‘Who is to blame for sexual assault?’ The language of rape

She should 'bear some responsibility'; 'his' life was ruined as a result; the perpetrators' lives 'fell apart'? Let's try looking at it from a victim's point of view for once

Share

It’s a seemingly very simple question – and yet it generates heated debate any time rape hits the news.

When a guru claimed that an Indian student was partially responsible for being raped and murdered, his comments were reviled as backward and repulsive; no doubt there will be a similar reaction to police telling a Swiss tourist who was gang raped in India that she must bear some responsibility for the attack. Yet however strong the backlash, these opinions are pervasive – not just in India, but also in the West. In every high-profile rape case, there seem to be a crowd of people rushing to find anyone to blame but the perpetrator, be it the victim or society at large.

Who suffers as the result of sexual assault? A slightly less simple question, whose answer is even more widely contested than that of the first. The victim? The community? The attackers?

Over the last few months, the name of a small town in Ohio has become synonymous with a rape case which gained infamy after video footage of the incident was distributed online. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two teenage football players from Steubenville, were convicted on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl at a series of parties in August. The case has been steeped in controversy since it began, and the trial and its outcome have been the subject of international scrutiny.

Sympathy for the footballers in the wake of the sentencing has led to a number of social media attacks on the victim, blaming her for the assault. Some have even suggested that by going to the police and failing to accept responsibility for her actions, she is to blame for any ill consequences suffered by Mays and Richmond. One tweet, recorded as a screenshot on the blog Public Shaming, warned women to “be responsible for your actions ladies before your actions ruin innocent lives”. Another embittered user congratulated the 16-year-old victim, saying “way to go these 2 guys lives are ruined [sic]”. These attacks have become so severe that in the last 24 hours, two girls have been arrested for threatening the victim online. To think that a victim can be held accountable for the crimes against her is absurd, and repeated attempts to excuse her rapists only serve to demonstrate how deeply ingrained rape culture is in our society.

What was most alarming, however, was not the reaction of Twitter users; seasoned cynics have come to expect storms of petulance and vitriol from the social networking site. What was most disturbing was the number of news reports about the trial – some masquerading as objective reporting – which have been openly sympathetic towards Mays and Richmond. A Yahoo! Sports report seemed desperate to place the blame for the young athletes’ “arrogance” anywhere but with the perpetrators. It claimed that the case "exposed a teenage culture of weak ethics, rampant alcohol abuse and poor family structures that wound up dooming Mays and Richmond, both of whom had promising futures." In describing how society has let the young men down, the writer omits any discussion of how it has let down the victim of their abuse.

The CNN breaking news report immediately following the sentencing similarly lamented the effect of the verdict on "two young men that had such promising futures". Correspondent Poppy Harlow said that it had been “incredibly difficult” to be in the courtroom as Mays and Richmond watched as their lives “fell apart”.

Later in the programme, a defence attorney and CNN legal contributor told the audience that in such cases, “when that verdict is handed down… there's always that moment of just – lives are destroyed.” He went on to say that being labelled as sex offenders would “haunt [Mays and Richmond] for the rest of their lives". There was little recognition of the trauma suffered by the victim, or that the experience might 'haunt' her. The long-term impact of the assault on the victim seems to have been all but forgotten; or to be thought trivial in comparison with a year’s sentence and a life on the sex offenders’ register.

Yet the trauma suffered by rape victims – referred to merely as an afterthought to the retelling of the rapists’ misfortune in having been caught and convicted – is far from trivial. The World Health Organisation cites depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional distress and suicide attempts among the effects of sexual violence against women. This is in addition to the risks of pregnancy, induced abortions, gynaecological problems and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

According to the 2007 Cross Government Action Plan on Sexual Violence and Abuse, the health-related cost of each adult rape in the UK is estimated at over £73,000. This cost accounts for the emotional and physical impacts of injuries and illnesses and their associated costs to the NHS, as well as “lost output from time spent at less than full health”. Putting a figure to a crime may seem a cynical way to measure suffering, but the sum highlights the severity of the physical and psychological impact of sexual violence. The report also notes that the likelihood of conditions such as those listed above occurring increases when the victim does not receive immediate medical care and support.

Earlier this year, The Independent reported on new figures released on sexual assault and conviction. The research showed that just 15 per cent of rape victims go to the police. When so many rapes go unreported, the likelihood of victims failing to receive immediate medical care seems dangerously high. Surely it should be the plight of the victim, then, that occupies our attention.

The research also showed that some victims refrain from going to the police because they feel the matter is “too trivial” to be worth reporting. In order to combat this, it is a matter of urgency that we do not fall into the trap of trivialising the effects of sexual violence on victims.

Other victims were put off by low conviction rates and the belief that their stories might not be believed. Who could blame them, when victims in high-profile cases are being blamed for their assaults? The kind of victim blaming which has become commonplace in cases such as this is not just cruel but dangerous. And it has to stop.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments