We’re into Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale (which I’m not yet watching, but I’ve just read the book. Aside: Is it weird that the show has already gone past the book in terms of June’s pregnancy?) And I’m seeing lots of posts from Americans about how the show “is slowly happening in real life”. The parallels regarding forced breeding are obvious. But there are other issues: reading, writing, socialising and freedom of movement. They’re all things that the Handmaids aren’t allowed to do. States like Saudi Arabia restrict women’s movement. Yes, the driving ban has been lifted. But women still aren’t allowed to leave the house, work, or apply for a driving license without being accompanied by, or having permission from, a male relative. But restricting women’s movement doesn’t just happen in The Handmaids Tale or Saudi Arabia. There are ways of restricting movement that are enforced by social means instead of legal. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the experiences of women outside states like Saudi Arabia or Gilead are in any way comparable to the experiences of those within. I mention the above two states- one fictional, one factual- to make the point that women’s movement can be subject to legal control. The remainder of this article will focus on the use of social control to achieve similar ends.
Western society pressures women to restrict their movements for fear of sexual assault: don’t walk alone, avoid quiet places, don’t travel alone, don’t go there wearing that, don’t walk home, stay in a group, don’t go out in the dark, don’t visit certain neighbourhoods/parks/bars/cities/countries. From the time they are little girls without even a clear idea of what sex crimes are, they’re indoctrinated to believe they are easy prey- weak, vulnerable, too wimpy to ever hope to defend themselves. Girls are taught to regard themselves as potential victims. Many learn also to regard boys and men as potential criminals- a tad unfair when only 6% of men are rapists (and those tend to be violent in general, not just towards women). Worst of all, women have to expend time and effort in (definitely) trading freedom for (only possibly) avoiding rape. Their dedication is often unnoticed by society. The genius of social control is that, unlike legal control, no effort is needed. Social control tricks women into doing the work of legislators, courts and police by restricting themselves.
Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, summed it up in this interview:
“I talk to men all the time who try to make light of women’s situations, and I say, ‘Well, you don’t understand a woman’s day-to-day life. You don’t have to walk through your day saying, ‘Okay well tonight, I’m going to go to this thing, and if I park here, I hope I don’t get raped.’ You know, that never ever crosses your mind.“I’m not someone who’s a panicky person or nervous about that thing, but you still have to be conscious of that possibility. All women — half our population — have to be conscious of that idea. I was at a hotel the other night, and I thought, ‘God I’d love to go for a run, but gosh, I probably shouldn’t.’I’m peeking out of the hotel window and thinking, if I do that and I get raped, no one’s gonna feel sorry for me. It’s not well-lit, and they’re gonna go, ‘What was she doing out there anyway?’”
People who tell women to restrict their movement- parents, teachers, and police being the main ones- will say they’re just trying to prevent women from being raped.
But being on high alert about men is unlikely to help women avoid sexual assault since they’re unlikely to meet a rapist. 90% of rape victims are attacked by people they know, not by strangers in the dark. As confirmed by ONS statistics, women are most likely to be raped in their own homes by their partners, so they’re actually safer going out than staying inside. Furthermore, when the rapist is a partner, there is additional trauma, increased risk of physical injury as well as a risk of multiple assaults. So intimate partner violence in the home should be the priority in rape prevention instead of stranger rape in the street. Even in those rare stranger-rape cases, brainwashing girls to believe in their frailty and admit defeat in advance instead of teaching them self-defence skills to thwart rape attempts and psychological resilience skills to recover from such attempts and completed rapes, is also a questionable tactic. Instead of teaching teenagers recovery skills society models victim-blaming, thereby instilling self-blame and shame. Instead of encouraging information-sharing about sexual predators so women can protect themselves by avoiding known offenders, #MeToo is decried as “going too far” by naming abusers instead of keeping rapists’ secrets. Instead of encouraging girls to learn to defend themselves and making such classes accessible to adult women who are interested, martial arts and strength training are often viewed as male sports. In fact, stopping women from going out actually makes the streets less safe because they’ll be deserted. Only sketchy characters will be outside. There’ll be no crowds, no witnesses. Encouraging people to step out will increase safety. So we’re actually doing this all wrong.
However, just because restriction of movement is not the best anti-rape strategy, that doesn’t by itself prove that restriction of movement is nothing to do with safety. We could just be trying to achieve safety in an incompetent way. The proof is this: if motivation to restrict women’s freedom is to protect them, because one incident of sexual assault is so very, very bad that it’s worth sacrificing your freedom for your entire lifetime to avoid, why isn’t sexual assault taken seriously when it happens? Why do friends victim blame? Why do schools do cover-ups and universities ignore it? Why do parents not take it seriously? Why do communities take the rapist’s side? Why are conviction rates so low? Police, juries, communities, institutions, and families do not take sex crimes seriously. They also demonstrate little empathy or belief towards the victim. Sometimes, the blame and/or shame is placed on the victim instead of the rapist, including by women. Those responses are utterly inconsistent with the idea of sexual assault being insufferable for women. Victim blaming, rape apologism, minimising and disbelief are inconsistent with the idea of sexual assault being even slightly upsetting. So, they can’t regard sexual assaults as all that bad. Therefore, “safety” is just an excuse. It’s not about rape being this supremely unbearable thing we must relentlessly sacrifice everything to avoid. It’s about controlling women.
Now let’s look at society’s attitudes to rape in more detail. We’ll start at the national level (laws, policing, criminal compensation and courts), then the community level (the general public, institutions- with a focus on schools and universities- and families. In all of these tiers, the comparison will be between the attitudes which are professed (“rape is bad”) and the reality of how rape is perceived and dealt with (usually, “rape isn’t a big deal”). Obviously this is a generalisation and individuals do exist who take all sexual assaults very seriously indeed. I have met a few. In fact, without some people who take rape seriously there would be no laws against it, so the fact it’s a crime proves that not everyone is blase about it. These particular individuals’ motives to restrict women’s’ movement might well be genuine, unlike the motives of those who don’t take sex crimes seriously. However, we are interested in the big picture, in how our society functions.
The National Level
Not all sexual assaults are against the law. Upskirting isn’t. Revenge porn became illegal only a couple of years ago. Other countries used existing communications or sexual assault laws to target these behaviours, but the UK didn’t. It seems odd to tell women to repress themselves in order to avoid sexual assault, then skimp on the laws which could much more easily prevent it.
Obviously the official position of all police forces is that sexual assaults are crimes. However, the police have been known to release public statements and posters which put the onus on women not to get raped, instead of on the perpetrators. Perhaps the most famous example is the “avoid dressing like sluts” speech which kicked off the SlutWalks. A lot of this material also gives the subtext of “make sure he rapes the other woman”. This is not stopping rape, it is in fact tolerant of rape. It’s also illogical from the police force’s point of view, as their job will be the same whether the rapist attacks Citizen A or Citizen B.
Reporting to the police is pointless for many victims, as the police drop most cases. On the TV programme Raped: My Story, a police officer claimed he “didn’t have the time” to talk to the witnesses and dropped the case. The victim contacted her MP and eventually the case was investigated, referred to the CPS, went to trial and her rapist was convicted. Had she listened to the officer, her case would’ve been dropped at the earliest stage. Another victim reported to the police and they told her it wasn’t rape. Rape Crisis encouraged her to report again through them. This time the police took the case, but by then the rapist had fled overseas and there wasn’t enough evidence to issue a European Arrest Warrant. I have heard of a friend of a friend who was raped in the west of central Scotland. When she went to report it, the officers insinuated it was her fault and asked what she was wearing or if she’d been drinking (with no reason; it wasn’t to do with CCTV or eyewitness reports). She left the station. The rapist is free to attack again. Only 1 in 14 reported rapes result in conviction. This begs the question of why anyone should bother to report at all. All most victims can hope for is to stress the rapist out by the possibility of charge or conviction. But this is at the expense of their own mental health. Even those with strong evidence who get justice have to go through an ordeal unlike any faced by victims of other crimes.
