Tag Archives: Sexual assault

How to deal with being raped: two incompatible points of view.

7 Mar

 

On ABC Qanda last night, Icelandic writer Thordis Elva spoke about how she had, over a seventeen year period, communicated with and finally forgiven Australian Tom Stranger, who raped her when she was sixteen and he was eighteen.

Stranger raped Elva as she lay literally paralytic from the effects of alcohol, in her own bed. He’d taken her home from a party, where friends were so concerned they’d wanted to call for medical assistance. Stranger undertook to protect and watch over her until she recovered. The rape took place over two hours, and so damaged Elva she was unable to walk properly for some time.

The two have since given a TED talk on their many email encounters, which were initiated by Elva and culminated in a physical meeting in Cape Town. Stranger remarks on the suitability of this country for their purpose, given the truth and reconciliation project of the Mandela government that sought to address crimes against humanity during decades of apartheid in South Africa, employing a process that involved admissions of guilt, and subsequent forgiveness by victims.

Stranger and Elva have written a book about their long experience of seeking a resolution to their victim/perpetrator relationship. They finally reached a point where Stranger was able to take responsibility for his actions, and name himself as a rapist. This ownership of his behaviour has allowed Elva to find relief from her feelings of hatred, rage and desire for revenge.

While I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine the relief and liberation I’d feel if a perpetrator admitted his crimes against me, I do find it difficult to imagine wanting a relationship with him that would see us co-authoring a book, and travelling the world together, sharing a stage.

As Elva notes, and I agree, forgiveness is something victims do for ourselves, not for the perpetrator. However, what I couldn’t extrapolate from the TED talk or Qanda, or interviews I’ve read, is how she moved emotionally and intellectually from regarding Stranger as an assailant, to interacting with him as a colleague.

Or perhaps not so much how, as why? Releasing myself from dark feelings and desires so as to get on with my life is both sensible and healthy. But keeping the rapist in my life?

I can forgive the perpetrator for my own sake, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to see him again.

Also on the panel last night was Josephine Cashman, Indigenous lawyer and business woman. Ms Cashman’s take on rape is situated at the opposite end of the continuum, and she was rather dismissive of Elva’s story. Ms Cashman stated unequivocally that sexual assault should be dealt with by the legal system, women must go to the police, the perpetrator must be charged, tried, convicted and incarcerated.

Which in theory sounds quite logical, however, as this must-read article by Jane Gilmour points out, that apparently logical process is rarely the outcome of sexual assault allegations. The legal system can be brutal to victims of sexual assault, and conviction rates are notoriously low.

I admit to feeling not a little creeped out by Mr Stranger when I watched the TED talk. I was unable to get past my knowledge of him as a man who had cruelly  and opportunistically raped an entirely helpless woman, over a two-hour period. I didn’t really care what he had to say about his later realisation, self-evident to me, that at the time he’d been more concerned about his wants than Ms Elva’s needs and safety.

In the spirit of truth and reconciliation I tried quite hard to find a point of contact with Stranger. All I felt was dizzy and sick. Yes, I can imagine the miserable, criminal psychopathy of a man who rapes a very ill and barely conscious woman he’s promised to care for. Yes, I can pity it. I just don’t want it or him anywhere near my life.

It seems to me on reflection, that both Ms Cashman and Ms Elva are unrealistic. For very many victims of sexual violence and other violence against women, engaging with the perpetrator is the very last thing we want to do. Taking the legal option is often described as being raped all over again, and it is disingenuous of Ms Cashman to pose that option as a logical process that results in justice. It isn’t, and more often than not, there’s no justice to be had.

It is possible to achieve a state of comparative peace or forgiveness without any involvement with the perpetrator, and preferably with help and support from others.

A woman is forever changed by the experience of sexual assault, and it’s impossible to recover the self who existed before the attack. This is just one of the many losses caused by rape: the loss of who I was before.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as “closure” or “resolution.” There is only finding a way to live your life as fully as you can, in spite of what has happened to you. There’s no formula for this. There’s no prescription.

It’s the victim’s task, and how unfair it seems, to find her way through the hell of rape. It can take a lifetime. And nobody can or should tell a woman how she must do it. If you don’t do it Ms Cashman or Ms Elva’s way, you haven’t failed. You’ve succeeded in searching for and finding your own way to take back your life. And you might have to do it more than once.

 

 

 

 

On Hanson’s claims that women lie about sexual assault

14 Nov
Michaelia Cash, Minister for Women, hugs Senator Pauline Hanson

Michaelia Cash, Minister for Women, hugs Senator Pauline Hanson

 

My default attitude to Pauline Hanson is that my life is too short to spend much time contemplating her, however, an interview on Sunrise (no, I’m not linking) in which she gloated about the Trump victory and sputteringly claimed that women who accuse him of sexual assault are liars and women in general should toughen up when a man, uninvited, strokes our breasts and grabs our pudendas enraged me to the extent that I have to address it.

Aside: Sunrise enrages me as well, as does all breakfast television: who the hell wants to start the day with overly-cosmeticised women in tube frocks, and self-congratulatory men in nifty suits cackling & exclaiming, not me, I’d rather listen to the parrots & wattle birds brawling outside my window, they make more sense. Somebody thoughtfully sent me a clip of the Hanson debacle. It’s the only thing that’s consistently distracted me from Leonard Cohen up and dying.

Hanson articulates (?) a distressingly common attitude by some women towards claims of sexual assault, an attitude I confess confounds me. Their sympathies default to the accused man, innocent until found guilty as of course he is, but here’s the thing: so is his accuser. It’s quite something to accuse a woman of lying about sexual assault when you weren’t present, have limited knowledge of the circumstances, and are basing your judgment entirely on your feelings for/impressions of the accused, and/or dislike of the woman.

In the event that you are wrong, you’ve further harmed an already seriously harmed woman and added to the entrenched narrative that women lie about being sexually assaulted. That narrative is challenged in the link, and it’s well worth a read.

I recently watched the BBC Channel Four series National Treasure, inspired by the ghastly revelations that celebrities such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville sexually assaulted and molested women and children during their highly successful careers. Paul Finchley, played by Robbie Coltrane, is a celebrity comedian charged with the historical rape of a minor, and sexual assault of another woman. Marie, played by Julie Walters, is his blindly devoted (and controlling) wife, who has long since come to terms with his many infidelities on the condition that he tells her about them.

Finchley’s two accusers are torn to shreds by the defence counsel, demonstrating why so many women do not pursue action against their attackers. However, what for me is most riveting in a series whose every moment is absolutely riveting, is the gradual admission by Marie to herself that her husband has “many layers,” his most obvious being that in which he plays the role of a harmless, loving husband and father, as well as a much-loved public figure.

With great and admirable courage, Marie slowly allows herself to see what has always been present in Paul, but brilliantly disguised: the sexually predatory, self-obsessed, emotionally immature man who believes, if he even bothers to think about it, in his entitlement to gratify his needs and desires whenever and however he sees fit.

(This acting in this series is beyond superb, btw. I haven’t recounted much of the story, in case you haven’t seen it. If you have any doubts about the complexities of sexual assault, this series will go a long way towards unpacking the life-shattering effects those complexities have on everyone involved.)

The point is that even wives and girlfriends of sexual predators can live in ignorance and denial of their partners’ “hidden layers,” so how does Pauline Hanson or anyone else know if a woman is lying about a man sexually assaulting her?   Of course she doesn’t, and what’s so deeply troubling is the need by some women to deny the experiences of other women, when it comes to the actions of men.

Hanson is the current poster girl for this attitude, in her ludicrous defence of Trump, and her vicious attacks on women who’ve made claims against him. Hanson is a member of the Australian parliament. She has a platform and she is inspired by Trump’s victory.  So, much as I resent spending even part of my morning writing about her, I can’t ignore her poisonous views. They have to be challenged. She has to be called.

It is never, ever acceptable to accuse a woman of lying about sexual assault until one knows, beyond a reasonable doubt, if she is.  It is never, ever acceptable to base one’s judgement on dislike of her, or affection for the man she’s accused. Until we as a society get past defaulting to the assumption of false claims there will be no justice for women, and perpetrators will remain free and unaccountable.

