Friday, 17 July 2015

Why do we show rapists empathy, and not their victims?

It’s a mark of how much our society struggles to see women as fully human who deserve respect and who have a right to bodily autonomy when we, as a society, continue to express more sympathy for rapists than rape victims.  (#notallmen etc. etc. to ad nauseum)

I’m talking in this instance of a case in Ireland, where a man admitted to raping his partner in her sleep multiple times. The woman was taking medication to help her sleep, medication that pretty much knocked her out. For nearly a year, her partner regularly raped her when she was in this unconscious state. 

One would imagine that a man who admitted raping his partner around ten times – assaults that led to the woman experiencing post-traumatic stress, assaults that led to her suffering anxiety, assaults that led to her suffering nightmares, assaults that led to not one but two suicide attempts – you would imagine that a serial rapist found guilty of these crimes would now be locked up where he could cause no more harm to any more women.

But you would think wrong. This man got a suspended sentence of seven years. He walked out of that courtroom with a guilty conviction and no prison time. He pays no cost for the violent crimes he repeatedly committed. His victim pays the cost in mental health and trauma. 

How can an admitted serial rapist walk free from court? Because the judge had sympathy for him. And why did the judge have sympathy for him? Because we endow men with humanity in a way we still don’t for women. We just don’t. If we did, we would recognise that a man who has violated a woman’s bodily autonomy deserves the full force of the law, not the empathy and compassion he so spectacularly failed to extend to the woman he repeatedly assaulted. We would recognise that it is she, not him, that deserves our sympathy and kindness. If we cared about women, then the judge would not have rewarded a rapist for being an “open and honest” guy who admitted what he did. The judge would not believe that this “admirable” admission of guilt meant he did not have to face justice for the crimes he repeatedly committed. 

Apparently without his admissions it would have been impossible to prosecute. It sends a message doesn’t it? You can rape a woman. You can repeatedly rape her. But so long as you say so, and say sorry, you won’t have to go to prison. So long as you say so, and say sorry, you won’t have to really face any consequences. So long as you say so, and say sorry, people might even start to feel sorry for you

You just need to read the comments made in response to this case to see how little we value women’s humanity and how willingly we can be to defend a rapist. Commenters quoted in Emer O’Toole’s article in the Guardian write:   

Is the judge supposed to treat him like a case where a house is broken into and a woman is raped by a stranger holding a knife to her throat?’

Well, yes. The judge should treat a rapist like a rapist. He should sentence a serial rapist appropriately. Rape is rape and repeatedly raping your partner is against the law. 

This is the low end of the scale. When was the last time you asked your partner for consent? Never. No one asks for consent when they’re living with a lover. So we must all be rapists then.’

Firstly, if you have sex without consent then you are a rapist, yes. If you have sex with a woman who is unconscious and unable to consent, then that is not sex. It is rape. If you cannot tell if the woman you are having sex with is consenting, if you don’t recognise consent, then please refrain from speaking to or approaching any women in the future. 

And secondly, ‘this is the low end of the scale’? Repeatedly raping a woman over the course of the year is the ‘low end of the scale’? A woman suffering anxiety, PTSD and enduring suicide attempts is the ‘low end of the scale’? I’m sorry, but what? What would be the high end of the scale? How many times should a man rape a woman before he deserves jail time? How much must a woman endure before she deserves justice? 

Maybe he needs medical help and treatment instead of fifty lashes…Maybe think more compassionately about this.

Well, he didn’t actually get 50 lashes, did he? He didn’t even get a jail sentence. So if you don’t mind, I’ll reserve my compassion for the survivor, who he raped, who bravely went to the police, who bravely went to court, who bravely spoke out, who bravely waived her right to anonymity, and who now has to see her rapist walk free, his actions defended, compassion for him demanded. I won’t give my compassion to a man who respected women so little, that he refused to acknowledge his partner’s absolute right to bodily autonomy and instead made the deliberate choice to repeatedly rape her.  

Yesterday the Irish Independent reported a radio debate that focused on this case. On the ‘Right Hook’ show, the presenter argued:

So now you are sharing a bed with someone and obviously a sexual congress takes place on a regular basis, because you’re living with somebody. Now is there not an implied consent therefore that you consent to sexual congress?’


Consent is not some kind of open door policy. Consenting to sex once does not mean my vagina is then at someone else’s disposal for as and when they want to have sex. Sleeping in the same bed with someone is not an automatic consent to sex, having a relationship with someone is not an automatic consent to sex, having sex with someone previously – even on the same night – is not an automatic consent to more sex. 

Sex without consent is rape. You always need consent. And an unconscious, sleeping woman cannot consent to sex. 


And once again, with this quote, we see where the empathy lies. The perplexed tone suggests that we should side with the man – after all, what else could that man expect? She shared his bed, surely that meant she was now his to do what he liked with? Surely we should feel compassion towards him? After all, isn’t consent a bit confusing? After all, she was in bed with him? After all, what else do women expect?  

It’s classic victim blaming territory. And it’s an example of how willing we are as a society to attempt to let the man off the hook, whilst placing at least some of the blame on the woman. We are constantly finding excuses for men’s criminal behaviour in a way we simply don’t for women. The compassion, empathy and understanding extended to rapists – admitted, serial rapists – is just another way in which we grant men full humanity, and deny it to women. 

Is there another crime where we demand such compassion for the perpetrators? If he were a serial burglar would we be expected to show him empathy? If he went out and repeatedly beat up other men, would we blame his victims for walking along the street? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that we’re supposed to ‘see it from his perspective’? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that he is rewarded for honesty? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that we are asked to show him, and not her, compassion?  

This story is not uncommon. Take the Steubenville case. Here, the violent treatment of the victim was forgotten as journalists wrung their hands in despair about the impact the assaults would have on the ‘promising athlete’s careers’. Take the Oscar Pistorius case, and the concern about his ‘ruined life’ – as if it weren’t his own actions that sent him to the courtroom. Take the Ched Evans case, where she was blamed for ‘ruining his life’ as if it weren’t his own choice to rape. As if he weren’t wholly responsible for the violence he committed. Take the Bill Cosby case, where over 40 women came forward with the same story and still society shrugged and refused to believe them. Take the Jimmy Savile case, where those brave enough to speak out were dismissed as ‘just the women’. 

Why do we extend our empathy and our belief to rapists? Why do we choose to believe men over women? Why do we hear men’s voices louder than women’s? Why do we think a man who repeatedly raped his partner deserves our compassion, and not his victim? 

The only conclusion I am ever able to come to is that we don’t see women as fully human. We don’t value women’s bodily autonomy and we don’t value women’s voices. Because if we did, we would not ‘debate’ whether her rape was real rape. We would not ‘debate’ whether she had given up her right to consent, or that consent is something that is dependent on context. We would not demand compassion for her rapist. And we would not reward her rapist for the honesty that he never extended to her.  

No comments: