The Stigma Around Sexual Assault

People shouldn't have to go viral to be treated with dignity.

A lot of people decided, not entirely jokingly, that 2016 was just a bad year. This was an extension of a story we tell ourselves about the world: that it’s getting steadily worse. It’s easy to buy into that narrative, especially in light of the recent election of a rapist to the White House. But this article isn’t going to push that story because it was in large part made up by people who want to sell you something.

In a lot of ways, the world is actually getting better. Poverty and child mortality continue to decline around the world. The Ebola outbreak has ended. Contrary to a lot of fear-mongering, ISIS is losing. And the fight for gender equality is part of this: since the 1995 UN Conference was given over to women’s rights, a lot more women have held office and a lot less have died of childbirth.

So do not misunderstand it to be an exaggeration when I say that there’s still a persistent problem of victim-blaming.

What exactly is ‘victim-blaming’? Roughly what it says on the tin: placing the blame on the victim of a sexual assault rather than on the perpetrator. Common examples would be saying that if a girl wears a short skirt on a night out, she’s asking for it. Often, a comparison would be made to leaving your house unlocked as if robbers don’t go to jail.

Why does this attitude exist, and why hasn’t it gone out of fashion by now? Put simply, it would be easier if it were the victim’s fault than if it were the rapist’s fault. If someone was in the room while their friend was getting harassed and they didn’t intervene, then they might feel guilty. But if they can rationalise it as being the victim’s fault, because they were too drunk or careless, then they absolve themselves of that guilt. It’s quite convenient.

Imagine you’ve been assaulted. You try to tell someone, be it a friend or the authorities. Because of these attitudes, they might start to ask what you were wearing, or how much you’d had to drink. The implication, if it is indeed an implication rather than stated outright, is that it might be your fault that you were assaulted. In light of this, it’s easy to understand why not all victims and survivors come forward.

It’s important to consider this in the context of women’s rights, as rape is absolutely a gendered crime. But all too often the particular stigma suffered by male victims is skipped over. According to a Greater London Authority (GLA) report, as few as 3.9% of male victims of rape and sexual assault report the crime to the police.

Further, in any discussion of sexual assault, there is practically no discussion of non-binary victims. If a victim is outside of the gender binary of male and female, they can expect to be disbelieved, mistrusted, and misgendered every step of the way by law enforcement and even people within feminist circles.

Earlier this year, a sexual assault case in Stanford University, California went viral because of the particularly bizarre reason the rapist was pardoned: a jail sentence would impact his career as a swimmer.

At his sentencing in June, his victim read him a letter describing the impact the assault had on her. Towards the end, she said that “every time a new article came out, I lived with the paranoia that my entire hometown would find out and know me as the girl who got assaulted.”

Here, we see a victim standing up and talking about her experience despite the stigma. But we can’t require every victim to have this courage and eloquence. People shouldn’t have to go viral to be treated with dignity. Bringing about that action isn’t the responsibility of the victims; it’s the responsibility of the state.

We could look to the government to implement policies across sectors that can stand up to centuries-old taboos, and return dignity to us all. But perhaps that’s a fanciful idea.

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