 

 

 

 

Letting loose the inner Trump

21 Oct

trumps-promise-to-women

 

The footage of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s bus ride with Billy Bush in which he owns sexual assault as his preferred method of engaging with women he finds desirable, led to a tsunami of accounts by women who’ve been similarly treated when men let loose their inner Trump.

Journalist Karen Middleton published her account of sexual harassment and assault by MPs and male colleagues in The Saturday Paper.

Leah McElrath broke down Trump’s non-apology for his actions into a series of astoundingly succinct tweets every woman should print out and stick on the fridge as a guide to common manipulative tactics used by abusers.

In fact, Trump has done all of us a great favour. His global performance of alpha male entitlement has given us a textbook example of predatory male behaviour, without us having to bother reading the textbook. He’s created an atmosphere in which women in our millions can comment on our experiences of such behaviour and, in many instances for the first time, give it a name. He’s outed both himself and the toxic masculinity from which predation springs in a way nothing and nobody else could. For this we can be relieved. There can no longer be any doubt that to adherents of that toxic masculinity, women are prey.

Trump also sorted something that has deeply troubled me for the last couple of years. I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere about my childhood sexual abuse and the PTSD that is its consequence. So when I met online friend David in person for the first time I knew he knew my history. When he asked me about it in the cafe I was discomfited: it seemed neither the place nor the time, however, part of my psychological damage from that time is that in certain circumstances I’m unable to make an assessment of my own best interests, so I briefly answered his questions and also told him of my lifelong struggle with PTSD.

When we left the cafe David grabbed me, pulled me to him, kissed me and put his tongue in my mouth. It was one of those moments in which you can’t get a handle on what is actually happening because what is happening is so unlikely. Then it’s over.

I’ve never been able to make sense of why, only moments after listening to an account of prolonged childhood sexual abuse and subsequent lifelong PTSD, a man would grab a woman he’d just met and put his tongue in her mouth.

Until I read a discussion between Donald Trump and Howard Stern. Troubled women, Trump asserts, deeply, deeply troubled women, give the best sex:

She’s probably deeply troubled and therefore great in bed. How come the deeply troubled women, you know, deeply, deeply troubled, they’re always the best in bed?”

Stern said damaged women are “looking for love, they’re looking for positive affirmation, they’re looking for a father figure who will love them and tell them they’re wonderful and they’ll never be enough.”

Well I have a friend, Howard, who’s actually like a great playboy, I mean, I don’t say this about men, this guy does very well, Trump said. He runs silent, runs deep as they say, like a submarine. He will only look for a crazy women. He says, ‘Donald, Donald, please, please, I only want the crazy women.’”

“They’re desperate,” Stern said.

Reading this exchange was like an epiphany. I understood why David had been so overwhelmed by desire he’d felt compelled to grab me and stick his tongue in my mouth, even though you’d hope a man might think twice about violating a woman who’d just spoken about childhood sexual abuse and lifelong PTSD.

But hey, a deeply troubled woman can turn loose a man’s inner Trump, and he can’t help himself  he has to grab her and stick his tongue in her mouth.

Vulnerability turns him on. Damage turns him on. It’s deeply, deeply sexy.

It’s a relief, really, to have my experience explained by Trump and Stern. It’s a relief to know it’s a predator’s thing and how else would we know so publicly, so accessibly, unless men like Trump and Stern shared their opinions?

We’ve known for a long time that women who experience childhood abuse are highly vulnerable to re-traumatisation. But I doubt it’s ever been so clear that this is because there are men who seek us out, specifically because we’ve been damaged.

Think on that, if you can bear to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The debate that told us all about about sexism. In case we weren’t sure.

11 Oct

trump_debate_stalk_rtr_img

 

It’s difficult to imagine a man finding himself in the same position as did Hillary Clinton in the second debate yesterday.

When did you last hear of a man being held responsible for his wife’s alleged sexual crimes?

When did you last hear of a man centre stage in a political  forum, with his wife’s alleged sexual victims as invited audience members?

