[TRIGGER WARNING: This post will discuss multiple instances of rape including gang rape and many related issues. While it will avoid unnecessary voyeurism it may be very upsetting to survivors of sexual assault and/or sexual abuse, or those with experience caring for them.]
Today was hard but good. I got a lot of chores done. Was feeling pretty strong. Took the kids to the park for a play, sat in the sun.
Considered by many, including myself, to be (as much as humanly possible) a well-healed and now vocal advocate for other victims and survivors of rape, gang rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault, it takes a hell of a trigger to knock the wind out of my sails these days.
However, seeing my favourite online publication publish an article extolling the virtue of giving rapists a media platform to defend themselves, and more critically assessing victims, all in the interests of “good reporting”, certainly did it.
Already I am turning the responsibility for the pain inward – wondering if the headline – “Hey Feminist Internet Collective: Good Reporting Does Not Have To Be Sensitive” should have warned me not to read the content. Maybe the URL, which suggests that the post was originally called “Spleen Venting Rant Rolling Stone Rape Thing” and then not updated after the title changed, could have given me further insight into the mind and/or competencies of the author. Certainly the lack of trigger warning within the article (rather astonishing in this day and age) did not prepare me for what followed but perhaps I should have sensed the inflammatory nature of the post and never read it.
Except that I know what will follow in this, my response, is important enough to dwarf the natural inclination to run for cover, to pander to my own resurfacing past humiliations and degradations by hiding within a blanket of silence.
Those days are long gone. My service is by speaking and speak I must. Especially for those who cannot.
My initial response on reading the article through – shock, soon followed by disbelief, rampant cursing under my breath, physical trembling, craving for nicotine, caffeine, any ‘ine’ at all that would help soothe (albeit temporarily) the instant psychological disassembling, the profound rejection. Once the trembling and cold sweat of all-encompassing dread began to subside, the rage came.
Soothed only by Yeats. Randomly opening his pages, which never forsake me – the first words I laid my eyes on, as always, are perfect.
Come, fix upon me that accusing eye.
I thirst for accusation. All that was sung,
All that was said in Ireland is a lie
Bred out of the contagion of the throng,
Saving the rhyme rats hear before they die.
Leave nothing but the nothings that belong
To this bare soul, let all men judge that can
Whether it be an animal or a man.
— W. B. Yeats; ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ from A Full Moon In March
While it may not yet seem it, this post is not going to be about my personal feelings, but very issue-focused. However, I am deliberately setting the scene with my own emotional reactions to provide an important insight into the human cost of the nonchalance of the detached, critical eye of the non-victim journalist, in the context of writing about sexual assault and sexual abuse.
I am, after all, just one victim, just one reader. Failure to account for the butterfly effect of such callousness as displayed in the article in question, from the lack of trigger warning to outright irresponsible statements like ‘possibly inflated – “epidemic” of sexual assaults on campus’, be it deliberate or non-deliberate, undermines victims, minimises rape culture and exhibits profound ignorance espoused at the author’s own peril.
Having finally calmed myself enough to begin writing this post, I didn’t trust myself to retain the thousand instant reactions swarming around my head so jotted down some quick notes. In sub 2 minutes, this was the result:
An emotive scrawl, but full of valuable premises worth sharing. Let’s work our way through it.
Why Do Victims ‘Lie’? A Case Study: Louise Nicholas
Perhaps the most recognisable gang rape victim in New Zealand history, Louise Nicholas never had a chance as an adolescent. Repeatedly molested and raped in her hometown of Murupara, inside the town police station by it’s sole-charge officer and later, his friends, the abuse of her spiralled into many years of gang rapes endured at the hands of multiple police officers in and around the North Island of New Zealand.
Conditioned since childhood to believe that she was just a play-thing for authority figures that seemed too powerful and intimidating for her to directly accuse, Louise reveals in her book ‘My Story’ that, in fear of retribution, she initially reported having been raped by “a group of Maori on horseback”, instead. This much-touted “false accusation” was used to discredit her countless later attempts to reveal the truth of what had happened to her.
As she explains herself in her book, she had no intention to ‘lie’ – but at 13, was moreso trying to convey to the adults in her life that something of significance had happened to her – a desperate cry for help and action – rather than an attempt to hold her specific attackers to account.
Despite the alleged deathbed confession of her first rapist, and the later partial convictions of others, Louise’s reputation was shattered by her inability at such a tender age, to give a frank, full and factually correct accounting of what was happening to her. Although she had lied in a desperate attempt at protecting herself, it was of course used as grounds for discounting all of her further testimony beyond that point, resulting in several hung juries in trials decades later.
