QotD: “Why shame still taints the victims of sex attacks”

The statement that Brock Turner’s victim read out in the US court was no normal testimony. It symbolised a “new articulacy” for the anger, distress, defiance and (painfully clawed together) dignity of all sexual assault survivors. Which has always been there but, in the past, was submerged under the toxic murk of warped police protocol and societal shaming.

What guts it took for that young woman to write and read out such a piece, calmly describing the grotesque nature of her attack, sparing no one, least of all herself, from the explicit details. How she lay unconscious, humiliatingly exposed, behind a dumpster, soil and other debris from the ground between her legs, pine needles in her hair, underneath her frat-boy attacker (the one with those great swimming speeds!). The survivor also thanked the two men (“heroes”), who came to her aid, demonstrating that nothing, not even her own brutal assault, was going to rob her of her capacity to both embody and appreciate humanity.

The statement was incredibly powerful, perhaps too strong for some. In cases such as these, some people would rather not deal with specifics (blackouts, dumpsters, abrasions), because that means letting go of their pipedream that anything bar “central-casting stranger-rapist in a dark alleyway” merely amounts to stupid drunk skanks deviously carping about “sex they belatedly regretted”.

However, amid the statement’s strength and honesty, another moment popped out, one that seemed to go against the spirit of everything else, while at the same time fitting in perfectly. It was when the survivor spoke about being paranoid that people would find out that it was her.

After all she’d been through, she was saying she feared being “outed”. Despite all she was, and all she’d become, – this courageous orator, who’d commanded the attention and respect of the world – she was still scared of being that person, that “thing”, the victim.

This may have been the bravest part of the statement. How much easier would it have been for her to fake a brittle bravado that she did not truly feel. Instead, she spoke the truth about her terror of people discovering her identity and by doing so she highlighted the greater, darker truth that for her and every other sexual assault victim, these fears are not mere paranoia.

The raped are never responsible for their rapes. Yet even today, the shame of rape, the stain of it, remains a burden on the victim. Not only in the persistent archaic babble (“What was she wearing?”/How much did she drink?”), but also in less obvious, more insidious forms. There is a sense that, just by being sexually violated, the victim has been forever tainted and defined by the crime.

This is what rape does. It stands victims in front of a smeared, broken mirror and lies to them about who and what they are and how there’s no escape. For many victims, the only thing that could be worse is if their identities are exposed and there’s not even the bleakest chance of getting on with their lives.

This isn’t weakness or hiding. This is a logical reaction to a society that, even today, persists in its prurient response to rape: dictating that the sexual nature of the crime both defiles and defines the victim as much as the attacker, maybe even more.

At which point, it wouldn’t matter that well-meaning people, including the vice president, Joe Biden, praise and comfort you. You’re a victim, that’s all you are. You’ve been sexually assaulted, that’s all that counts.

So, even as I applaud this young woman’s articulacy, I also respect and understand her fear of losing her anonymity. Society has a long way to go before the shame is placed, not only firmly, but also solely where it belongs.

Barbara Ellen

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