Having stumbled across it quite by chance myself, I’m unsure how many people would have tuned in to Channel 5’s Raped: My Story on Wednesday. When I settled in to flick through what the banality of weeknight TV had to offer I had envisioned settling on something entertaining and not at all serious. Or catching up on Louis Theroux.
Instead I found myself glued to my seat and entirely struck by the strength and pain of the women looking back at me, into the camera, sharing their stories about what it cost them to speak out about being raped.
‘Rape’ is a word a lot of us find difficult to use in popular discourse. In private or in public, for men and women, it is a universally unsettling and stigmatised term in everything from journalism and social media to politics and the judicial system.
Watching these women recount their harrowing and intensely personal violations caught me completely off-guard. I wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t ready for the loss, for the lack of justice, for the transformations these women were forced to undergo as they developed a skin thick enough to deflect the misconceptions, doubt and counter-accusations being heaped upon them at every turn.
These women suffered rape or some other [NOT LESSER] form of heinous sexual abuse; were violated; had the courage to come forward and attempt to press charges; and were serially let down by an interminable string of individuals and governing bodies, from the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to the juries that served on the fraction of cases that made it to court.
These women were barred from seeking justice, denied closure, and advised not to pursue their cases by people in positions of power. Their ordeals were characterised as nothing out of the ordinary: ‘sometimes these things happen.’ Best to let it lie. Don’t make a scene, whatever you do, don’t make a scene. How unbecoming. You’re alright now, aren’t you? No harm done.
The statistics quoted in the documentary speak to the appalling way that sexual assault cases are dealt with in legal and political terms.
There isn’t enough [FORENSIC] evidence [HER TESTIMONY IS EVIDENCE]. Had you been drinking. What on earth were you wearing? But you had sex with them the week before. Did you actually say ‘no’? Why didn’t you run? Why are you only coming forward NOW?
Such are the myriad prejudices and assumptions that discredit and place blame on survivors. On Channel 5’s debate program Petronella Wyatt let us all in on a secret: the length of your skirt predicates your desire for unsolicited sexual advances. Her blithe sweeping statements cited alcohol consumption and wardrobe choices as reason enough to expect sexual advances and/ or violence. Miniskirts in parliament are open season. ‘What do you expect?’
We do not expect someone else’s hands in our back pockets. On our waists. In our hair. Between our legs. Around our wrists.
Our skirts are not inadvertently soliciting sexual comments or advances on our behalf.
The debate scrutinised the power of the #MeToo hashtag in the court of public opinion, and the ‘mob’ mentality apparently surrounding Tweets about sexual harassment and violence.
There is a reason survivors feel more confident Tweeting than walking into a police station. Why the Twitter mob is addressed in lieu of a jury.
It has taken a hashtag to give victims and survivors the confidence to speak out – and they are, finally, in droves. Is this cause to celebrate the unifying power of the digital age in which we live? Can we finally address the failings of our judicial systems that systematically prevent victims from accessing a more concrete justice in the legal sense?
Our answer to the rape question needs to change. The mantra needs to be
DON’T RAPE. Not DON’T GET RAPED.
Rape and sexual violence are complex and upsetting topics. Channel 5 compiled a very helpful list of some places you can go and people you can call for guidance and support. It’s here.