TW: Sexual assault

On the 25th of November last year, Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis first performed its protest piece ‘Un Violador en Tu Camino’, or ‘A Rapist in Your Path’. Since then, it has been replicated by thousands of women across the world. In Oxford, the piece was performed outside of the Rad Cam in mid-December, in a display of solidarity with women in South America. In Turkey, female MPs sang the song in Turkish Parliament to protest the arrest of performers in Istanbul. The song is dangerous; it’s inspiring in its sedition, taking its complaint to ‘the police, the judges, the state, the President’. So many can relate to this piece, in so many dramatically different circumstances, and feel empowered by it. But why do women across the world, at the close of the decade, still feel the need to shout, ‘it wasn’t my fault, not where I was, not what I wore’?

Looking back on the decade that’s passed, it’s easy to feel as though it’s been one of radical social and political change. To many women, though, especially those of us only just coming into adulthood, it can sometimes be hard to feel that much has changed for the better. The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that in 2018, women were nearly four times as likely as men to have experienced sexual assault. These are figures separate from records kept by police, in which male under-reporting is particularly prevalent. The same survey found that less than one in five (17%) of the most serious cases of rape and sexual assault are ever reported to the police – and that of the offences that do come to the attention of police, a majority are never processed further through the criminal justice system. Perhaps most strikingly, a 10% decrease in the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ courts for sexual offences occurred alongside an almost threefold increase in the number of such offences reported to police in recent years. The Office for National Statistics explains this rise in reported incidents by way of ‘high-profile media coverage of sexual offences and the police response to reports of non-recent sexual offending in recent years’ – and more directly, to the MeToo movement.

It’s impossible to discuss the societal treatment of sexual assault in the last decade without discussing MeToo. In the same way that Las Tesis’ protest performance has reached survivors of sexual assault worldwide, what started as a Hollywood sex scandal in October 2017 saw a massive international response that was felt in our own government. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Pestminster’ scandal, a series of allegations against MPs across political parties before the year was out saw the removal from Theresa May’s cabinet of both Michael Fallon and Damian Green. This was something almost beyond belief in the shadow of an embarrassing snap-election; it was a loss that May and her cabinet could not afford, and that could only come about with the momentum of a global movement actively shaping the public face of gender relations. There is strength to be found in solidarity – both of the journalists who made allegations against Fallon and Green attribute their confidence in doing so to MeToo. It is inspirational to see so many women loudly and broadly declare their ‘survivorhood’, and to make a statement against any level of harassment. But it would be a mistake to claim that the #MeToo movement amounted to a revolution in our attitudes towards sexual violence.

This was the judgment passed by debaters at Oxford Feminist Society’s Monday night Liberation and Liquor in 7th Week of last term, highlighting the fact that many young women still feel that there is much, much more to be done. A major point made was that so many men still in power today are widely known to have treated women irreverently at best, and abusively at worst. Still, in the aftermath of MeToo, sex crimes are massively underreported. Silence is often maintained out of fear of not being believed, but the CSEW suggests that more often, the driving factor in a survivor’s decision not to report is feelings of shame. Between 2014 and 2017, nearly half of respondents (44%) gave embarrassment as their primary reason for choosing not to report an incident – this was by far the most common response, followed by the belief that police would not be able to help (33%). If we combine this with the number of victims who reported feeling unable to come forward about their experiences because of the belief that to do so would be humiliating (33%), we reach the statistic that almost eight in ten sex crimes go unreported primarily because victims felt that their experiences were a personal cause of shame.

This might show us that, though worthwhile, public displays of solidarity between and with survivors as in the MeToo movement can only do so much to change what we feel about sexual assault in private. Members of Oxford Feminist Society argued that the movement did not so much explain to perpetrators why their actions were wrong, as what can and cannot be done in public without backlash. If this is ever going to change, we have to challenge the ways in which the acceptability of predatory behaviour has been redressed in the wake of MeToo. That is, we have to be critical of the information and the attitudes that we consume: what we read, what we listen to, what those around us choose (or choose not) to say. The ways in which we publicly discuss sexual assault can make the private issue far, far worse.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of what might cause victims to feel that their experiences come with shame attached. Often victims are encouraged to feel as though the things that have happened are their own fault – perhaps victim-blaming is more subtle than it once was, but it’s still there. Covering the murder of Grace Millane and the trial of her killer at the end of the year, the BBC declared Millane’s death was a ‘sex act gone wrong’ – the supposedly unfortunate accidental result of consensual sex. The BBC hastily changed the article’s headline amidst backlash, but it is only one of the more mild ways in which media outlets discussed Millane’s sex life. The Evening Standard took that Grace Millane ‘was a member of BDSM dating sites’ as its headline for coverage of the trial; The New York Post reported that Millane ‘encouraged partners to choke her during sex’, and that ‘police found records of chats the 21-year-old had sharing her fetishes’. The handling of the case in mainstream media demonstrates the problems of coming forward about sexual violence even in the post-MeToo world. It reflects that too often, it is the credibility or even the sex lives of victims that are put ‘on trial’, socially or even in some cases literally. We might think about the situation of a nineteen-year-old British woman currently awaiting sentencing for ‘public mischief’ after recanting a report of rape in Ayia Napa, or of parallels with the case of Marie Adler in 2008, who also at the age of eighteen was charged with filing a false police report after recanting her original statement.

All of this is enough to prevent survivors from reporting their experiences. No one would want to think that on top of the emotional effects of sexual harassment or violence, prosecutors might leaf through their private sexual history in order to exculpate their attacker – worse still, that they might face legal consequences themselves. When these are the narratives fed to us – when it is somehow believable that victims such as Grace Millane could ‘consent’ to the violence against them, despite the fact that 1,870 domestic murders took place in the UK between 2008 and 2018 – it is no wonder that survivors feel unable to open up. When cases of sexual violence are reported in this way, contributions are made to the narrative that assaults of this nature can be provoked – that sexual violence is caused by the victim’s behaviour, rather than by the perpetrator’s predation. Too often victims blame themselves and feel ashamed of having incurred something that couldn’t possibly have been their own fault. This is why Las Tesis’ piece resonates so strongly. By stating that ‘the rapist is you’, they accuse the rapists, not those who suffer it. It cuts through pervasive, victim-critical narratives to the truth of where the fault really lies.

If we are going to change the ways in which we think about and discuss sexual violence in the next decade, it is vital to think about who benefits from the shame felt by those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault the most. Often, it’s those who aren’t used to being held accountable for their actions, and those who benefit from the influence of mainstream media most in other respects – actors, politicians, CEOs, and other members of the social or economic elite. Take the case of Natalie Connolly, whose millionaire partner received a sentence of just three years and eight months after the defence claimed her death was an accidental result of “rough sex”. #MeToo should have made obvious what has been long understood by victims and survivors, that sexual assault is not often about sex itself, but about power and entitlement. This affects the most serious cases of violence, even those of murder, but is also to blame for the idea that we should just ‘put up with’ a certain amount of harassment. The hand of a friend on a knee, the hand of a stranger in a club, has nothing to do with where we are or what we are wearing, and everything to do with the offender’s position in relation to our own. The painting of anti-harassment campaigners as hysterical snowflakes is a part of the same problem, and when it comes to the prevention of social change, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

Women all around the world in the last decade have donned the costume of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids to protest the constraints on women’s sexuality, particularly concerning reproductive health, and access to safe and legal abortion. Thirty-five years on, The Handmaid’s Tale is still able to comment on our world, in its observation that real power is about ‘who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it’. The issues of sexual violence and sexual freedom were central to second-wave feminism, and they have been to third-wave feminism too. But where do we go next? We can, and should, call out to our institutions and the predators that are in power, but perhaps the transience of MeToo has demonstrated that lasting change has to come from the bottom up. To make sure that survivors can come forward, legally or indeed socially, we have to support them openly and loudly, and hold those in our lives accountable if we know of their behaviour. This means our colleagues, our friends, even our partners; it means the most popular person in your college, the members of a dodgy drinking society, the head of your boat club, the person whose slate you want to run on next term. If anything is going to change in how we discuss sexual violence over the next decade, then like Las Tesis, we have to put the blame firmly where it belongs.