In the UK, victims are the ones put on trial instead of rapists. Some victims find the court process even more terrible than the rape itself. Victims routinely face humiliating and irrelevant questions about their underwear, sex life and if they use sex toys. Campaigner Hannah Price explains that the court’s treatment of victims is the reason she will never report her rape, and quotes another victim who told her how her rapist’s lawyer caused her to break down begging for him to stop, resulting in the collapse of the trial.
While only 2% of rape allegations are false- no more than for other crimes, and less than most- victims risk being prosecuted for making false reports. The crime of making a false rape allegation carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This is true even when they weren’t the person who called the police, and even when they didn’t name their rapist. (In fact, most false rape reports don’t name a perpetrator so nobody is affected). Vulnerable, mentally ill and teen victims are most likely to be prosecuted. And it’s money that talks. In one case that Buzzfeed investigated, the police believed the victim but didn’t have enough evidence to charge the rapist. The rapist- who had an uber-wealthy dad- funded a private prosecution against his victim for lying. When she asked the CPS to stop the case (they can stop private prosecutions if it doesn’t meet CPS thresholds for prosecuting), the CPS did the opposite- they saw the rapist had done all the work for them, so they adopted his case and prosecuted her themselves. This was despite knowing she had bipolar disorder and being warned that she was a suicide risk. She committed suicide out of fear of having her anonymity taken away. After her death, the police told her father she hadn’t lied and should never have been prosecuted.
In the USA, thousands of rape kits expired before forensic evidence could be gathered, due to lack of funds to test them. The statute of limitations for rape is so short in some US states- just two or three years- that even some kits which didn’t expire were tested too late for the rapist to be charged. Victims were called and told the identity of their rapist, and informed that it was too late to prosecute. Imagine being able to Google the person who raped you and know he got away with it. This funding issue isn’t the fault of the police, but it’s a national-level issue which highlights how unimportant sexual assault is to the American government. Rape victims in America also have to pay for emergency healthcare and forensic evidence collection, while victims of other crimes don’t have to pay. Therefore, sexual assault victims are treated worse than physical assault victims.
Going back to the UK, our Criminal Injuries Compensation Agency (CICA) refused to give compensation to grooming gang victims. This was despite the fact that the abusers were convicted of rape and other sexual assaults- and criminal compensation isn’t dependent on a guilty verdict. Its process is separate to the criminal justice system, so compensation can be given without the accused ever appearing in court. The victims were told that they had consented. New guidelines have been issued to prevent this, but the psychological harm has already been done. Especially considering that these girls were repeatedly failed by police, CPS and social services, whose negligence allowed the sex trafficking to continue for years.
So it’s clear that at the national level rape victims are constantly treated differently- and worse- than other crime victims. The police pretend to see rape as a crime, but their actions don’t deliver. The court’s purpose is to provide justice, but only 1 in 14 people gets justice. The court’s function toward raped women is to traumatise them further as a high price for justice or, more often, a high price for seeing their rapist walk free to rape again. Other agencies deny rape or fail to ensure rapists can be caught. Therefore, what these agencies say and what they do are very different. It is difficult to see in what way any of them are treating rape seriously.
There have been highly publicised cases in recent years, so here I will do little more than name-drop. The phenomenon of entire towns- sometimes including police forces- colluding to protect rapists and drive victims’ families out of town was exemplified by Steubenville, Maryville, and similar cases. Young peers’ slut shaming of underage victims was highlighted by Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicides. Sadly, the bullying they received seems to have been even more of a catalyst for their suicides than the abuse and rape were.
The public’s attitude to victims can be seen clearly in juries’ acquittal of most accused rapists. While people might act like they are opposed to rape, their actions don’t follow their words where it counts the most.
Therapists have also been found to blame both male and female rape victims.
Universities- including the UK’s top universities- ignore students’ rape reports and most have no reporting system available, refuse to do anything until it’s reported to the police, demand a criminal court standard of proof, or do not tell students they can report. British students are even less likely to be protected than their American counterparts. This is because we have no Title IX equivalent. Universities have no legal duty to deal with sexual assault or even accept a report.