Aside from Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual crimes, and aside from Donald Trump’s lascivious objectification of women including his own daughter, yesterday’s debate in itself could not have more clearly enacted the sexism endemic in western culture.

When challenged about his attitudes to women Trump reacted by arguing that Bill Clinton is worse, and then went on to list all the things he believes are more important than sexually assaulting women, managing  to further demean us in that tacky investigation into the relativity of suffering.

What Trump unsurprisingly fails to appreciate (and many others male and female share his lack of perception) is that the objectification and sexual assault of women and girls originates in a collective mindset that is so accustomed to dehumanisation it can justify any destructive action against anyone, should it be judged necessary.  If you are part of a dominant group that treats some 50% of your country’s population as lesser beings because they have vaginas, it’s not going to be difficult for you to do the same to anyone else who threatens your fragile sense of who you are, such as people of religions and ethnicities that vary from your own.

Yes, I know Trump seems far from fragile in his sense of self, however, there’s a psychological theory of over-compensation for fears of inadequacy that might be applicable here.

There was a point in the debate when Trump appeared to stalk Clinton, moving in very close behind her as she answered a question, looming, as if to remind her of his hostile presence. It was nasty, almost as nasty as the video tape of Trump leaving his bus ten years ago to meet a young woman he’d only just finished crudely sexually assessing. He asked her for a hug. In those few seconds we saw sexism, intimidation and violation played out: the young woman couldn’t refuse Trump if she valued her career, and so obliged him in his effort to vindicate his boastful claims of sexual irresistibility. She did this in complete ignorance of the crass conversation about her that had just taken place.

If you’ve ever been groped that vision would have caused you to shudder.

I don’t think HRC did very well in the second debate. How much of this is down to Trump’s psychological tactic of ensuring women linked in the worst possible way with her and her husband were present, and his focus on both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s alleged treatment of them and other women, I don’t know. I’m inclined to think quite a bit, as there is simply no other area in which Trump can outdo HRC. It seems she’s got the presidency in the bag, unless something inconceivably catastrophic occurs.

A woman who stands by her philandering man isn’t necessarily admired for that: some see it as more a demonstration of strength if she kicks the cheater out. Whatever your position on this, it’s a fraught topic for women. Hillary is entrapped in Bill’s mess, as women are so frequently trapped in the messes made by men in their lives. Trump is making the most of it, because at this point there’s really little else he can use to cause HRC public discomfort.

How interesting, then, that both candidates have to deal with sexual scandals. And what a comment on women’s place in the world that Trump’s scandals are his own, while HRC’s are those allegedly perpetrated by her husband.

Says it all, really.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not a rape.

25 May

 

Monsters under the bed

Monsters under the bed

The representation and simulation of rape has existed in many cultures, from the time humans first learned to make art. Sadly, none of these thousands of years of representation and simulation have done anything at all to prevent sexual assault.

So it is with some cynicism that I read artist Sophia Hewson’s explanation of her latest work as an attempt to bring the rape of women to our attention in the hope of subverting patriarchal notions of female victimisation and self-sacrifice, thus turning the trauma of rape into the liberation of empowerment.

While it is true that a raped woman need not remain forever a victim, and that the recovery of empowerment post trauma is indeed a real possibility, I’m at a loss as to how a video of a simulated “rape” scene will in any way assist the difficult progression from victim to empowered survivor.

Titled Untitled (“are you ok bob?”), the work is a video Hewson “arranged and choreographed” featuring herself and a male stranger she invited to her home to “rape” her on camera.

Immediately we note the absence of rape criteria: this is a pre-arranged consensual act, not a sexual assault.

All that is seen of the “perpetrator” are his hands and arms: the camera remains focused on Hewson’s face throughout the act. In itself this focus is, according to Hewson, a transgressive act: raped women are frequently depicted with eyes downcast, in what is presumed to be avoidance, and learned shame. (It is also an effort to protect oneself from being further violated by the gaze of others at a time of great vulnerability, among other things). Hewson claims she is instead “looking back at us from the experience” and indeed she is. However, the experience from which she is looking back is one of consensual sex, not rape.

Hewson did not enjoy making the video, she states. Not enjoying consensual sex with a stranger you’ve choreographed to “rape” you differs considerably from experiencing an act of sexual assault.

