Long after Jimmy Savile, our society normalises sexual assault and shames victims into silence

That women 'ask for it' and victims should 'be responsible for avoiding assault', are recurring themes in the stories sent to our writer's Everyday Sexism blog

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We like to think Jimmy Savile’s reign of abuse could not happen today.

Certainly his predatory behaviour flourished in the chauvinistic culture of the 1960s and 1970s entertainment world.

But this country’s depressingly high rates of sex crime – revealed in official figures published this week which also exposed how few rapists are brought to justice – are rooted in a society which continues to normalise sexual assault and shame victims into silence.

The idea that flirty women are “asking for it” and the misconception that it is victims who should be responsible for avoiding assault, are recurring themes in the real women’s stories we’ve compiled over the past 10 months at the Everyday Sexism Project – a new forum for women to share their experiences of sexism.

One woman told the Project: “The victim-blaming mentality is so strong that women internalise it. I know of a woman who calls her rape ‘my f***-up’.”

Hesitation

Stacey Loren, a 29-year-old secondary school teacher from Leeds, spent an entire day after her ordeal “trying to decide if I’d been raped or not”. She was still a student when she says her attacker, a housemate, arrived home late one night while she was asleep, “came into my room, got into bed with me and attacked me”. Yet she hesitated to label what happened ‘rape’ for days afterwards, because “society conditions us not to think of people we already know as rapists.” 

After she reported the crime, the Crown Prosecution Service sent her a letter saying the case would not go to court. Eight years later, she still keeps it as a reminder of the shock she felt at their response. It said: “The jury would have to be told as part of your evidence that the defendant had both entered your room and that you had shared a bed with him.”

Despite Stacey’s testimony that she had never invited him into the room and that he climbed into her bed as she was waking up, the letter goes on: “we would then struggle to convict the defendant of rape unless there was extremely strong evidence that you then withdrew your consent. Some examples of evidence that a jury might find convincing would be injuries, cries for help, evidence of some form of struggle between you.”

When Stacey’s drink was spiked in a club and she was raped again just five months later, she did not report the crime. “I thought: I can see what’s coming a mile away – ‘here’s the girl who cries rape when she doesn’t like it’.”

Another survivor told the Project: “All you hear is women say ‘if anyone attacked me I’d scream and fight.’ I was the same. Then it happened and all I did was lie there, frozen, unable to understand what was happening.”

In court, she remembers the defence barrister asking: “Do you expect me to believe that an educated young woman of nineteen wouldn’t scream for help, wouldn’t bang on the wall? You would have stopped it, if that’s really what you wanted.”

Victim-blaming attitudes can also emerge horribly close to home. One woman reported that she was just 13 when she was regularly raped by a 22-year-old family friend. She told the Project: “When my mother found out that ‘something’ had happened, I was told to ‘make it stop’. People don’t see it as rape when it’s a neighbour, a friend, a boyfriend. You know them, you must have lead them on.”

Male victims also suffer the impact of such misconceptions. One survivor told us: “I felt very ashamed. There is a perception that if you take risks and get raped…. well that’s too bad, you shouldn’t have been so stupid.”

One of the most worrying trends that has emerged is the number of reports of victim-blaming amongst schoolchildren.

One woman told the Project: “in a discussion in my brother’s class (year 11), one boy said: “rape is a compliment really”. Another parent told us: “At my child’s primary school is a playground corner difficult to see by supervisors – kids call it The Rape Corner.”

Frightening

These accounts are far from unique. Survivor Mickey Schulz wrote that when a fellow student raped her, it was such pervasive attitudes that prevented her from reporting it. “I was already the school ‘slut’… no one would have taken me seriously”.

Whilst working at a boys’ school, Stacey taught a group of fourteen-year-old boys who used the words “rape and kill” in the title of a game. “It frightens me how their ignorance is ingrained,” she said.

From reports made to the Project, schools don’t seem to be providing much education to offset these attitudes. When an informal online poll was held concerning sex education lessons, around 90% of respondents said issues of rape, assault and domestic violence were never raised. Many made a point of mentioning that they had only recently left school.

One recent leaver, Grace Hagger, says police gave a talk to girls at her school. “The overall impression was that we were responsible for preventing rape… Don’t walk home alone, don’t ‘look drunk’, look like you know where you are going and try to look ugly. Looking ugly was surmised as: pick your nose, pull your hair over your face.”

Meanwhile, Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says that “horrific attitudes and decisions” regarding rape victims may even be costing some women their right to asylum. She quoted an extract from a recent UK Border Agency decision on an asylum claim by a woman who was forced into marriage with the brother of her dead husband, who beat and raped her. It said: “It is not credible that children would simply stand back and allow their uncle to beat and rape their mother, as she claims happened on a virtually continuous basis.”

Only after evidence was brought that the uncle had killed one of her sons after her flight, was she given leave to remain.

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