This year started with a lot of activism for voice, justice and respect to victims of sexual assault and abuse. Of course many people brushed this off as allegations and labelled the victims liars and accusers of ‘good family’ people. A few months down the road, more sexual abuse victims are finding their voices and are courageously speaking up to out their abusers. Most of us have played the indifference card while the majority have promoted rape culture with our words, actions and silence.
In any rape situation, create safe spaces for someone struggling to voice their truth. They are not your enemy. Your enemy is the culture that dismisses the way a woman’s agency has been eroded for years and blames her for her own rape. Consent is a far more complex issue, especially for women, than just saying “no.” There is no such thing as a “perfect victim.” There are just victims – and we need their voices now more than ever.
No perfect victim
My appeal to you as you read is that you dismantle the misleading notion of ‘a perfect victim.” Society has damaging expectations of what a ‘perfect’ victim should act like prior to, during and after an assault, feeding into this victim-blaming notion that had the survivor done all the ‘right’ things, he or she would have been able to somehow ‘prevent’ the assault. Underlying these expectations is the idea that a less than perfect victim is somehow culpable for the crime committed against him or her.
Perfect victims are depicted as people who always say no assertively (and that the no is always magically respected by the predator in this decision, apparently). They never go home with strangers, never drink alcohol, always report the crime right away to the police (despite the fact that there is an incredible amount of victim-blaming in law enforcement, possibility of re-traumatisation if the case goes to trial and numerous factors that go into whether or not someone chooses to report).
Perfect victims are portrayed as those who never wear short skirts or revealing clothing. They never feel ambivalence towards their rapists. They do not post provocative selfies or engage in sexual behaviour. They never walk home at night, never party until dawn, never flirt with the perpetrator prior to the rape and so on.
Here is the thing about perfect victims; they do not exist, and they should not have to in order for rape to be taken seriously. A friend (I will call her Jane) went to visit one of her childhood friends (I will call him Carl) a few weeks ago. Carl had just returned to Uganda and everyone was looking forward to seeing him. He called and requested to see Jane and she promised to see him on an agreed evening at their family home. She arrived at his home with so much excitement. These two had been friends for more than 20 years, went to the same schools and played the same neighbourhood games. There was, therefore, so much to catch up on.
Amid the long conversation, Carl made a couple of attempts to touch Jane but she dismissed it as something her mind was making up. In her words, “ I thought I was being ridiculous, I mean Carl is like a brother, maybe I was over reading into his actions” This battle in her mind went on for about three more minutes until she became more and more uncomfortable and decided to get up and leave.
Carl got so angry and became aggressive in a short span of time. He pinned Jane to the couch with his fingers tightly wrapped around her mouth and his elbow harshly pressing against her chest and neck. His other arm was at this point taking off his pants. He then raped her in spite of her desperate pleas and screams for him to stop. She fought until she froze. Her soul was murdered by the rape right there in that moment.
Research has shown that in response to the trauma of an assault or rape, victims tend to ‘freeze’ rather than fight or flee. This is referred to as “tonic immobility.” Carl left the country and Jane is dealing with the trauma of this unfortunate incident. Some people have said she took herself there and so, good for her. Others have said she made the story up. Others have labelled her unladylike; but all these do not take away Jane’s experience.
I have been compelled to share Jane’s story with her consent so that we might all learn something. That someone out there will join the fight for rape-free environments and put an end to rape cultures. That someone will find recognition and know that their story/experience is valid. Many people say very hurtful things both out of ignorance and spite and this must stop.
There are a number of people who wonder why survivors are only beginning to speak out now. It is not because they are lying or exaggerating but because they have been gas-lighted for decades about what actually constitutes rape. It is because they have been taught that they are to blame for failing to protect themselves and fed myths about how rape is only committed by strangers, not people we trust.
It is because they have been told that rape always has to be aggressive and violent to count as rape or assault. This is why when they finally speak out, it is after they have a sliver of recognition, usually from reading the stories of other survivors, that what they went through was valid, or that it may be safer for them to finally speak now that others are also sharing their experiences.
Many people are quick to ask victims why they did not run or get out or do something to stop the rape but telling victims to simply “get out” of the situation is not helpful nor is it realistic.
There are many circumstances where the body is immobilised from leaving the situation and the victim does not feel safe enough to leave. There is also another type of response to this type of trauma called “fawn” in which the victim seeks to gain the favour of her assailant by complying with his demands or acting in a servile way in order to survive.
Stop blame game
When we place the onus of the rape on the victim, we completely dismiss the effects of trauma and mitigating circumstances where leaving is simply not a possibility and, in some cases, may actually place the victim in more danger. Victim-shaming and blaming causes victims to incessantly doubt their own instincts and experiences. Many survivors of rape and assault choose not to report these crimes to the police, usually because they know the amount of victim-shaming that is already present in society. Some would prefer to avoid the potentially re-traumatising experience of a trial that may not result in justice.
For victim-blamers who claim that women should just learn how to say ‘no’ in the face of an attack, here is a simple reminder; there are many ways women say no but that does not mean the perpetrator will not continue. Flirting or even going home with someone does not mean you agree to have sex with them. Nor does the mere act of speaking out about sexual coercion infantilize women or make them ‘play the role’ of a victim. Victim-hood is not an act – it is a lived experience that takes a legitimate toll on someone’s physical and emotional well-being.
Rape is equivalent to soul murder. As you fight to keep safe from Covid-19, plan to educate yourself about how you are going to treat people with more understanding and from a place of knowledge. Do not lead with your opinion on the matters they present you but rather on their truth.
The writer is the chief steward, Femme Forte Uganda