Student welfare services sometimes victim blame survivors– treating them differently from non-survivors, whom they presumably support. I know of a case in which a victim was told over and over by a student welfare staff “you can’t call it rape”- even after the rapist confessed to said staff member. She was also initially refused counselling because “counselling wouldn’t help you, it’s all in your head, it’s to do with your thinking patterns”. The confessed rapist was offered counselling. (Four other students disciplined for non-crimes and minor crimes were not). The university refused to follow its own disciplinary policy by never making a decision on the rape case (allowing him to get away with it) and humiliating and blaming the victim in front of the rapist. All attempts to get justice, encourage the university to adhere to its policy, or raise the issue of victim-blaming were challenged by denying staff misconduct, denying the rape happened and additional victim blaming. After four months of waiting for the decision, the victim went to the vice-chancellor and was told that “this matter can no longer be talked about”. No apology was given for any of the multiple policy breaches or even for the agonising (and utterly pointless) four-month wait. The university has made no commitment to improving the way it handles sexual assault, nor has it updated its policy to reflect the reality that it will not handle any sexual assault cases. So a student reporting sexual assault is likely to believe the stated policy that it will be dealt with, but find instead that they are blamed or ignored and their rapist is the one who is protected. All of this happened at a university which touts itself as mental health positive and frequently stages publicity stunts regarding student mental health, such as provision of therapy animals and awareness talks- all covered in the media to promote an image of a caring institution. Obviously, it’s just a pretense to attract more students (it’s a small university). And it only takes one or two malicious employees to sabotage a well-meaning university’s welfare provision or disciplinary process. While some staff did try their best to support the student, this case illustrates that even in the most mental health aware universities, rape may not be taken seriously.
Cambridge openly disbelieved a victim and suggested she was lying to cover up cheating on her boyfriend- despite CCTV footage of the victim running down the street barefoot, crying and semi-naked. Only four British universities count rape as an extenuating circumstance if a survivor’s studies are affected, resulting in a student who was raped on her year abroad failing her exams. Reforms to support victims were drafted by UK Universities in 2016 but in March 2018, most universities hadn’t bothered to implement them. These are not the actions of institutions which care about raped students. That doesn’t mean individual staff don’t support students, or that some universities haven’t brought in new reporting systems. But it does mean that, in general, the institutional cultures of most universities are indifferent to- sometimes even strangely persecutory of- rape victims.
Schools have similar issues to universities. Refusal to deal with sexual assault, including cover-ups, is not uncommon as shown by this list of cases reported in the media. In 2011 a 16 year old survivor was expelled from an American cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer her rapist. Peers can also drive survivors to suicide as mentioned above. 16-19 year old Brits are far more likely to victim blame than people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. This may be explainable by lack of maturity, developing cognitive abilities (psychological adolescence- i.e. brain development- continues until age 22) or lack of life experience. Whatever the cause, high levels of victim blaming in this group means that school-aged and younger undergraduate victims may be particularly vulnerable to victim blaming.
From the way most people react to rape on the news, you’d expect them to be empathetic towards friends who’ve gone through the same thing. But friends can victim blame. Victim blaming and disbelief by friends can lead survivors to believe it was their fault. Some survivors think the police will also blame them, so don’t report it. One survivor was told by her friends not to call the police- even though they completely believed her- because if she did, they wouldn’t be able to attend Glastonbury as one big group. These “friends” thought that not being split into two groups was more important than reporting rape. So much so, in fact, that they spent weeks threatening her.
My memories of the night were hazy; the drunken texts with other friends to come and save me, coupled with the injuries I sustained were not.
At the crisis centre the next day, as I lay sobbing on the table being photographed and probed by 4 nurses, I received a barrage of phone calls and threats from certain friends telling me to go home, to not report it. Telling me that no it wasn’t consensual but ‘don’t ruin the group’ and ‘don’t ruin Glastonbury for us all.’…I was receiving 15 voicemails a day with threats…I couldn’t turn my phone on without getting more. I blocked the numbers…Facebook…Instagram, but they’d find more ways to get to me.
I have heard of a student raped at Oxford University whose friends believed the rapist’s story that she was lying to hide the fact that she’d cheated on her boyfriend. They all rejected her for lying and her grades suffered for over a year.
