*content warning for discussion of sexual violence and victim blaming of women*
Written by Jessica Eaton
Today, a friend sent me an article about a young woman who managed to fight off three men who had abducted her, robbed her and told her they were going to rape her. The article from Australia tells the story as if she did something small to escape the offenders and so I read on (with my ‘cynical’ face on, I might add). To my surprise, the article reports that the 20 year old threw herself out of a moving car to protect herself from being raped.
I mean. That’s no mean feat. Throwing yourself out of a moving car on a highway? Not exactly the small tip her mum told her, that the article described it to be. It’s also extremely dangerous and terrifying to throw yourself out of a moving car (been there, long story, couldn’t do it, ended up stuck in the situation).
So this blog is dedicated to the way the media drip feed us these stories of the ‘perfect rape victim’. You know. The ones who fight off the attacker. The ones who go straight to the police station with skin of the offender under her nails so they can test for DNA. The ones who never shower after the assault and walk straight to the clinic with the semen still in their underwear for testing.
The media like to hold these women and girls up as perfect victims, and lets be honest, their stories are rare, unrealistic, amazing and well… they are used to place us all in a hierarchy of ‘bad victim’ to ‘perfect victim’.
That’s right, we are in a victimhood hierarchy. I’ve built a new model of this in my PhD and it will be released in my new book, too. My research, and the research of countless others, backs up the concept that women and girls are placed into a hierarchy of victimhood in sexual violence in which only the ‘perfect’ victims are seen as traumatised, innocent and telling the truth.
So let’s look at another story from the media. In 2016, U.K. This Morning Programme featured an interview with a young woman who was a huge CSI fan.
One day, she was abducted near her own home as she was walking back into her house and raped by a man in a car. Because she had watched hundreds of episodes of crime dramas, she told This Morning that she suddenly remembered the importance of DNA. She pulled out her own hair during the rape and left it in his car. She dug her nails into his neck to get DNA under her finger nails. She spat on the floor of his car to leave her DNA in there too. The presenters hailed her as a genius and hero, and that her quick thinking has led to his conviction. They even asked her what advice she would give to others in her situation, suggesting of course, that other women and girls should do the same.
I remember watching this episode with interest. I remember thinking how many hundreds or thousands of cases of sexual assault and rape I have ever been involved in and that none of them had ever looked like this. I concluded that her behaviour during the rape was incredibly rare (albeit amazing) but that the millions of women in the U.K. watching or hearing this story would not recognise this as what happened when they were raped or abused.
In fact, the majority (71%) of victims of rape or sexual assault freeze and don’t move or make a noise at all (muller et al., 2017). Fighting back is actually relatively rare.
Not only that, but the majority of all rapes and sexual assaults occur at home, with a partner or ex partner, with no witnesses, with no proof, with someone you’ve had sex with before, with someone who is emotionally manipulative or threatening. It’s just not realistic to expect women and girls to be able to respond to sexual violence in these MacGyveresque ways.
And herein lies the problem. Both young women are being held up as perfect victims. They did all the things right. They fought them off. They risked their lives. They did ingenious and dangerous things to save themselves. They reported to police immediately. They had enough evidence to prosecute and prove their accounts.
And now their stories are used to encourage women to ‘do more’ or ‘do better’ during rape or sexual assault.
And frankly, that narrative sickens me.
The victimhood hierarchy looks a little like this (although in much more detail in my research and books):
The perfect sexual violence victim:
⁃ Young, single, innocent female
⁃ Not from particular backgrounds
⁃ No criminal record
⁃ Not intoxicated
⁃ Doesn’t know the offender
⁃ Not wearing provocative clothing
⁃ Not sexually active
⁃ Never reported rape before
⁃ Tried to fight off the offender
⁃ Reported straight away to police
⁃ Had DNA evidence to provide
⁃ Had physical injuries from attack
⁃ Offender used extreme violence
⁃ Offender used a weapon
⁃ Offender is male or in a group
⁃ Situation was unfamiliar
All of the above factors are supported by almost 30 years of research and the trends are not going anywhere. My own PhD work has also confirmed these to be correct in UK populations between 2016-2018.
Without this turning into a chapter of my work, you can guess what happens when the victim doesn’t hit this strict criteria.
The same thing also happens when the offender doesn’t hit the strict criteria (maybe the offender is a rich, popular, successful business man with a loving family, so he doesn’t fit the stereotype). Victims are also perceived as less credible in familiar environments with no witnesses (at home, in bed, in bathrooms etc.)
So why is all of this so important?
Well, because for most women and girls, they will never ever be the ‘perfect victim’ stereotype that they are expected to be by society, by their families and by police.
In 2016, I interviewed Sasha*.
Sasha was raped by a stranger on her way home from a works do in broad daylight on a busy street. She told me the offender literally came out of nowhere near a bush and attacked her near a bus stop. She said he didn’t speak a word of English and that she thought he was an immigrant.
After he attacked her, Sasha called 999 and asked for help. They sent a police car and she got in, shaken but confident the police would support her. She told me that she was adding it all up in her head. She was thinking ‘I was attacked by a stranger, in broad daylight, there were witnesses – they’ll definitely believe me.’
And that’s when she said something to me that has impacted my career and my work with women ever since:
“So you know, as a victim that’s as good as you’re gonna get isn’t it? It’s like a best case scenario rape.”
I knew exactly what she meant. She meant that she knew all the hierarchies she was in. She knew the stereotypes and she knew what she was going to be judged against and she had mapped it out in her head to check whether she would be believed.
However, her story took a turn for the worse once she was being interviewed. She told me they asked her why she smelled of alcohol and she told them she had just come from a works do with colleagues up the road. They asked her why she didn’t fight him off. They asked her about a rape she reported and retracted a year earlier. They asked her about her mental health record and some records they had about her being in crisis a few years ago.
She said to me:
“I sat there and suddenly realised that I wasn’t the perfect victim. I wasn’t going to be believed. The rape had all the right bits but I wasn’t credible.”
The police dropped her case and nothing happened. She told me she often wonders about trying to reopen it, but she now knows she has two reports of rape on her police file in which nothing was done.
The reality for many women and girls, is that from the moment they realise they are raped or abused, they are already adding up the factors in their head that they know will go against them. And research has shown, that not being perceived as the ‘perfect victim’ leads women and girls to make the decision not to report at all. However, this is actually a wise move, because research has also shown that police hold the same stereotypes and victim blaming attitudes about sexual violence victims as the general public and that their beliefs influence how they remember accounts of sexual violence and whether they believe the woman (Dawtry et al. 2019).
The expectation on women and girls to be the perfect victim of rape and sexual violence is destroying the justice system and until we address it, women and girls will always measure themselves against the societal stereotype of how they ‘should’ have acted or how they ‘should’ have reported sooner.
Written by Jessica Eaton
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