Myths and misconceptions that harm fight for justice

Many male and female victims of sexual assault watched the trial in Belfast like it was their own, writes Joyce Fegan

Have you ever noticed how some seemingly mundane moments in your life can stick with your forever?

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my school career guidance counsellor when I told her I wanted to study law. Her face contorted a little and she asked me why. Sixteen-year-old me was disappointed that my grand plan hadn’t impressed her.

“Because I want to fix the injustices in the world and make it a better place,” I answered defiantly.

There was silence for a while and I shifted in my seat until she spoke.

“There is a difference between the law and justice. Sometimes there are other ways to fight for justice in this world,” she said eventually.

I left, disgusted at her obtuse remark that I was too naive to interpret at the time. Whatever she had meant, I would prove her wrong: Justice could be served through our court system.

A law degree later, her words remained with me and I, still naive, still thought she was wrong.

A decade or so later, I now know, for sure, that Ms Griffin was right.

There is the law and there is the justice system. And among all that, there are those seeking justice.

Regardless of the outcome of the Belfast rape trial, there are many male and female victims of sexual assault who watched it like it was their own.

There are the men whose bodies were violated while they were unconscious.

There are women who were living in lands where the law favours the opposite sex and you were told, “You shouldn’t have been out alone after dark.”

There are teenage girls who felt backed into a corner at a party and didn’t want to be labelled as “frigid”.

There are others who simply didn’t want to cause a scene, because the bigger drama you make, the worse it can be.

Then there are those where the crimes that were committed against their skin happened so many years back that any possible shred of evidence has disappeared long ago.

What all of these people will have in common is a distinct lack of rage. They will play over and over in their mind all the reasons why they were culpable.

“I didn’t say no.”

“I had drink taken.”

“I walked into that room.”

“It’ll be my word against theirs.”

“No one will believe me.”

“It wasn’t really rape anyway.”

And the most damaging: “I didn’t shout or scream. I just lay there.”

Let’s start with that one: “I just lay there.”

We play dead to stay alive. It’s what the ingenious human body does to survive. It’s called the polyvagal theory. The brain reacts to various risk situations. Once the brain has identified there is a risk, our body will respond in one of three ways; Fight, flight, or, in especially dangerous situations,

response and in especially dangerous situations - the body will

become totally immobilised.

Think of yourself out for a walk in the forest and you spy a hungry-looking wolf.

Will you take flight and run over the dried-out twigs so he can most definitely hear you? Do you take him on in hope of restraining a wild and hungry beast without a weapon? Or do you freeze, barely inhaling a breath, in the hope that he will leave you alone and you will survive?

When it comes to rape and sexual assault, this is what most men and women do. They freeze. However, this is not just theory anymore, this is scientifically proven and peer- reviewed data from last June.

In a sample of 298 women treated at a Swedish rape clinic in the space of one month, 70% reported an inability to resist their attacker. It is called tonic immobilisation. It is an evolutionary defence response to a predatory attack. A further 48% reported experiencing extreme tonic immobility.

The research was published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica.

The reason the research is so crucial to our proper understanding of rape is two-fold. Often in court room and in police stations, this immobilisation is confused with consenting. “But you didn’t scream, can you explain that?”

The second , and most important reason the Swedish research is so significant is because victims can experience profound feelings of shame for their supposed inaction.

“Victims tend to blame themselves for not resisting, so the fact that seven out of ten have paralysis is useful to know,” said lead author of the study, Dr Anna Moller, of Stockholm South General Hospital and the Karolinska Institute.

This key piece of information can help blast through all the myths that surround the crime of rape. Myths like how clothing provoked rape.

If clothing was anything to do with rape, rape rates would sky-rocket in the summer when skirts, shorts, and bikinis come out, but they do not.

Myths like alcohol diminishing the innocence of the victim — if alcohol was a cause of rape, sober people and teetotallers would never get raped, but they do.

And finally the myth that your sexual history or “promiscuity” can somehow cause rape — if this was correct virgins would never get raped, but we all know that is not true.

So what are we to do?

Right now, we have all these myths and dire statistics showing that in Ireland, 42% of victims never tell anyone, just 8% of them report to authorities, and only 8% of cases that go to court result in conviction.

Let’s look to New Zealand. Its law commission has recommended specialist sexual violence courts, where there are no juries, just expert judges and lawyers, well versed in the myths that surround rape.

The argument is that there are “powerful cultural conceptions” that are “unique to sexual violence as a form of criminal offending”. Some of these can include moral beliefs about how a woman should behave, and misplaced ideas about how sexual violence occurs, or what the “correct” response should be.

In the meantime, to avoid despair, remember the oft-cited quote of Martin Luther King, formerly attributed to Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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