A World Without Shame | How do we Transcend Rape Stigma?
This is another article about violence against women. I know. There are so many stories about violence and rape, and you’re weary of them all. You’re familiar with the physical pain, broken bones, infection, pregnancy, the mental harm. It saddens you. It makes you feel bad.
So I want to look at it another way: not to take away all that ugliness, but maybe to make it less powerful, less intractable.
Remember the statement of the Stanford rape victim, which so appalled us all at the beginning of the summer? I study gender based violence, and in spite of the beauty and power of this statement, over the weeks after I read it, it somehow merged with the many other statements of its kind. When I returned to it, I expected to find certain tropes. Self-hatred and self-blame. Social opprobrium, or the fear of such opprobrium. Gossip. But those things are not present in this account (or barely there). To be sure, the statement is harrowing, full of brutality, fear and anxiety, a life devastated. And yet, this clarion voice doesn’t just reject the stigma of rape, it transcends it, denies it. Here she is, asserting her right to be a young woman at a party, turning the focus away from her:
I was too drunk to speak English, too drunk to consent way before I was on the ground. I should have never been touched in the first place (…) But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal.
These are behaviours that almost every society judges and stigmatises. A woman speaking publicly about a sex act. A woman involved in sexual behaviours with a man who is not her husband. A woman, out alone, not only drunk but incoherently so. Taboos and judgement keep these behaviours hidden away and enable them to happen. The Stanford victim ignored the stigma. She chose to speak to society as it would be without shame. She said: “I should have never been touched in the first place.”
In 2014, a court case made headlines here in Ireland following a horrendous episode of child abuse. Two young girls in Athlone, aged 6 and 9, were lured away from a birthday party and raped by a strange man. There is no way of diminishing the horror of this story. The girls told their parents exactly what had happened, the culprit was arrested, prosecuted and charged. He is now serving two life sentences. This story is remarkable not for its viciousness, but because it’s so rare that justice is served.
Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, former CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, brought that case to my attention. She believes that shame is one of the biggest deterrents to reporting incidents of violence against women. The cases of the Stanford rape victim, and the Athlone child victims, give us a glimpse of sexual violence without shame. The violence is still brutal, still inexcusable – but it doesn’t pin the victim in the same stranglehold of blame and self-judgement.
For Ellen, a psychotherapist as well as an activist, the difference begins most crucially in childhood. The young woman and children in these stories all grew up in homes where they were valued and they knew it. They knew that when they spoke they would be believed, at least by their own families. Ellen points to policies that make a difference: the Irish girls had been exposed to the Stay Safe programme in their school, a programme that encourages children to critically understand adults’ actions and to speak out about things that make them uncomfortable. She talks about educating children early, and educating them together, boys and girls, to expose rumour, gossip and judgement.
The actions of these three young people give us a tiny glimpse of a society where violence against women is a crime like any other, treated with the seriousness and sensitivity it deserves. We’re a long way from that society still. The Stanford victim made a choice, a difficult one and a courageous one. The stigma still exists, and although she wasn’t immune to it, she chose to resist it, to deny its power. It’s not until the end of her long statement that we encounter what, for some people, is a central feature of their experience of assault:
Every time a new article come [sic] out, I lived with the paranoia that my entire hometown would find out and know me as the girl who got assaulted. I didn’t want anyone’s pity and am still learning to accept victim as part of my identity. You made my own hometown an uncomfortable place to be.
We can’t expect all victims of assault to have this eloquence and confidence. This statement is a gift, a missive from the future. We won’t get to that future relying on the courage of victims alone. It’s the role of the state, not brave individuals, to ensure that all victims are treated with dignity, and to see to it that all children are educated equally, to respect themselves and others. So we look to our government to implement policies across sectors that can stand up to centuries-old taboos, and return dignity to us all.