However, Louise’s persistence and courage in eventually naming her abusers brought forward countless more victims of the same men. Their penchant for sexual abuse had culminated in several of them, including more police officers and even a fireman, participating in an outright kidnapping and gang-rape at a lifeguard tower in the Bay of Plenty – a crime for which they were remarkably (and, unfortunately, unusually) found guilty and jailed.
By the time the Nicholas trials came to pass (other corrupt police officers had managed to sabotage successive trials, deliberately causing mistrials and one in particular, Inspector John Dewar, was later jailed himself for perverting the course of justice in the Nicholas cases), several of her attackers were being transported to and from their jail to the courthouse, where their convictions and imprisonment were concealed from the jury, due to New Zealand law.
In these trials, the defendants were able to don suits and even police uniforms and sell themselves to the jury as fine, upstanding citizens, concealing the fact that some of them were already incarcerated for exactly the same types of crime perpetuated against other women. Every day they got on the stand and decried a now married and pregnant Louise Nicholas as a liar and a slut, then were secretly transported back to prison.
Nicholas herself describes in her book how the years of trials took such a toll on her that she became desensitized to telling her own story again and again and again, becoming “like a robot” and openly hostile towards defense attorneys in the court room. Kept in the dark about the countless other victims of these men and their prior convictions, the final jury found the defendants not guilty.
The Psychological State of the Victim and the Onus Upon Them
Wanting to be believed but being petrified of the end result of being believed is a recurring theme for rape victims. If you are believed there is hell to follow – if you are not believed there is hell to follow. There is no guidebook on how to deal with any of it. Our schools teach us how to use tampons, how to use condoms. They teach us “See something, say something.” But they do not teach us what to do if we are being raped. They do not teach us what will happen if we see someone else being raped and report it. These are problems that as a society we seem bereft of solutions to and thus shut out entirely.
There is always a power imbalance in rape. Whether it is the age of the perpetrator versus the age of the victim; the physical size of them, the environment, or the number of perpetrators. Whether it is an inter-generational incest situation, or a result of advance planning and premeditation on the part of the rapist, or their advanced sexual experience by comparison to the victim’s lack of sexual experience, or a combination of any of the aforementioned.
Victims are often physically intimidated and/or outnumbered and always the underdog. Yet most people do not consider the lack of qualification of the victim in making ‘correct’ decisions surrounding what to do during or after their rapes. The truth is in the eye of the beholder, and the opinion formed of the victim is a result of the individual bias of They Who Judge – with their luxury of the detachment of the uninvolved.
Always the onus is upon the victim. Did they ‘fight back’? Did they try to deescalate or escape from the situation? Did they report it fast enough? Did they report it accurately? Many times the victims are little more than children, yet we are told that without their timely and accurate testimony, prosecutions cannot proceed.
The recent New Zealand serial gang rape scandal known as #Roastbusters involved public confessions (in the form of bragging of their rapes and overt attempts to recruit other rapists) on social media by several of the rapists including relatives of police officers. Yet rather than independently prosecute the rapists under the many available provisions of the Crimes Act, senior Police officers instead blamed their fruitless three-year investigation (outcome: zero arrests) on the alleged actions or inactions of the 13-16 year old victims of the pack rapists.
Again, the measure was the perceived efficacy or sufficiency of the child victims. Never the actions of the perpetrators, the Police or the so-called Justice system itself.
Always, the victims have had no preparation for what has happened to them, no road-map on how to handle it, and often little to no familial or societal support.
Victim Support, staffed by volunteers who are mostly not rape victims, become the Police’s primary proffered support mechanism to victims, while their investigations ultimately go nowhere. 60% of victims do not report at all – 95% of victims never see the perpetrators convicted.
When a scandal like #Roastbusters blows up in the media, it is managed by P.R. staff, whose first strategy is to cast dispersions on the victims. Why? Because it works. Because society accepts it. Allows it to be a viable and acceptable tactic.
Those few trials that proceed are not about the actions of the rapist but the actions and accusations of the victims. Victims who do not participate in the farce are deemed responsible for the resulting lack of conviction. The entire judicial process is weighted against them. They are either guilty for having been alone or guilty for having been too social. Guilty for having been under-dressed or guilty for having been over-dressed. Guilty for having been drunk, even though everyone else who was not raped was also drunk. On and on it goes.
While doubt and scorn are heaped upon the victims, inside their minds, they are re-raped, over and over again. It is the very nature of rape that it creates imprinted memories that are even more difficult to escape than the judgment of the uninvolved. Eventually, as a mode of self-protection, as a coping mechanism, the mind begins to alter the memories to make them fractionally more bearable. This only adds to the confusion, as the resulting ‘inconsistencies’ are seized upon by all and sundry with vested interest to do so.
