will have shared Victoria Derbyshire’s astonishment. Why would the victim of such a horrific crime be reluctant to seek justice? And why, after seeing the man who raped her jailed, would she fail to report any future attack against her?

Government statistics state that, in fact, only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report to the police. (Of those, only around six per cent result in conviction.) Rape Crisis is clear that the decision on whether to report to the authorities can and should only be made by victims. The charity offers support to those affected by rape and sexual assault regardless of whether or not they choose to contact the police, and cites fear of not being believed as one of the most significant factors influencing people’s decision on whether or not to report sexual assault.

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