In another British university, a student told her postgrad friend (who knew she had been raped by another student) that more recently she had also been sexually harassed and assaulted by a member of staff. His response was “Why do you put yourself in these situations? Are you that desperate for male company?”. When she replied that the abusers had put her in those situations, he insisted “No. You put yourself in that situation. Or it wouldn’t happen.” The friend worked with trauma victims overseas, including rape survivors. When the student asked if he said the same thing to the victims he supported, he responded “They were rape-raped. They just stepped outside their front door and were raped.” (The student had been raped on the opposite side of the front door- i.e. inside a house instead of outside it.) When asked why the indoor-outdoor dichotomy was relevant to the crimes, he could not provide an answer. This friend used to walk the student home at night after she visited his flat. He acted as if sexual violence was so bad that he was personally responsible for protecting her from it, yet blamed her when it actually occurred.
Obviously there are lots of people who are very supportive to their friends, and some victim-blaming friends may also be supportive at other times, depending on their current mood. However not all friends take sexual assault seriously- even those whose job involves supporting rape victims.
Given that the individuals who restrict a girl’s freedoms most fiercely in the name of rape prevention are usually her parents, one would expect that parents would react with concern when, seemingly against their wishes, rape occurs. However this is seldom the case. I have chosen three case studies for careful reasons. Firstly, these are all people I met randomly. A selection of individuals from a group which deals with parental rejection of rape victims would tell us little about how widespread it is. Secondly, these families’ reactions cannot be laid at the door of culture, religion or location. One family is Christian, the other theist, another irreligious. One is of South Asian heritage, another British, another mixed. Two of the women were raised in Scotland and another in two other western countries. The crimes occurred in England, Canada and Scotland. Lest you think that these attitudes wouldn’t happen now, the women were 15, 20 and 25 when the crimes were committed, and all are currently under age 30. So far I’ve listed the girls’ differences; there are a couple of similarities. We’ll look at those after the stories.
It’s a bitter irony that so much emphasis is placed on not letting girls go out, yet “Lila” was raped because her mother locked her out of the house to teach her a lesson after she was an hour late getting home from a party, due to transport issues. The assailant was an adult acquaintance of the family who worked in the legal field, though she first met him at the party. Unknown to her at the time, he was also related to a friend of hers. The man took her from her friend’s home (which the group had returned to following the lockout) and drugged her. The next morning he lied to her that she’d consented and offered to drive her home. Instead her drove her to another building where he raped her for a few hours before driving her home. Her parents had called the police in the morning but they failed to find her in time to catch him in the act. When she got home, her mum told the police she had returned and they interviewed her. Lila lied that she had consented as she thought her mum would want her to keep the rapes a secret to avoid gossip. Despite her being underage, the rapist was not charged with statutory rape as he was related to police officers and lawyers. The police officer told Lila’s mother that if she locked her out again, she could be charged with neglect. Later Lila’s doctor found rophynol in her blood while testing for STDs. That was how Lila realised the first time had also been rape. Lila’s mother actually did want her to report the rape, but never told her this, or even asked then 14 or 15 year old Lila if she wanted to report or why she had lied to the police, until Lila brought it up around seven years later. Lila was affected by depression since the incident which caused her to have anger issues, get suspended and drop out of university more than once. The expulsions and drop-outs affected her education a lot and caused multiple changes of institution. Her parents did not believe she had depression even after diagnosis and expected her to just get over the depression. Her parents’ treatment of her caused Lila not to disclose subsequent rapes and sexual assaults committed by another individual a few years later.
Lila once speculated that the reason why her parents never broached the subject of reporting it was because the rapist’s close relative was her father’s business landlord, so he might have had to move. If Lila had been found to have been harmed by her mother’s neglect, there would also be an increased chance of her mother being prosecuted. Obviously these are just speculations, but whatever the reasons behind it, her parents failed her by raising her to feel shame about sexual assault and keep silent, then further failed to make sure she understood her decision not to report, as well as failing to help her with her depression. Only eight years later did Lila’s mother finally accept that she shouldn’t have neglected Lila and that if she hadn’t neglected her, Lila wouldn’t have been raped- but only after Lila said this. Her mother’s lack of disagreement with these statements felt like a victory to Lila, and sadly it does seem to be a hugely defining moment in her parents’ treatment of her.
