As my personal journey continues, I find myself increasingly drawn to research and articles about rape and sexual assault. Sometimes I wonder if it’s genuine curiosity, an attempt to alleviate myself of some of the self-blame or whether it’s a third, slightly more grotesque option.
Regardless of the reason, a series of articles (and of views I've heard in my office) have led me to the conclusion that sexual assault is not only glamourised by the media, but seriously misunderstood by the general public, and not just the minority of them that I had originally thought. And until people understand the basic truth of rape - what it is, why it actually happens - then not only will it continue but so will this culture of “victim blaming”.
Often, it seems that rape on television involves knives, strangers accosting in the street, drugs or is the absolute furthest extreme of the definition. Yes, rape is horrific and traumatic and life-altering, but the reality of rape for many women is so far removed from this that they can even doubt the event entirely. It can be because the man is someone she knows, because she originally consented but changed her mind, because the paralysis of fear resulted in less of a struggle than she expected… sometimes the lines are just so blurred that the word rape somehow seems alien, that a woman will choose to dismiss it as “just bad sex” because her experience doesn't match common media perception.
I’m not saying that the media representation of rape doesn't happen. It does. A lady I used to know had three prominent scars from the base of her neck down to her collar bone. She told me of how she lived in Africa and that men came to her hut in the dead of night and repeatedly raped her, holding a knife to her throat, that it happened not just one night and not with just one group of men. It does happen, there is no denying it.
But for the majority of women who are sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is someone they know. Sometimes it is a family member, sometimes the current partner, sometimes it is just a friend of a friend. Norwich Rape Crisis reports that as many as four out of five women know their attacker.
Now imagine that you and your work colleague have had dinner, been flirting, things have got heated. You go back for “coffee” and one thing leads to another. But somehow it doesn't feel right and you say no. You tell him to stop. He doesn't listen, and the more you say no, the more he seems to enjoy it. You can’t move or push him away and you're not sure why, because he’s not overly rough or violent with it. You put it down to a bad experience, a date that went a bit wrong. It’s only the next time someone tries to touch you that you realise…
Is it rape?
The simple answer is yes. Sex becomes rape when the woman has not consented, or when she removes that consent. Whether it seems particularly violent or not at the time is irrelevant; rape is a serious violation of the body, mind and trust. It doesn't matter whether weapons have been used, whether you know him, whether it happened in his home or yours, what matters is you – your experiences, your feelings and your well-being.
It also doesn't matter how you dressed, or the signs that you gave out. It doesn't matter if you flirted with him earlier in the evening, it does't even matter if you were enjoying sex and then changed your mind. The moment you said no and he didn't stop, it became rape. In fact, the moment you stopped consenting, it became rape, whether you said the word no or not.
Too many people assume that the woman must have done something to deserve this assault. Or that the assault itself never existed, because they simply don’t understand that rape is not always a stranger in a dark alley. Rape is everywhere, it happens to everyone.
I was told by a lady that she would be the wrong person to run a project for Women’s Aid or Rape Crisis because she was “white, middle-class, in her thirties and married”. She told me that she would be completely unable to relate to the people she would be working with for those reasons.
Whilst statistics produced by the Crime Survey for England and Wales indicate that students (particularly women aged 16-24) and women living in urban areas experience serious sexual assault more often than older women or those living in suburbs, they also show that women of all ages and from all backgrounds have had this trauma.
We need to accept that gender-based violence happens everywhere, every day, to everyone. And we need to work together to change that, rather than set ourselves apart based on archaic stereotypes.
One of the many articles that shocked me over the last few weeks was one about anti-rape devices. I am not a particularly big supporter of these to begin with, as the underlying message seems to be that it’s the woman’s responsibility to protect herself and not the man’s responsibility to keep it in his pants. But many of these devices listed were focused on a woman’s appearance, such as “hairy tights” that make your legs look like you've never shaved / waxed them.
The idea that rape is linked to attractiveness and physical appearance infuriates me (and let's not start on the expectations about body hair!). I am not conventionally beautiful. I am not slim, I have frizzy hair, I have a double chin and my nose is far too big for my face (as my sister loves to point out on a regular basis). I have been told by many that I simply could NOT have been raped, because who could find me attractive? I have been told that I should be grateful for the attention and that someone showed interest by others, including my own mother and the German police.
Rape does not happen because a woman is attractive. Rape does not happen because a woman is wearing a short skirt, because she is wearing a low cut top, because she has a reputation for being promiscuous, because she is drunk or because she was “asking for it”. Rape doesn't even happen because a man was so turned on that he couldn't control it.
But it IS about control.
A rapist assaults in order to give himself a power-rush. For some men, it is an old lady, for others it is a beautiful woman who would be otherwise unattainable to him, and for some, it is a woman who is outspoken, powerful and represents the control that he wants. By taking away her most private, intimate experiences in a way that society deems taboo, he controls her.
And he doesn't just control her for those few minutes. He controls her in her sleep when she sees his face, in flashbacks when she hears or smells something similar, he controls her through the fear and through the confusion of her feelings which she is ashamed of and doesn't understand.
Rape isn't about sex, it’s about power. And power isn't always about beauty.
It’s imperative that we challenge these stereotypes, that we speak out and change people’s perception about rape and serious sexual assault. I don’t expect every woman who has experienced such an event to raise her hand, but I want the message to be spread. I want women to know that they are not alone, that their experience is not insignificant, that their feelings matter, that there are others out there. I want people to know that rape happens in your own home, with people you know, in ways that seem so “mundane” that it’s hard to comprehend why you feel so violated. I want people to see that rape is not about beauty, that it doesn't matter what you wear, whether you’re a size 8 or a size 28 because it’s about power, it’s about control.
Most of all, I want change. I want the blame to stop. This “victim-blaming”, the “self-blame”, the accusations of lying due to the perceived concept of rape. I want women to speak with conviction and confidence and for men to stand up in support, not belittle and dismiss. I want the word to spread.