By Izzy Smith
CN: Graphic discussion of sexual assault,
The other day a friend of mine, a rape survivor herself, expressed her frustration about a Facebook post by another woman, bearing the hashtag ‘Me Too.’ The post asserted that ‘every single girl needs to speak out about any case of assault or harassment to show the world how pervasive it is.’ My friend pointed out that ‘it’s not the responsibility of the survivors to be saying ‘me too’. It’s the responsibility of the rapists and assaulters…to just fucking stop, really.’ This prompted me to give more thought to a campaign I had previously found encouraging.
Her comments about the unfair placement of responsibility on survivors are unavoidably true. Marginalised people often face the pressure to reveal and discuss their experiences, with little regard shown for their own wellbeing. A common example of this is LGBT+ celebrities, who are told they have a duty to their fans to come out. This sense of shame and misplaced responsibility is only heightened with rape survivors, who are pressured to take responsibility for their rapists’ actions again and again. They are told they should have avoided being raped in the first place, generally by limiting their behaviour even more than most women already do for fear of violence. They suffer victim-blaming and slut-shaming from those around them, and too often from the institutions that are supposed to protect them, such as schools, and even the courts themselves. It’s unlikely a coincidence that conviction rates for reported rapes are far lower than other crimes, at only 5.7%. Rape survivors face pressure to go through this distressing and rarely successful court process, fed the idea that they must prevent the perpetrator from raping again. With ‘Me Too,’ once again we are seeing responsibility being placed on survivors, this time to fight to have their voices heard.
“At school, people’s definitions of rape and assault were so narrow that the words were more taboo than the actions themselves.”
Still, I was initially relieved to see women speaking about the abuse they have suffered so openly. So often women are forced into silence by vicious slut-shaming, and a kind of guilt tripping that tries to colour them as responsible (again) for consequences their abusers may suffer. At school, people’s definitions of rape and assault were so narrow that the words were more taboo than the actions themselves. People would laugh at stories of drunk girls being ‘taken advantage of,’ girls non-consensually being roughly manoeuvred during oral sex, or simply girls being pressured or forced into sex. ‘Real’ rape involved strangers down dark alleyways, and distant girls who made bad choices, and whose fault it probably was anyway. ‘Me Too,’ at its core, is an attempt to combat these ideas, a desperate call for people to take rape and sexual abuse seriously.
Ostensibly, ‘Me Too’’s primary aim is to tackle denial that rape is a systemic issue, by showcasing its prevalence. But the frequency of sexual assault is sufficiently well-evidenced that it should already be undeniable. One in five women aged 16-59 have experienced sexual violence since the age of 16, and nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted each year. One in three teenage girls in England have been pressured into doing something sexual by a partner. These statistics are readily available – why then the need, and the pressure, for these personal revelations?
In my view, what ‘Me Too’ really tackles is this perception of rape as distant and rare. It proves that this has happened to women we know, not simply distant women we can readily slut-shame and dehumanise, or even imagine that they deserved it. It is no coincidence that, in condemning Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, Republican politicians spoke about protecting ‘our wives and daughters.’ That we are still having to point out that the people we know can be subject to sexual assault demonstrates how eager we are as a society to form a narrative of exception around rape, that only a certain ‘type’ of person (usually flirtatious, drunk or promiscuous) can be raped. And of course the idea that any behaviour invites rape is as common as it is dangerous: Rape Crisis UK finds that one third of people think that women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped.
But what ‘Me Too’ can’t address is a perhaps even more damaging aspect of this narrative of exception: the idea that only a very few, remarkably evil people commit rape. As anti-sexism educator Jackson Katz notes in his wonderful TED Talk Violence against women – it’s a men’s issue, ‘The perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness.’ This idea, described by Katz as ‘a naive way of understanding what is a much deeper and more systemic social problem,’ is one used to skirt the issue, to deny that the likelihood of rape is worryingly high, and to avoid a shared societal effort to address the causes of this, especially one involving examining the impact of gender.
Unfortunately, only the people not directly affected by an issue have the luxury of ignoring it, and when they choose to do so, this further harms oppressed and mistreated groups. These groups, whether ethnicities, genders, or sexual orientations, are forced to struggle constantly just to have their oppression taken seriously, so that it can at least start to be addressed – a struggle which is distressing, exhausting, and potentially re-traumatising. This also enables the disengagement, and shifting of focus away from, the people who prop up and benefit from unjust systems, whether through inaction or direct exploitation. Speaking about kinds of violence, such as rape, that are rendered more common and likely by gender conditioning and perceptions, Jackson Katz notes that, ‘Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem for a number of reasons,’ going on to note the irony that ‘men have been largely erased from so much of the conversation about a subject that is centrally about men.’ Of course, people of all genders can be perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence, but it is undeniable that misogyny and destructive masculine ideals play a huge part in why the sexual assault of women by men is so common, and that these issues need to be tackled in any effort to combat rape culture.
“Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem for a number of reasons.”
What is truly needed is a perpetrator-focussed response, both preventatively, by teaching sexual consent in every school as an intrinsic part of sex education, and in the form of a fairer justice system that truly protects survivors. We also, as a society, need to all recognise the prevalence and impact of sexual assault, and work to dismantle contributing societal factors such as slut-shaming and gender ideals of aggressive masculinity and passive demure femininity.
Of course, the brave people revealing that ‘Me Too’ almost certainly know that this is what is really needed, but they also know that this simply isn’t being done. The fact that people are feeling obligated to share one of the worst experiences of their lives is not simply due to individual misguided comments like the one that angered my friend, or the pressures of online momentum, but due to how badly they are being failed. It categorically should not fall to sexual assault survivors to share their personal traumas in order to create change. It should be shocking to everyone that so many survivors agree we are still stuck at the stage of recognising that assault is systemic and widespread. If, as I certainly agree it is, this simple recognition and belief in the problem is still so unforthcoming, how much more work must be done to even get to the point where we can meaningfully collaborate as a society to combat the problem?
I hope for a time when rape will be rare and punished effectively, and when attention to consent is the norm. But, in the interim, I’m still hoping for people to agree that this is a problem worth tackling, without survivors being made to feel once again responsible for the actions of others.