LOUISE O'NEILL: There are countless different ways in which victims can and will react to sexual violence and all are valid

ONE of my favourite things to do around Oscar season is to read The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot’ in which anonymous members of the Academy admit who they voted for and explain their reasons why.

It usually lives up to the title and is both brutal and honest and gives an interesting — and sometimes disturbing — insight into the minds of the members of one of the most important film clubs in the world. In February, I was struck by the similarity of some of the responses to the movie Elle. The movie is a psychological thriller about a woman (played by Isabelle Huppert) who is raped in her home but does not report the assault due to negative past experiences with the police, and many of the Academy members talking to The Hollywood Reporter were baffled by this.

“...I eliminated her [Huppert]
because when you get attacked, beaten, and raped, you’re not the same person afterward, but she was, and I wanted to slap her to try and get a reaction out of her.”

Exactly what every rape victim needs, a good slap to bring them to their senses.

Over 60 women have accused the comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault, their stories of surreptitious drugging and subsequent violation eerily similar to one another, yet due to statute of limitations only one woman so far has been able to press charges against him. Andrea Constand tried to have Cosby charged in 2005 but Bruce Castor, the then-district attorney, closed the case due to his concerns that Constand had stayed in touch with Cosby after the
alleged assault had taken place and waited a year to call the police.

In a recent trial here in Ireland, a woman alleged that she was raped by a man she met on Tinder. “I was afraid he was going to beat the shit out of me,” she told the court. “I was terrified.”

The defence argued that it had to be consensual sex because following the date the woman had Tinder conversations with six men and that she went to college the next day as per normal. The woman acknowledged this was true but said it was because she wanted to pretend that it had never happened.

In her recent memoir Hunger, the writer Roxane Gay details her gang rape at the age of 12. The ringleader was a boy called Christopher, a boy she loved, a boy she thought loved her. He lured her to the woods where a group of his friends were waiting for her. After the rape, she continued to date Christopher. For years afterwards, Gay said she “sought out men who would do to me what he did or that they often found me because they knew I was looking. Does he know that for years I could not stop what he started? I wonder what he would think if he knew that unless I thought of him I felt nothing while having sex, I went through the motions, I was very convincing, and that when I did think of him the pleasure was so intense it was breathtaking.”

When I was researching my novel, Asking For It, I spoke to a young woman who had been raped by a
friend of hers. It was a party to
celebrate having completed their Leaving Cert, everyone was very drunk. She fell asleep in a room upstairs and woke to find this man having sex with her. It was my first time, she told me. She then spent the rest of the summer trying to persuade the man who had taken her virginity by rape to be her boyfriend because “if he was my boyfriend, then it couldn’t have been wrong”. When she finally came to understand what had happened to her, she thought there was no point in going to the guards. Who would believe it after seeing me desperately following him around for three months, she asked me.

It was because of that conversation that I wanted Emma, the main character in Asking For It, to react to her own rape in ways that would seem confusing to the characters around her. Emma goes to a party thrown by one of the men who was involved in her
assault, she watches porn about rape fantasies, she has sex with countless other people in later months. “Cold air outside, a wind cutting through me, arms linked with some faceless man,” she narrates in the book. “On my knees again, the concrete cold and hard. I try and reclaim that night. I try to make new memories to replace the ones that were stolen from me. I try to make it my choice, my decision.”

My reason for this choice was simple — I wanted to challenge the idea that there is a “correct way” for victims of sexual violence to respond to what has happened to them. The idea that there is a certain way for people to process trauma is misguided at best, if not dangerous. It negates the individual experience and can all too easily be manipulated into yet another reason to disbelieve survivors if they don’t react as expected. As the journalist Roe McDermott wrote in The Pool, “This implies that there’s a hierarchy of correctness for how survivors should react which contributes to the rape-culture enforced idea that there’s a ‘perfect victim’ of sexual assault, who reacts in one specific, palatable way”.

There are countless different ways in which victims can and will react to sexual violence and all are valid. It is not up to us to prescribe how survivors should behave. Our job is simply to listen. Our job is to let these men and women know that that they have been heard. We believe you, I want to tell them.

“Survivors of sexual violence don’t need to adhere to a response to trauma that is identical or predictable or uncomplicated,” McDermott finishes. “Because we are not the problem. Sexual violence is. Society’s response to sexual violence is. If only we spend more time criticising that.”

There are countless different ways in which victims can and will react to sexual violence and all
are valid


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