Reporting rape – a problem of perception?

Posted by irresponsibility

There is something disturbingly fanciful about the (anonymous) Guardian feature titled ‘Now he can’t hurt anyone else’. It is about a rape – a particularly brutal, random, life-twisting attack. Really, though, it’s about the aftermath, urging us to see the silver lining; the sympathetic, efficient police; the capture of the perpetrator; his eventual imprisonment. We are invited to observe that sometimes the system does work. “I wanted to write this. To reassure people that rapists can, and do, get caught and convicted. That, in my experience, reporting rape can be a better experience than it is often painted,” the author explains.

“The system is a good… by bashing it in the press… we do nothing to encourage victims to come forward” she says, bravely. You can’t fault her good intentions. Much less argue with her experience. Yet the tone of the feature strikes me as a vague, wishful, a trifle Pollyanna-ish. She invites us to think that things are getting better, but the language itself is laced with hesitation (“reporting rape can be a better experience than it is often painted” is hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo).

Ugly truths snarl out between the lines. In the wake of the attack (she was followed into her empty house by a stranger and raped violently at knifepoint) the author admits she, “didn’t want people to suspect anything more than that I had been violently mugged.”

She couldn’t even bear to tell her family. “I waited a day to break it to my parents, initially telling them I’d been mugged.”

She doesn’t say why she was so reluctant to tell the truth about the crime, doesn’t have to. We are expected to understand that you can’t just tell people you’ve been raped. We are expected to understand that rape is too shameful, too horrifying, too likely to cause people to ask (or at least think) uncomfortable questions. (“What were you wearing?” “How much did you have to drink?” “Did you scream?”)

Much less does the author examine the implications of her feelings in light of the specifics of her attack. As a victim of a classic, cop-drama worthy rape (bad guy, knife, bushes, etc) she was still terrified of being judged. “Would they think it was my fault because I’d had a few drinks? Would they think me foolish for not being walked to my front door? …Would they think I was unmoved or making things up?” she asks, poignantly.

If she felt like that, imagine being the victim of a more “ambiguous” crime. Imagine being the woman on a night out who wakes up naked in a strange bed, sick and used. The woman whose boyfriend coerces her into sex. The teenager who isn’t sure if it’s her fault the guy wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Rape is rape. Having a man you meet at the bar force himself on you after a few cocktails is no different, and no less traumatic, than being ambushed by a maniac, but – let’s be honest – the public perception of the crime is totally different. In a case like the one outlined here, where there are signs of violence to affirm what happened, it is possible to receive an empathetic police reaction, to hope for justice.

What lies unuttered, though, is that reporting anything less than a “textbook” assault leaves women vulnerable to being disbelieved. To the slight roll of an eye that suggests, “What did she expect doing that?” To the risk that going to the police will simply add humiliation to anguish. To bleak self-doubt: “Was it my fault?”

As much as I would like to believe in happy endings (“the judge handed down a total of 10 years imprisonment”) we are a long way from being able to safely generalise from the particular, here. The real problem isn’t, as the article suggests, women’s perception of attitudes towards rape. It is the attitudes themselves.


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20 thoughts on “Reporting rape – a problem of perception?

  1. I find it interesting that you suggest that violent rape is equal to coercion by other means. Could you explain further? Also, I would like to hear your opinion on whether women should always be the ones who decide if sexually aggressive behavior is acceptable. Thanks. John Bryan Stone

  2. If a person is subjected to sex against their will it’s rape, regardless what means are used. Violence just happens to be the most obvious and easily understood method of coercion. A burgler might get into your house by picking the lock, or by driving a JCB through your front door, either way, you get robbed.

    I don’t understand your second query. Are you suggesting there is ever a circumstance in which a woman *doesn’t* have the right to decide what type of sexual behaviour she finds acceptable?

  3. My second query is clarified thus: is there ever a circumstance in which a man doesn’t have the right to decide what type of sexual behavior he finds acceptable?

  4. Everyone, male or female, has the right to define what is acceptable sexual behaviour *for them*. No-one has the right to inflict their ideas about “acceptable” on someone else.

  5. Zoo,

    I agree, people do not have the right to inflict their ideas of “acceptable” behavior. Men should not tell women how to dress, dance, flirt, or express their sexuality in ways that they choose, as long as there is no force. Similarly, women should not tell men how and when to flirt, speak, date or hire prostitutes. I wonder when we got the idea that we could tell others how to act?

  6. My comments are hypothetical. I included the hiring or prostitutes as an example of something that might be readily called “objectionable” by many women, but upon reflection is not within their realm of approval or disapproval.

    I myself hire prostitutes on occasion, but I do not seek approval to do so.

    Perhaps my comment is therefore hypothetical, but based on personal experience.

  7. i think you’re mistaking the object of most women’s objections. it’s not about *you*, it’s about prostitution as an industry…

    i object to prostitution for the same reason I object to sweatshop labour: it’s exploititive. those involved are doing repetitive, joyless, soul-crushing “work” under varying degrees of compulsion, with little recourse against abuse and are scant regard for their safety or well-being.

    even if I didn’t believe prostitution was inherently fucked-up, which i do, i would object on behalf of all the women and girls who are forced into sex slavery.

  8. I have never engaged a sex slave and will not do so. I find prostitution to be as valid a profession as any other. In fact, I find many “legitimate” jobs much more exploitative, repetitious, joyless and soul-crushing. All work is compulsive, and there is little recourse against abuse because you will lose your job if you object.

  9. define “just as valid”? would *you* be prostitute? you would be happy if your girlfriend or daughter were?

    incidentally, because other jobs are shit doesn’t mean prostitution *isn’t*. i object to wage slavery in all its forms…

  10. I have occasionally enjoyed girlfriends who were prostitutes. I would encourage my daughter to invest wisely and have a second career in mind that uses education more than physical labor.

    I object to wage slavery as well. My brother is currently doing hard labor at age 51 just to pay the bills. Ouch! That doesn’t make prostitution okay, you are correct. What makes prostitution okay is it allows some women to make high earnings in spite of a lack of education (or even fund their education!).

  11. i respect your ability to practice what you preach.

    (am i to infer from the comment about your brother you’re american?)

    what you’ve arrived at is the economic coercion factor in prostitution… yes, it pays well. but ask yourself, why? traditionally for a menial job to pay well it has to be something pretty horrible that most people would only turn to in desperate measures. economics don’t justify prostitution; prostitution exposes the gaping inequities in our economics (why should a woman have to sell her body to get an education?!)

  12. Why should a man have to sell his body to get an education? Physical labor is the bane of male existence. I find the whole situation unacceptable, and I would certainly encourage any prostitute to find a way to get a job that uses her mind more, so she can make more money and have a longer career.

  13. personally, i don’t equate doing heavy lifting (which I have, incidentally, women do manual labour also) to getting fucked by strangers. but that’s me…

    anyway, this has been a most interesting discussion but has wandered far away from the point of my post, so i’m going to end it here.
    if you have more to say write your own blog! and send me the link.

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