Incredibly, Lila’s parents had 9 or 10 miscarriages before she was born and she almost died at birth. She was an only child. Most people would assume she would be very precious and her parents might be overprotective.
This story goes to show that rape victims are often treated cruelly by their families, no matter how much love they may appear to have. This may not be because the parents don’t love their daughters, but because rape is simply no big deal to them.
The next girl kept her rape a secret from her parents out of concern that it would cause them distress. When she finally told her mum a year later, her mum said it wasn’t rape because “boys find it difficult to stop” and told her not to tell her father. It has been suggested that this could be denial, but as this story illustrates the point that restricting movement does not protect women, I have included it here. And while this individual case may be one of denial, not every similar case can be explained away by denial. In another ironic twist, this mother also insisted on her daughter going to the rapist’s house to stay over, when the daughter didn’t want to go as it was a long journey to another district. Previously the mother had vetoed the young woman’s gap year travel plans as too dangerous. It is completely illogical that parents stop their daughters from wanted travel by citing risk, yet cause them to be raped by making them travel when they don’t want to. Sadly, this person completely missed out on her gap year because of her mum- and it was pointless: she was raped anyway, and she was raped “because of” her mum (though obviously her mum isn’t at fault like Lila’s was).
The last story is Ria’s. Similarly, a small part of the reason Ria didn’t go travelling a few years prior was because her mum thought it was dangerous for a woman to travel solo. But it was all for nothing because Ria was raped in Britain. When Ria was a teen she was frequently told that if she had not had the misfortune of being born in a female body, she would be allowed out for an hour later every day. All those lost hours were a sacrifice so that she would not be raped. Both losses of freedom resulted in her being raped despite all of her dedication to restricting herself.
Ria also delayed disclosing to her family in case it upset them. When she did tell her mum, her mum didn’t believe her because Ria said he didn’t stop instead of using the phrase “he continued”. She never bothered to ask Ria for clarification nor told her she didn’t believe it was rape. As the months went on, her mum said that he just couldn’t stop, that men find it hard to stop, it happened because Ria wanted sex, and that she felt sorry for the rapist being in a bit of trouble.
Ria had to wait months until she could see her mum face to face to tell the story. But as she was afraid to criticise the rapist too much, since her mum was partly on his side, she was never able to tell. Instead she tried to convince herself that it wasn’t a big deal and forced herself not to say anything about what happened or how it affected her. 1-3 hours a day were used to remind herself to keep silent and hide her emotions before getting up.
Ria once asked why her mum didn’t take the rape seriously, to which she replied that Ria hadn’t mentioned it was that bad until recently. This confused Ria as her mum had taught her as a child that all rape was a crime, so shouldn’t all rapes be taken seriously? Another attempt to discuss her feelings was simply diverted onto Ria not caring about her mum when she was a teenager. After a year her mum became impatient and said she should get on with her life. She also revealed that she noticed Ria was very unhappy almost every night (something Ria tried to conceal) but had never bothered to ask her what was wrong. Around this time some of the things Ria had been keeping silent about came out accidentally and she said she felt her mum didn’t care, naively expecting to be comforted at last. Instead her mum was angry and started victim blaming Ria, asking why she let him in and why she “agreed” to have casual “sex” with him, and said Ria was being very hurtful by saying she wasn’t being supportive. Ria was shocked because she had expected an apology but instead she had made her situation much worse by asking for support. She then decided not to continue trying to tell her story to her mum, but to get counselling instead.
For over a year a cycle continued of Ria accidentally slipping out her feelings or actively asking for support, and her mum reacting with anger and victim-blaming. Ria’s mother also claimed that she didn’t take it seriously because it wasn’t stranger rape, and that she was entitled to her opinion that stranger rape was the worst, that a woman who wanted to be a virgin (abstinent until marriage) would feel worse, but Ria had agreed to some sexual activity the second time the rapist attacked her (but not the first time). Other attempts were responded to with accusations that Ria “shouldn’t have had sex”, that Ria was tackling her, judging her or being too fussy. When the issue of Ria feeling as if she was being blamed for being raped (due to her mother shouting at her) was raised, the solution was given: just don’t be that picky.
