Sexual assault is all over the news. We see cases every day. There’s #MeToo and #TimesUp, so why do we still continue to distrust victims?
It seems every time a case is brought people begin to immediately pick the credibility of the victim apart. How drunk was she? What was she wearing? Surely she knew why she was there? Why did she go into the room? What did she expect?
This has to end.
Let’s be clear on one thing – it takes immense bravery for someone to report a sexual assault or a rape. We should be standing behind those people and supporting them. Not denigrating them further, expelling them, forcing them to remain on the same campus as the perpetrators, or attacking them again when they seek help. It’s time that we supported those who come forward, and create a system where people feel safe in getting help. This fear about not being believed can be seen in the recent case that is on-going in Belfast.
I must admit, I hadn’t been following the recent Belfast case closely. I’d read some of the news articles, and I’d seen the headlines where the victim felt she’d be deemed “a stupid little girl“. I’d seen references to the text messages but hadn’t read them myself. After chatting with some friends about it I decided to read them. I’m not sure why. And to be honest, I wish I hadn’t. They are gross. They are boastful, and arrogant, and entitled. Utterly vile. They encapsulate every fear that runs through your head. That stomach-churning feeling that people are talking about you, laughing at you, and looking right through you. The feeling that to them, you don’t matter. But she does.
She does matter. And I commend the immense bravery it must have taken for her, and for anyone else, to have come forward. We’ve all had conversations with friends about assault. We all know someone who has been assaulted or have been assaulted ourselves. We’ve all heard horrific stories, and seen cases play out in the media. You might think that you don’t know anyone who has been assaulted – but you do. So why are victims constantly let down?
For Áine Palmer, Gender Equality Officer at Trinity College Student Union, the persistent victim-blaming is a huge part of the problem. “The consistent speed with which the media and the public tends to denigrate or dismiss accusations of rape and sexual assault is disappointing, as it just perpetuates the problem.” For others it’s simply not something we should be talking about, or that by talking about it the victim is harming others.
There is often this sense that the victim coming forward is somehow unfairly damaging the life of the accused. That by revealing such information a shining star is being tarnished and how dare they do such a thing. They would be better served to stay silent. This tendency to highlight the virtues of the perpetrators is troublesome. It once again silences the injured party and instead casts them as the villain. On top of that, many are faced with sheer disbelief. Cries that such accusations are simply designed to ruin lives or careers. This sentiment is troubling for Áine “We frequently hear anxieties about how such an accusation can ruin a man’s career quickly, but that line of thought has two problems. Firstly, this is not true – if anything, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was proof of that. Secondly, it belittles or ignores the real, physical and emotional trauma that a survivor of rape or assault has gone through.”
“Although a false accusation would be hypothetically devastating for a man, we have seen again and again that men are generally in a position of privilege where an accusation will leave them far less vulnerable than an actual victim of rape or sexual violence and assault.”
There are the persistent shouts that rape cases are often fabricated. And the false claims are widely prevalent. But this is inaccurate. Various studies across Europe, USA, and Britain place the figure at between 2-6%. Yet the myth that false claims are rampant continues.
Noeline Blackwell, CEO Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says “Rape and other sexual abuse is the most intimate violation possible of a person, of their dignity. It is hard to talk about because of the depth and horror of the violence. But it is also hard to talk about because the person assaulted will often fear that they will not be believed. They have good reason to believe this.”
“Far too often, women and men who report rape are met with questions about their own behaviour, their own demeanour rather than the behaviour and harm done by the person who carries out the violence. Far too often, the abused person’s family, friends or community have dismissed or trivialised the reports that they hear because they don’t want to listen and they don’t want to believe. The effect of this is that sexual violence has been allowed to flourish. A blind eye is turned by the community and the person harmed is required to suffer quietly and under a cloak of shame.”
Yet Noeline has seen a shift in recent times. Particularly given the surge in movements that are empowering those who were silent before. “Victims/ Survivors of sexual violence have begun to realise that they are not alone and isolated. That others have suffered harm and that calling out that harm is an important step in reducing sexual violence and in holding those who commit such violence to account.” It’s clear we must do more to encourage people to come forward. And this starts with believing them.
A sentiment that Áine agrees with “If we are to be a society that truly protects women’s interests, and combats sexual assault and rape, we need to trust and listen to those who have the courage to come forward, and applaud them for their bravery. We will not be able to tackle rape culture and sexual violence if we do not believe those who tell their stories. The media has a responsibility to present the experiences of those who come forward in a compassionate, respectful manner.”
Right now we’re at a turning point. We’re seeing an outpouring of anger, grief, and relief. It is just the beginning, and this might seem overwhelming. But it’s important. It’s important to truly grasp the scale of the problem. If we’re going to be able to create a safer world for everyone then we need to start talking about these problems. To do that, we need to start believing those who come forward.
You can get in touch with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on their national 24-hour helpline 1800 77 8888 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information on what to do in the aftermath of an assault here (UK) or here (USA).