Don’t Judge a Rape by the Survivor’s Reaction
Last week, five men were acquited of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl in Spain, because they had not used violence or intimidation. They didn’t have to — the victim was “in an unconscious state.” In Spain, this is still not sufficient to constitute rape, basically because of one element: she didn’t fight back.
It’s a horrible case, which has sent hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets to protest the country’s sexual assault laws. But it is also something that reveals a wider issue: the way we see rape depends on the victim’s attitude.
This is very unlike any other crime. If someone lets out a nervous laugh during a mugging, no one uses that against them to suggest they wanted to get their phone and wallet stolen at knifepoint. Crimes are not supposed to be defined by the victim’s reaction. But when it comes to rape, women are always suspected of lying. The old myth that “No means Yes” is still a thing.
Some women don’t fight back
Rape victims have a tendency not to behave in the way you would expect them too. They won’t necessarily fight back, firstly because physically freezing is an automatic response to trauma. In a 2017 study of women visiting an emergency rape clinic in Stockholm, 70% reported significant tonic immobility: a temporary and involuntary paralysis stemming from intense fear, reports BBC. “These women hadn’t passively consented. Their bodies had responded in a biologically normal way to a threat.”
Some women may also make the conscious decision not to fight back, so as to limit the harm they endure. In her memoir Lucky, Alice Sebold narrates her violent rape, and how after an initial fight she had changed tack, started to obey, to kiss her rapist back when he commanded her to, to pretend she would never tell anyone and make him promise to do the same.
“He held my life in his hand. Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I’d rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to.”
Afterwards, when Alice’s father finds out that the rapist didn’t have his knife on her at the moment of the rape itself, he asks, stunned “then how did you get raped?” The implication being, how is it rape if you are not fighting to the death.
Sometimes, you cook your rapist breakfast
What’s worse is that a rape victim isn’t judged only on what happens during the rape, but on their attitude afterwards. To stay alive, and to make life liveable, when you get raped you do things, unconsciously or consciously, that step away from how a victim of rape is supposed to behave. It’s common, in the aftermath, to seek comfort from your rapist, to try and convince yourself they didn’t just use your body, that it was more. Sometimes, you make your rapist breakfast. Sometimes you even send him messages and ask to see him again. It will be used against you. In court, if you report the rape, because “would a rape victim do that?”
“Would a woman really sleep with other people in the days after being raped?” asked a friend of mine, in disbelief, as he cast doubt on the rape of an acquaintance of his. The answer is yes. People react to trauma in different ways, some of which might appear strange. As a survivor myself, the idea of trying, almost desperately, to rewrite the narrative of your life, to block out what happened with other memories of sex, makes perfect sense. Getting back on a bike straight away after a nasty fall.
Plus, the implication that rape and consensual sex are the same bugs me, it’s like asking: “Would someone really lend money to a friend in the days after being mugged?” To compare sex and rape is like comparing someone stealing your phone, and your friend borrowing it to show you a funny cat video.
Rape is still a crime where doubt is constantly cast on the victim. The idea lingers that women cry sexual assault all the time, even though statistically, there are no more false reports than for any other felony. Plus, sexual assault remains a severely underreported crime. And amongst only 24% of those who have been raped as adults even identify it as rape.
An important thing to remember, as well, is that we are neither judge nor jury. It makes sense that for people in a courtroom, the guilt of the accused needs to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the foundation of our justice system — innocent until proven guilty. And it is a good one (even though it does make the justice system entirely ill-adapted to the crime of rape, inherently a her-word-against-his situation … ) But when it comes to normal members of society, we don’t have to poke holes in victims stories. We don’t have to attempt to get them to trip up. We don’t have to prove the crime happened beyond any reasonable doubt. If someone tells you they were raped, in the same way as if someone told you their house was burgled, or they got punched, just believe them. Don’t try and gauge their behaviour to see if it fits into the cultural narrative of how rape survivors act. Don’t question the details of the rape to ascertain whether she really resisted enough.
Just believe her, and support her.