It wasn’t until two years after the rape that Ria learned her mother had not believed her at first. The revelation was a relief. Ria’s counselor found this explanation for the mother’s disinterest hard to believe, because the rape being a surprise was common to all parents, yet Ria’s mother used that to justify not believing her. Ria had a desperate need to believe her mother’s explanation so considered quitting counselling in case her counselor revealed her mum’s story wasn’t true. Then her mum further revealed that it was the phrase “didn’t stop” that confused her, because she assumed that meant he stopped a few seconds later. She also thought he might have stopped a few minutes later, which she wouldn’t have counted as rape (even though most rapes only take a few minutes). She hadn’t asked how long it went on for because she didn’t want to pry into Ria’s private life. Ria was then able to stop doubting her mother and return to counseling. The effect of counselling was helpful but limited by Ria’s difficulty in trusting the counsellor not to get angry and because by then she was used to silencing herself. Ria regrets telling her mum as the biggest mistake of her life but knows she has only herself to blame.
Now, as to the similarities between these three girls: they are all either only children or only daughters. The families are all university educated and none struggle financially. Two of the parents have PhDs. Two of the parents worked in the legal field, so were more aware than other parents that rape is a serious crime. Two of the daughters went to private schools for at least some of their education. These girls were privileged and presumably valued by their parents. So if it could happen to them, it could happen to all of us.
All of these case vignettes show that when rape happens, it is not taken seriously by those most involved in restriction of movement. Parents enforce life-changing restrictions on daughters regarding being out at night and travelling, yet “cause” them to be raped by forcing them to go outside at night or travel. This is completely inconsistent. Parents justify restricting the movement of female children by presenting rape as so dreadful that the trade-off is worth it, then ignore daughters when they are raped. This, too, is inconsistent.
The explanation for this baffling illogicality is this: Restricting women’s movement is a cultural signal- similar to “virtue signalling”. Parents do it because it’s embedded in our culture, or to display their good parenting ability or show middle-class values of femininity or security. This demonstrates the power of patriarchy; popular culture often pushes the idea that ‘love conquers all’, but clearly parental love is conquered by patriarchy. Many Brits victim-blame female rape victims, and it appears that the fact that a rape victim is one’s daughter does not affect that.
Small children are treated more fairly even though most sexual assaults against children do not go “as far” as rape, and even though child sexual abuse victims aren’t always distressed at the time (due to lack of understanding of what is being committed, or lack of awareness if the child is too young to remember), especially regarding one-off “nonviolent” sexual assaults. While older children, teens and adults are traumatised by one-off assaults and assaults they cannot recall (because they don’t lack understanding and, unlike very young children, older children can recall the beginning and aftermath of assaults, so have a clear understanding of being drugged and raped). This is not to minimise molestation of young children or suggest that recollection of childhood abuse (or being informed of unrecalled childhood abuse such as an adult discovering they were molested as a toddler), doesn’t cause trauma in adults. Of course it does. Childhood abuse can have lifetime consequences including not only the better-known effects like PTSD and depression, but also lesser-known sequelae such as increased risk of obesity. (Indeed, lack of trauma at the time of the abuse is not confined to children. Sexual violence experienced by teens may also not be distressing at the time due to grooming; the only issues relevant only to young children are those of awareness/memory and understanding). Rather, I am making the point that we don’t care about child abuse enough when it affects older children and teenagers.
Since older children, teens and adults are also affected by sexual assault, may (in some cases) actually be distressed more than young children, are more likely to be physically assaulted or drugged, and are far more likely to experience more serious types of sexual assault such as rape, surely they should be treated with at least as much empathy as younger victims? However, from the preteen years onward, even those who are still legally children are blamed or disbelieved; only young children and victims of stranger rape are viewed more positively. (This is not to say that young children escape victim blaming altogether- courts and families do scapegoat children, especially when the perpetrator is a family member). The universal hatred of people who rape children doesn’t extend to rapists of teens and adults. The mobs who attacked innocent people because a tabloid falsely claimed they were paedophiles did not attack rapists who targeted grown women. One might argue that lists of adult rapists weren’t published so there was no similar opportunity. However, these rags know their audience. The reason they chose to publish a list of criminals who had sexually assaulted children instead of a list of criminals who had sexually assaulted adults, or simply a list of sex criminals not based on the age of their victims, is because the public care about victims who are little boys and little girls. Had the tabloid published a list of male rapists who’d attacked women, the responses of readers would probably be “what if the woman was lying?”, “it was a grey area” and “she was asking for it”. All of this goes to show that reactions to victims are illogical.