The victim is expected to produce and reproduce flawless recollections, irrespective of conscious and sub-conscious effects of the re-traumatization, and the inevitable passage of time.
So What Do The Girls Really Want?
The article that inspired this post says (of the Rolling Stone article being debunked) ‘if one of her assailants said, “HELL YEAH WE DID AND SHE WANTED IT!”, that would have been good to know: that guy is a pig.’
Is he a pig? Or is he a rapist? “She wanted it” is a very common defense. But what do these girls really want?
Contrary to the ‘Samantha’/cougar stereotype perpetuated by network television shows like Sex and the City, most women are not hyper-sexualised vixens just waiting to sink their claws into any male who happens to pass by. Certainly in the case of young teens, promiscuity is a learned behaviour, a result of acting out due to serial trauma rather than a genuine desire for routine and/or wanton sexual activity.
Let’s be real – what these girls want is approval. Acceptance. Love. All the good princess stuff that Disney has been selling them since they were toddlers. Romance. They want to feel beautiful. They want to be adored. To feel or act more maturely than they likely are. They want to feel safe.
But what do they get? Played. Penetrated. Defiled. Abandoned. Humiliated. Labelled. Judged. Blamed.
For those women unfortunate enough to lose their virginity through an act of rape the negative effects can be even more exacerbated. With no prior positive, genuine, caring experiences to build a comparison, the rape can set expectations for life going forward that are crippling for the woman involved.
Rape as an isolated incident is not the norm. Endemic in rape culture is the recurring nature of it. It is all encompassing – environmental – not just a single event that occurs, fades, then passes.
One of the most disturbing realisations when reading online rape testimony is that the victims often do not recount a single incident sexual assault or sexual abuse, but an entire life-long history of it. It becomes an ongoing theme rather than a single memory.
I recall being told by a psychologist that perpetrators can innately recognise past victims. That they actively look for them because the groundwork has already been done. That they know they are the ‘easier’ target, less likely to fight, cause a fuss, or bring undue attention. Less likely to complain. Less likely to report.
Indeed, despite Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s assertion towards the end of her article that “Magazines are not the best apparatus for justice-seeking victims…. Maybe the best place to deal with sexual crime would be a court of law”, the online realm is precisely where victims have been turning to en masse, because they are so clearly not achieving justice or healing through the courts.
From blogs to (*gasp* dirty word incoming) feminist publishers like Jezebel who advocate for victims internationally, to Twitter hashtags like #IDidNotReport & #WhenIWasRaped, victims are finding a voice, an audience, and support, that is not being effectively offered by their governments.
In the wake of global austerity, support services for victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse are considered non-essential and often stripped of state funding and/or shut down entirely.
Thus the access that the internet provides to professional pro-bono support and the sheer solidarity of fellow victims and sympathisers is priceless; its value incalculable.
Friendships forged through communal truth-and-reconciliation efforts like the aforementioned hashtags and communal spaces on the World Wide Web save lives – while judicial processes such as those advocated by Vargas-Cooper routinely cost lives.
The Sick Trend Of Rape Glorification Through Media
From #Roastbusters to #Steubenville, to the gut-wrenching and ultimately fatal desecration of Rehtaeh Parsons, men aren’t just raping women and girls, they are creating media, be it photographs, videos or other sick, perverted keepsakes, and circulating them publicly to create lasting images and to gain infamy from their crimes.
This development – the intersection of under-prosecuted, heinous crimes, immortalized through digital media, means the rape is no longer a single event. It is a recurring nightmare. An overwhelming, omnipresent, public shaming that never ends. Once mirrored, copied, amplified, there is no take-down notice that can remove it entirely. It exists to haunt and torment the victim forever more.
To think that in this day and age that there would be a single journalist worth their salt advocating for providing another digital platform to alleged rapists, via one of the most cutting-edge publications in the digital sphere, is beyond belief.
Rape Apologism, Deniability, and Opportunity
There is so much more to write on these topics it would be easy to go on for days. No matter what any trite op-ed tries to tell you, this is not a cut and dry issue. It sorely needs vast amounts of education, compassion, and INtolerance for the perpetrators, in order to effect any real change, and mostly the funding and political will is just not present.
I could so easily write about how, just a few days ago, a man confronted with the reality of rape prosecution and conviction statistics, immediately tried to tell me about the one story he knew of a woman who he was sure had “made up” her rape complaint, framing a completely innocent man, costing him two years of his life, yadda yadda.
Yes, there is always “that one case” or “that one girl” that apologists can cling to – as if doing so somehow invalidates every other instance of one of the most prevalent and pervasive societal ills we face and are subjected to.
Apologists worship the single anomaly to justify ignoring the criminal mass. It is profoundly depressing that there is now a ‘The Intercept’ link for them to do it with.
