The blame shame: why do we persist in holding victims partly responsible for sexual assault?

Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.

This article originally appeared on the Herald Scotland. Read it here.

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.

Megan Clark said she found giving evidence in court and watching footage of her rape to be “horrific”. She also said that immediately after the attack, she’d found it hard not to blame herself and that “a few people … put it down to my behaviour”. Had footage of the rape not existed, she said, the case “probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere … it’s just my word against theirs without [that] evidence”.

When Victoria Derbyshire’s interview with Clark hit the newspapers, headlines such as “Interview with rape survivor reveals impact of victim blaming” were conspicuous by their absence. Instead, most newspaper reports focused on Clark’s response to comments made by trial judge Lindsey Kushner QC, who warned that while women were “perfectly entitled to drink themselves into the ground… potential defendants to rape, gravitate towards girls who have been drinking”.

Kushner claimed that “a girl who is drunk is more likely to agree as they are more disinhibited [and] even if they don’t agree they are less likely to fight a man with evil intentions off” and rounded off her sentencing remarks by saying that “if push comes to shove, a girl who has been drunk is less likely to be believed than one who is sober at the time”.

The judge’s comments were condemned by campaign groups such as End Violence Against Women, as tantamount to victim-blaming, but when pressed by Victoria Derbyshire for a response to Kushner’s remarks, Megan Clark said that “she was absolutely right in what she said … she just simply said to be careful basically, which is smart advice. She wasn’t at all victim-blaming”.

Lindsey Kushner’s warning that a drunk rape victim would be less likely to be believed than a sober one was, Clark conceded, “not the way it should be but that’s the harsh reality”.

The Daily Mail landed on Megan Clark’s interpretation with an almost palpable sense of glee, announcing: “Manchester rape victim said drinking warning was right.”

This from a publication that, when recounting the attack in an earlier piece, had reported that Gomes “took [Clark] to a canal path and had sex with her”, carelessly appearing to reframe the rape as a consensual sexual encounter even after Clark’s attacker had been convicted and sentenced.

The Independent’s headline-writers went with, “Rape victim says judge was right to say she put herself in danger by being drunk”, while the Guardian’s opted for: “Woman who was raped backs judge over alcohol warning.” Other reports were largely variations on the same theme.

Clark is entitled to her comments, but the media’s response to them is part of an ongoing narrative that perpetuates myths about sexual violence which put barriers to justice in the way of women like her, and suggests that the blame for rape can sometimes be shared between victims and their abusers.

Overwhelmingly, the media narrative on the Megan Clark interview was one of an age-old debate over women’s culpability for rape. The verdict, it seemed, was in – sometimes it’s our own fault.

The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir praised the young woman’s response as “a drop of common sense in an ocean of outrage” and commended her “incredible bravery” in supposedly coming forward to support Judge Kushner.

Meanwhile, Kushner’s remarks echo those of another now retired judge, Mary Jane Mowat, who in 2014 said that rape conviction rates would “not improve until women stop getting so drunk”.

In an interview to mark her retirement, Mowat bemoaned the difficulties she claimed courts faced in dealing with accusations of rape and sexual assault where women who had been drinking had been unable to fully recall the details of alleged attacks.

It was left to sexual violence campaigners to point out that women who have been incapacitated through alcohol or drugs are incapable of consenting to sex and that, legally, responsibility lies with defendants to prove how they sought and received that consent, rather than on the alleged victim to recall every aspect of events.

Research shows in fact that, whether drunk or sober, victims of sexual assault are often unable to remember their attack in detail. Rather than an indication that a woman is lying or unsure about being attacked, misremembering details can be a direct consequence of being assaulted. A study from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women in the US, for example, reported that victims might give inconsistent or untrue information when suffering from trauma.

Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, said in 2012 that it was in fact the perpetuation of myths about sexual violence rather than women’s inability to fully recall attacks that was responsible for the relatively high number of rape trial acquittals.

The 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that only 58 per cent of respondents felt that a woman who wore revealing clothing on a night out was “not at all to blame” for being raped. Some 60 per cent said the same of a woman who was very drunk. Around a quarter (23 per cent) agreed that “women often lie about being raped”.

In November last year, research for the European Commission revealed that 22 per cent of British respondents thought that “sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain situations”.

Potential scenarios included if the victim was intoxicated, had agreed to go home with someone, wore “revealing, provocative or sexy clothing”, or didn’t physically fight back.

When judges or newspapers commentators take the trouble to warn women of the dangers of making themselves vulnerable to sexual violence, they are often at pains to point out that they, of course, lay the blame for rape firmly at the door of rapists.

Taken to their nastily logical conclusion, however, such remarks frame sexual violence as something akin to dystopian fantasy franchise The Hunger Games, where women who make the “wrong” choices volunteer as tributes while the rest of us are spared.

Most women already modify their own behaviour in an effort to ensure their safety – walking down quiet streets with keys grasped between their knuckles, taking taxis short distances after dark, promising to text friends when they make it home. Yet rape still happens. And despite the persistence of the “stranger danger” stereotype, around 90 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows.

When the media reported recently on new research into a form of sexual assault known as “stealthing” – when a man removes a condom during sex without his partner’s knowledge – some commentators saw fit to question whether it can be considered sexual assault at all, despite the fact it’s a clear violation of consent. Others suggested that it should be women’s responsibility to ensure that they protect themselves against it. A headline in The Sun contained a directive to women to “be on guard”, as if we should be able to automatically intuit which men are likely to violate us in this way.

Those who seek to shift some responsibility for preventing assaults onto women fail to see the contradiction in claiming that they are only trying to prevent sexual violence while simultaneously contributing to a narrative that supports its perpetration and discourages its disclosure.

While the myth persists that there is a way to stop rape other than to end some men’s sense of impunity and entitlement to commit it, women will indeed remain vulnerable in their homes, on the streets and in the courts.

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