We owe it to rape survivors to admit the complicity of silence

Decades of inquiries and testimonies revealed one thing: That everybody knew. So the task ahead of us now is to challenge the Irish culture of denial, writes Dr Clíona Saidléar

As we reflect on a year that has been filled with extraordinary testimony and transformation, from the woman in the Belfast rape trial, to the women and their partners in the abortion referendum and the women of the cervical smear scandal, it is important we understand how survivor testimony causes change.

The self-evident power of these testimonies to effect change means that there is a growing demand and pressure on victims to testify. But testifying, for all that it may be empowering and liberating, almost always, comes at a cost to survivors.

If we are asking for testimony, then we have to be able to explain the causal relationship between testimony and change. Currently, the explanations contain gaps and occasional magical thinking.

Survivor testimony itself is a simple factual description of a terrible experience that generally happened in the past.

A significant amount of the trauma of testimony is about the fear of what happens in the future. What happens to my words once I speak them, what happens to me, my loved ones, my life, my career, once I testify?

Those risks and harms arise out of the reaction of the audience, rather than the action of the perpetrator. We, the audience and allies, can therefore reduce the trauma of testifying.

While our responses to testimony are varied, there are three broad themes. Firstly, we tend to express surprise. Secondly, we look at this survivor in front of us and we wonder at their resilience and their strength. Then, as allies, we ask how we can demonstrate we are on their team. This has seen the generation of hashtags on social media such as #IBelieveHer.

These responses are all part of the problem.

In Ireland, we have had 20 years of inquiries and investigations into all the ways our way of life required containment and resulted in many harms to the vulnerable, be they the children in institutional care or the girls and women who were pregnant out of wedlock. Thousands upon thousands of testimonies have been sifted through and dissected and laid out in black and white in these reports. The recommendations are numerous and diverse but there is one thread, largely unseen, that can be discerned through all of the reports.

Everybody knew.

If what we have learnt from 20 years of soul-searching is that everybody knew, then it stands to reason that right now, in some way shape or form, everybody knows.

What if testimony is not about the truth but rather is about our denial? Survivors who testify are not telling us news if we already know what was going on. Instead, they are challenging our denial. Challenging us to face up to the body of evidence that sits in front of us in our living rooms, our compromises, our roles, our complicity, our silences.

This means that our expressions of surprise at testimony about these harms may not be altogether appropriate. But surprise serves to distract us from the challenge of the testimony to break through our denial. Our surprise works to shield our existing denial under a new layer of denial.

Secondly, we direct our attention towards the person testifying: Their qualities, their bravery, courage, joy, fragility, brokenness. When a survivor tells us something painful about the world we are a part of, that has harmed them in this particular way, instead of looking at that world, we hold up a mirror to them and tell them who they are and what they feel. In any other circumstance, we would question this sort of behaviour in a relationship as unhealthy and possibly abusive. Yet we behave like this to survivors who testify publicly and what is more, we call it ‘empathy’.

We use this ‘empathy’ towards survivors to ensure we protect ourselves from having to reflect on our culture, families, communities and our role in these systems. This ‘empathy’ mirror we hold up is in fact a face-palm. By using empathy in this way, we undermine the power of the testimony and the survivor. We have weaponised ‘empathy’ in the service of silence.

Thirdly, we align ourselves as allies to the survivor by repeating mantras such as #IBelieveHer. But to engage in ‘taking sides’ (even if it is the right one) is to concede that what is up for debate here is the credibility of the survivor rather than the experience they testify to.

The ritual of ‘taking sides’ undermines both the survivor and the facts, as it makes both, inappropriately, subject to a popularity contest or a vote. 

If we replaced #Ibelieveher with #Iknowthistobetrue, how would that change the conversation? This will take courage but we will be committing to engage with what is set out before us, rather than burdening survivors, through their discomfort, with the labour of preserving for us, the comfort of our denial.

Clíona Saidléar is the executive director Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI)


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