In all fairness, in the ~10 months The Intercept has been publishing, I have absolutely loved every single article they have ever printed. This is literally the first such experience I’ve had of distasteful writing from them. Being such a high quality publication, it doesn’t feel entirely fair to blame them for this. But where was the editorial process that allowed Vargas-Cooper to publish a URL that coined the disgusting and callous new term “Rape-Thing”?
Even more depressing than this turn of events is listening to people you thought were friends talk about how they had this or that opportunity to rape a girl, but didn’t. They are actually proud of themselves for their abstention. “Even though she was really drunk and passed out, I didn’t rape her. I just lifted up her skirt and masturbated myself while she was sleeping. In the morning she thanked me for not touching her. She knew I could have.” These are actual words spoken.
Does that shock you? Do you think it’s a one-off? Well check your crystal ball again.
Reading the acclaimed book ‘Unplugged’ by Ryan Van Cleeve, you’ll come across a lot more than is mentioned in this Guardian piece about it. Rather than just a book about a World of Warcraft addict and his healing process, Van Cleeve gives fascinating insight into his college experiences that pre-dated his career as a university lecturer.
One of the anecdotes he retells is of passing by a dorm room where a pantiless cheerleader-type was passed out cold. He infers she had been improperly interfered with. He notes having the opportunity to follow suit but chooses not to. Again the tone is of somehow rising above.
Does he stop and call the police? No. Does he alert others? No. He has of course, already gone the extra mile by not (also) raping her.
The fact that men feel able to tell stories such as these with impunity and even believe themselves to be the heroes of the story, just by having abstained from blatant penetrative rape, is shocking, and so common.
This is how low our societal standards – that those who don’t rape feel they are to be commended. As if I should be commended for not murdering the next pizza guy that makes a delivery to my door, even if I’d sit quiet while someone else does, and tell myself it is none of my business, or that the pizza guy would probably prefer I not make a complaint because only 5% of cases make it to conviction anyway.
Even I fall into the “well at least he’s not a rapist” trap on occasion. Having spent the night at a well-known NZ media figure’s apartment, and rejected his romantic advances, I lay literally petrified that he would ignore my stated wish to not move beyond the platonic. Fortunately, he was a perfect gentleman and did not. Yet when I later had unrelated issues with him, I often said to myself “well at least he’s not a rapist.” As if that had any bearing whatsoever!
This is how dire the situation is – that we have been conditioned to feel gratitude for not being raped.
Ask a man about whether he is a rapist, as Vargas-Cooper suggests is “good reporting”, and he is unlikely to implicate himself. However, ask him about others having done it, and he is likely to be more forthcoming.
It is a genuine shame that Vargas-Cooper fails to realise the part she herself is now playing in perpetuating rape culture. By insinuating that women should cease seeking emotional refuge in non-legal outlets and instead continue to submit to a broken, ineffectual court system, often to their own further endangerment, is ludicrous enough. But the tone of her ensuing tweets of her article are just plain juvenile.
Ignoring her bizarre tweet and attitude, her logic just doesn’t hold up. Let’s examine the promo sentence that accompanies her article. “It is not rude or belittling to seek quotes from alleged horrendous rapists; good reporting is not victim shaming.”
Discounting the needlessly inflammatory descriptor ‘horrendous’, which in this context seems to be applied sarcastically at best – let’s just simply remove the term “rapists” and insert some others in its place.
How about this: “It is not rude or belittling to seek quotes from alleged perpetrators of hate crimes; good reporting is not victim shaming.”
Or this: “It is not rude or belittling to seek quotes from the Ku Klux Klan; good reporting is not victim shaming.”
Or this: “It is not rude or belittling to seek quotes from child molesters; good reporting is not victim shaming.”
Or this: “It is not rude or belittling to seek quotes from sex traffickers; good reporting is not victim shaming.”
If rape victims are fair game, and “horrendous rapists” just the interview subjects of “good” reporters – what next? An interview with Darren Wilson? Or Eric Garner’s killer? All in the interests of “good reporting?”
Would you tell Michael Brown’s family, or Eric Garner’s family, that the Court system should be their only outlet for their pain, outrage and quest for real justice?
Would that be “good reporting“?
Real ‘Good Reporting’: How To Ethically Cover Sexual Violence
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School, has published this fantastic guide for how to ethically report on sexual violence. It is the first of its kind that I have seen and should definitely be studied and embraced by any journalist covering issues of rape, sexual abuse or sexual assault.
It is a massive relief to see that at least some people take these issues seriously. Here’s hoping the principles contained in it can be more widely practiced in the future.
[This post was blogged live. Thank you for watching. Given time and opportunity more source links will be added.]
Written by Suzie Dawson
Official Website: Suzi3d.com
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