A recent rape case where the defendants were found not guilty came to my attention the other week. The man and boy involved were proven innocent so I’m not going to comment on that side of things. Instead, I want to talk about some of the language used by the lawyer, and how that language made me think further about how we re-enforce myths about how victims of rape are supposed to behave.
The argument was presented that because the girl had not curled up, struggled or verbally protested, then consent existed. It was suggested that she could have struggled, or kicked or curled her body up if she hadn’t wanted to have sex, if it was rape.
I’m not going to talk any more about that case. As I said, the defendants were found not guilty by the jury. I don’t know much more than that, and that the defence spoke about her physical reaction. This post is about how the kind of language we use around rape enforces the idea that there is a correct way to respond to sexual violence and rape. The myth that all women will respond in the same way, and that if we don’t respond that way then we must be consenting.
Of course, we know this is simply not true. There is no ‘correct’ way to behave, there is no rule book that victims and survivors can follow that delineates how they are supposed to behave when they are raped.
One of the things we talk about when we talk about how women react to violence is the 'freeze response'. This means that when we are in danger, when we are afraid, we freeze to keep ourselves safe. Because we know, we understand, that shouting, screaming, kicking – reacting in this way could lead to further violence. It's a very natural, very normal human and animal response and it is very common in situations of rape and sexual assault. When we are in danger we understand that to fight back, to kick, to scream - this could lead to more violence. Whether it’s not reacting to street harassment, work-based sexual harassment or not fighting back when we are physically attacked, we know as humans what our survival instinct is telling us to do and we trust that.
The CWASU website explains how there is no standard way that women respond to violence on their website. They explain in their list of rape myths:
"To be raped is the worst thing that can happen - so you would resist to the utmost"
Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.
This shows very clearly how kicking and screaming isn’t the only signifier that a woman isn’t consenting. There are many ways a woman may respond to violence, and she should not be judged for not responding ‘properly’, according to a rape myth rule book that simply doesn’t exist outside patriarchy’s head.
When I interviewed Emilia Di Girolamo earlier this year about her Law and Order UK episode on gang rape, she explained to me more about the freeze response to rape and group sexual assault, something she portrays in the TV show:
"It was something that I felt had happened to me and I didn’t understand – I grew up thinking that I was in the wrong and that I should have fought and should have shouted no, and I didn’t. It was only when I started reading about freeze response that I realised that’s exactly what happened to me. That’s how I felt, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t shout or scream. Boys need to be taught that if a girl doesn’t say no it doesn’t necessarily mean she is saying yes. It’s about making boys understand that consent isn’t just about waiting for a girl to say no or push him off"
(read full interview here: http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/challenging-rape-myths-interview-with.html)
Consent isn't defined by a no or a scream or by curling up in the foetal position. Consent isn't about doing anything you can to protect yourself and keep yourself safe from further violence. Consent is about mutually wanting to engage in sexual activity, for pleasure, for lust, for love.
Interestingly, an entirely opposing argument has been used to define consent in the ongoing Assange case. It shows how, in fact, women can't win. Because on the one hand we have the rape myth that dictates women should physically “do what they can to deter” a rapist (I’ve put that in scare quotes because I don’t believe that it’s right to say that the responsibility to stop rape lies with the woman, it lies with the rapist), AA in the Assange case did use her body to try to defend herself. Assange's defence explains how:
"AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly."
I've said it before, but THAT'S HIS DEFENCE.
So in this case we have a woman doing almost everything that the rape myth rule book says she should be doing to show she isn’t consenting. She squeezed her legs together, she tried to turn away, she felt like she might cry. But in the Assange case, her actions are being used to suggest consent existed.
You start to wonder, exactly how are women supposed to behave? How are women supposed to respond when threatened with sexual violence?
And then I remember. There is no 'correct' way to respond. Because our society and our rape culture privileges the perpetrators and refuses to believe women.
One rape case where there has been a guilty verdict is the Ched Evans case. He was found guilty and then, instead of universal condemnation of a man raping a young woman, he was defended and cheered by people who chose to accuse his victim of lying.
One of the chief accusations levelled against the survivor in the Ched Evans case was that she 'wanted her 15 minutes of fame' and that she was a gold digger. This is a common statement made when a woman accuses a sports star of rape and sexual assault. Yet it is completely backwards. Accusing a man of rape is no way to get famous. You're anonymous for a start. You don't tend to get paid by anyone and criminal compensation is pretty hard to get in a rape case - precisely because there is so much victim blaming out there. Then on top of that is the whole trauma and difficulty of going to the police, persuading the police and the CPS to believe you, getting to court, persuading jurors to believe you, and then seeing your rapist only jailed for a few years. Accusing someone of rape isn't something that women take lightly. There are reasons why the reporting rates are so low (15% - BCS average over 6 years), and one of them is that the conviction rate remains so low (6.5% from incident to conviction).
And one of them is because of the prevalence of rape myths. The belief that women lie, that women are at fault if they drink, if they have a sexuality, if they don't behave how the 'perfect victim' should behave.
Another case that has got a lot of attention this week has been the rape of a young woman in Sheffield. Media coverage of the case has focused on the fact that she was trying to catch a bus home, was 20p short and the bus driver refused to let her on the bus. Whilst walking to meet her mum who was coming to pick her up, she was raped by Joseph Moran (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9318551/Law-student-raped-after-being-turfed-off-bus-because-she-was-20p-short-of-the-fare.html).
Headlines have abounded with stories about how the woman was raped ‘after being turfed off the bus because she was 20p short’; how she was ‘raped after being kicked off the bus’; how she was ‘raped for the want of a 20p fare’.
What none of these headlines do is focus on the rapist. All of the coverage I have seen on this case has focused on the girl’s action (sympathetically I must add – there hasn’t been any victim blaming in the press as far as I’ve seen), and the bus driver. Undoubtedly harsh, undoubtedly unreasonable, and – it would appear – undoubtedly failing to follow guidelines that would have let the girl on the bus.
But what none of the headlines do is mention that the rape happened because Joseph Moran chose to rape.
Increasingly my understanding of rape culture is that as a society, we are so scared to confront the reality that thousands of men rape thousands of women every week, month, year – and face the reality that we allow it to happen and allow them to get away with it; that we look to blame anything and anyone rather the perpetrator.
Rape culture is about the fact that our society continues to privilege perpetrators over survivors. That rather than stand up and confront the fact that we routinely allow men to rape women and girls and routinely deny women and girls justice, we decide to disbelieve women and find every excuse we can for the men. We decide to focus on what the women and girls do - their alcohol consumption, their words, their sexuality - rather than on the actions of the men who choose to commit a brutal and vicious crime. We choose to shift the goal posts about how we think a rape victim should react to the crime committed against her, and then judge her for not matching those warped expectations.
That’s what rape culture is. And I've had enough of it.