Older victims suffer the same or more than the youngest victims, so logically all victims should receive the same support regardless of age. However, this is not the case. Older children and adults are victim-blamed, disbelieved or assumed to necessarily never be traumatised as much as younger victims. There is less public outrage against those who rape adults than those who grope children. Lila was regarded as more of a woman than a child due to being a teenager. While she wasn’t blamed or disbelieved, the rapes simply weren’t treated in the same way that they would have been had she been a few years younger.
This is unsurprising as ‘unconditional love’ does not exist. We all operate in a culturally-dependent context and family bonds are influenced by culture. Hence, honour killings and forced marriages happen in some cultural contexts but not western contexts, while victim-blaming and not taking rape seriously happen in both.
For those who don’t believe in the existence of patriarchy, other explanations are available (in fact personally I don’t believe patriarchy to be the sole cause- things are rarely that simple). Such as the fact that preteens, teens and adults are no longer little and cute, so do not attract familial attention. It also may be to do with evolution. Caring for one’s offspring, or related young, is an instinctual drive which wanes as those offspring reach adulthood. So parents and close relatives may be simply biologically unable to feel much concern for raped teens and young adults.
The identity of the rapist also plays a part. It’s easy to get riled up about stranger rape- that’s the evolutionary trait of taking the side of your tribe against the outsider. But if the rapist is someone the family or victim knows, it’s more complex. If a victim is lucky, their family may feel that their trust was betrayed, such as if a babysitter molests her charge. Otherwise, patriarchy steps in to blame the victim. The media portrays mostly stranger rape which is actually the rarest type of sexual assault. And the news further covers mostly stranger rapes where there is no interaction beforehand (being grabbed in an alley is more commonly depicted than taking a guy home from a pub, being lured to a deserted spot or accepting a lift, despite all of these being stranger rapes). This is why Lila’s treatment was so different from that of Amanda Dowler (even before it was known she’d been murdered). Lila was abducted and raped by someone known to her parents, so to them it was no big deal.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are things we can do to help survivors avoid parental emotional abandonment. Remember Ria? It seems ludicrous that Ria never learned from her mistakes and continued to attempt to get her mum’s support, endlessly perpetuating the cycle and delaying her recovery (because each rejection became yet another issue to get over, prolonging the timespan). But it’s not as stupid as it appears when you consider that parental (especially maternal) affection is portrayed by society as a near-sacred force. Accepting that parents are flawed, that only child victims and stranger rape will elicit sympathy, and that unconditional love is a myth would help survivors make informed judgements about approaching their family for help. I don’t mean that any of this should be sanctioned, but that young people should be warned about negative reactions instead of schools teaching teens to simply “tell a parent” without a heads-up that without an abduction (Lila wasn’t known to have been abducted until she returned home), there will be yelling, not hugs, and the blame will be directed at the victim and not the abuser. Little else can be done; for under-16s there’s the child protection categories of emotional neglect and emotional abuse, but social services seldom intervene without co-occurring physical abuse. Over-16s have the choice of ceasing contact with family members, moving out, or simply accepting the abuse. I suspect most choose the last option.
We have looked at the national and social levels of our society and found that all do not take sexual assault seriously. Therefore restriction of women’s movement in the name of rape protection is a lie. Men restrict their movements slightly too, and I’m not calling on anyone to deliberately take the dark, quiet road when there’s a busy lit road of equal distance. I’m not suggesting everyone take pains to leave their phone at home and get mysterious about where they’re going just for the fun of it, or ignore people of any gender who are in obviously vulnerable situations. My point is that since we now know it’s all just a lie, we should not restrict women’s movement any more than men’s.