I confess myself entirely dumbfounded by this latest feminist effort to expose the damage done to raped women through a depiction of not-rape that effaces reality. I think I ought to be angry, but I’m too baffled for anger. Who is the consumer for whom this work is created? Is it intended for the titillation of the safe? Is it rape porn? Is it as ethically bereft as poverty porn or disaster porn?

Is it co-opting suffering for personal gain? For the delicious thrill of not being one of the violated, for the guilty pleasure of being privileged enough to only pretend it’s happening, like children frighten themselves by imagining monsters under the bed, just for the euphoric sensation of discovering there are none?

For mine, this work marks an alarming low in the discourse of sexual assault. It is bereft of context. Its raison d’être is as a simulation of rape, entirely gratuitous. It will be viewed with appalled fascination, no doubt by many, but what it will do for women and our unenviable position in the patriarchy is not apparent to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual assault: ask the right questions or you’re part of the problem

6 Nov

victim-blaming

 

There was a brief spat on Twitter this morning with a couple of men who thought the question to ask about the fourteen-year-old girl raped in a Geelong Park at 4 a.m. was, what we her parents thinking, letting her out at that time in the morning?

The attitude persists that girls and women must restrict our lives to protect ourselves from sexual assault, rather than the obvious solution, which is that men must not rape us.

The one good thing to emerge so far from this awful event are the words of Detective Senior Sergeant Jason Walsh, from Victoria Police’s Sexual Crime Squad, who expressed regret and amazement that people feel free to question a sexual assault victim’s actions, when what ought to be under scrutiny are the actions of perpetrators.

I find it amazing, he said, without getting into politics, that we question girls and we question their behaviour when we don’t even ask, ‘what’s four blokes out doing, allegedly sexually assaulting a young girl?’
“You know, that’s my take on that sort of question, and I’ve been in this sexual assault field for many years, and I find it amazing that people straight away question females for their actions, and they’re not questioning the males. I mean, what are four males doing allegedly sexually assaulting a young girl? That’s a question I’d ask.”

The self-serving myth that women “ask for it” one way or another is still pervasive, an estimated 70% of sexual assaults are not reported, of those that are reported only a minuscule number actually make it to court and even less result in convictions. The court process can be so horrendous for the victim that it’s frequently described as “being raped again,” and I recently read this paper written by Kylie Weston-Scheuber, Supervising Lawyer, Sexual Offences Unit, Office of the DPP (ACT) in which she states that should she find herself a victim of sexual assault, there are days she has doubts about whether she’d subject herself to the trauma of court proceedings.

Ms Weston-Scheuber also comments on the popular notion that women make this stuff up, by pointing out that the court process is so gruelling, in itself it ought to be evidence that the woman has suffered sexual assault because nobody would subject themselves to the trauma without extremely good reason:

…the trauma and indignity of giving evidence in a sexual assault trial is the strongest disincentive imaginable to continuing with a fabricated sexual assault allegation. However, the law precludes the prosecution from even raising the spectre of this feature of a witness’s evidence, which might be thought to be strongly corroborative.

Of course, the reality that many complaints don’t go to court doesn’t mean a victim wasn’t sexually assaulted, and it doesn’t mean the alleged perpetrator is innocent. While the victim doesn’t have her chance at justice, however traumatising that chance can be, neither does the alleged perpetrator have the chance to clear his name. He remains, for the rest of his life, an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault. Insufficient evidence, or the victim withdrawing out of fear of ongoing traumatisation, does not equate to exoneration of guilt.

There is something terribly awry with a system that causes sexual assault victims to be further traumatised in their fight for justice. However, it is within such a system that questioning the victim’s responsibility for the suffering inflicted on her by the perpetrator is still regarded by some as legitimate. So if you do ask why she was in the park, drunk, wearing a short dress or whatever victim-blaming inquiry you come up with, perhaps you need to ask yourself, why am I blaming her?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elite feminism. Enough, already.

24 Oct

feminism_small-003

 

Ever since I read this piece by Clementine Ford on this venture by Roxane Gay, I’ve been struggling with the reaction both posts have provoked in me.

