Judge the rapist, not the victim

As a society, we must challenge the myths informing our attitude to sexual violence, writes Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop

Judge the rapist, not the victim

RAPE and sexual assault are subjects surrounded by ignorance, fear and myths; ignorance when people do not understand the brutal reality of sexual violence; fear on the part of people who feel vulnerable or who have been victimised; and myths that minimise the problem and contribute to ambivalent attitudes about the role of the victim in incidents of sexual assault.

Sometimes we are told that people don’t want to hear or read any more horror stories about rape and child sex abuse, but unless we talk about these heinous crimes in our society, and try and understand why they are committed, they will remain underground and continue to be committed.

And far too many sexual crimes are committed in our society and committed with impunity. We only have to look at what happened in Rotherham in England this past week to know how difficult it is to tackle this evil. For many years, paedophile gangs groomed young, vulnerable girls in Rotherham and when the girls reported the abuse they were repeatedly ignored by the police. This did not happen years ago, this happened in this decade.

Why are victims still ignored to this extent? Are myths about rape and sexual abuse still determining society’s reaction and responses? I believe to a great extent they are, and until we address them, each and every one of us in our own selves, and begin leaving these myths in the past, we will not be able to move on to a safer society.

Why did three men abduct a young woman in broad daylight and rape her in an alleyway in our capital city recently? It is very difficult to understand but one answer, unacceptable and all as it might be, is that they can.

But this is not about sex or men with an overactive sex drive. Rape and sexual assault are violent, vicious acts.

This is about three men humiliating and denigrating a woman. Research shows that the primary motivating factors are about the abuse of power, anger and rage. It is also about three pathetic men who are abusers, cowards and who should be caught, punished appropriately and not left to re-offend. Sexual assault and rape are frightening and distressing topics.

In an attempt to protect ourselves psychologically, we may try to distance ourselves from the possibility that we, or someone we love, could be violated in this way. As a society we have adopted certain beliefs and myths about sexual violence in an attempt to deny the brutality of what actually happens, and to reassure ourselves that it could never happen to us.

What are some of these beliefs, these myths that we draw on to protect ourselves? The ones we hear far too often are, for example:

-How the victim had to have been ‘asking for it’ which was obvious in how she was dressed (usually ‘she’ when it comes to dress);

-That s/he was drunk;

-That only bad people have bad things happen to them; therefore these victims are bad and not worthy of being believed;

-They did not resist so they must have wanted it;

-People cry rape to get revenge;

-They make it up;

-Women lead men on;

-Women should be more responsible because men don’t have the same self control as women.

All of the above is about victim blaming. Men, women and children who are victims of rape and sexual assault are never to blame. While the majority of perpetrators are men, women too can sometimes be perpetrators. It is the perpetrator who is responsible for rape and sexual assault, not the victim.

The victim may feel something they did or omitted to do, led to the rape or sexual assault: Perhaps they agreed to stay late at the office or were drinking at a party, or took a lift home from a friend, a neighbour or family member.

These are things we do all of the time quite normally, and usually quite safely. The responsibility of an everyday situation turning into an occasion of rape or sexual assault belongs always and fully with the perpetrator.

Frequently, people are afraid they will not be believed, or will be blamed for provoking the incidents. This contributes to the silence that continues to surround crimes of sexual violence.

We all play a part in maintaining or helping to break this silence.

Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop is CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. National 24-hour helpline: 1 800 77 88 88.

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