Gay is calling for submissions for a collection of essays she’s pulling together written by women who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and abuse. The aim of the collection is to expose the way women are often told it’s not that bad after we’ve experienced one or all of the above, using the survivors’ own words. As Gay puts it:

Not That Bad is an opportunity for those whose voices were stolen from them, to reclaim and tell their stories. This anthology will explore what it is like to navigate rape culture as shaped by the identities we inhabit.

Contributing to this anthology is a chance to own your own narrative with all of the complexity of reality without shame or condescension. Because too many of us have lived this truth, there is no one way to tell this story.

Being told, it’s not that bad after sexual violation of any kind is a way for the culture to minimise the experience, and it’s also, I believe, a way in which others attempt to comfort us, albeit misguided. As a comforter, it’s not that bad is worse than useless, really.

However, my first thought on reading both posts was, this is a very exclusive offer to a relatively small demographic, and will exclude many survivors who aren’t academics or academically inclined.

Here’s a list of suggested topics:

Potential Topics (a brief list, not a prescription)

Testimonies of what “not that bad” looks like
Critical examinations of rape culture
What it’s like to negotiate rape culture as a man
How women diminish the sexual violence and aggression they experience and the effects of doing so
What “not that bad” looks like in popular culture—film, television, and music
Resisting rape culture
Combating sexual harassment, street harassment and cat-calling
How sexual harassment and violence erode women’s privacy

I’m an academic, and used a great deal of my experience of childhood sexual abuse as the basis for an interrogation  of violence and power in my PhD. So I’m not complaining about being excluded from the project by its frames of reference and the language in which they are couched. I’m also very aware of the potential helpfulness of a theoretical framework through which a survivor can view her experience, if she is so inclined.

So why is my reaction to this proposal exasperation and anger?

The women whose essays will be chosen for this anthology are not likely to be women without a voice. Indeed, a woman will need to have found a voice, and an educated one, in order to qualify for inclusion. There is nothing innately wrong with this: women with educated voices suffer sexual violations of all kinds, and there is no argument for silencing us.

Yet I want a qualifier on this anthology. It isn’t simply an opportunity for women whose voices were stolen to reclaim them. It’s an opportunity for a very select group of women, who have voices that fulfil the editor’s criteria, to publicly own their narratives. It ought to be owned as such.

My irritation is with a feminism that speaks of “women” when what is actually meant is a certain category of women, to the inevitable exclusion of others. This feminism, far from challenging the culture actually props it up, in its embrace of social hierarchies rather than its contestation.  So we measure the advancement of women by the number of us who sit on boards, achieve the status of CEO, and succeed in a patriarchal system.

Feminism, for me, is about contesting that system. A feminism that addresses itself to a particular category of women and does not own that, is a feminism that is patriarchal in its performance. It’s based on an assumption that other categories of women aren’t as significant, or that all women are the same.

There’s nothing wrong with Gay’s project in itself. The problem is with its claim to offer “women” a voice and an opportunity for ownership of our narratives. It doesn’t. It offers women who can intellectualise our violations, and write about them, the opportunity to be heard.

When I was sexually assaulted last year I saw a counsellor, and one of the things I said to her repeatedly was that I didn’t understand my reaction to this event, as I had dealt with so much as a consequence of childhood sexual abuse, to the extent that I’d based a PhD on the topic. I expected myself to know what was going on in me, and deal with it far better than I am.

Ah, she said. It’s one thing to understand events intellectually. But your body remembers. Dealing with it intellectually isn’t all there is to do to own the experience. Traumatic memories, ancient and modern, are not seen off by the intellect. It’s but one aspect of the situation.

So, while I could write a piece that would probably qualify for Gay’s anthology on navigating rape culture as shaped by the identity I inhabit (except that I’ve written this and likely disqualified myself) something in me, as a recently raped woman, baulks at this language and this framing.

I think feminists who practise elite feminism ought to expect resistance, because they are likely not respecting the existence of all women. It is, really, quite unacceptable to use the term “women” in such an unqualified manner when what you truthfully mean is: only women who meet the criteria need apply.

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: