Uninvited Women

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Today – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – marked the publication of the first edition of the Uninvited Women Journal. I was thrilled to have a piece in it, which is reproduced below. The other contributions were written by inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I encourage you to follow the link above, and read their stories.

VICTIM BLAMING, SHAME, AND MALE ENTITLEMENT: HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO A RAPE CULTURE IN IRELAND.

Like any culture, rape culture is a collection of elements. Three of these elements are victim blaming, male entitlement, and shame. The latter foisted on the shoulders of the victim, not the perpetrator. Victim blaming occurs when individuals blame elements of the victim’s behaviour to hold the victim at least partially responsible for their own assaults. It is often maintained by strong religious ideology. Shame, as an emotion, is socially constructed, and intertwined with disgust: The origins of disgust can be traced back to when our cave sisters and brothers rejected toxic foods because they triggered a sense of disgust. As human beings became more sophisticated, we projected our sense of disgust at certain actions and behaviours onto the actors of those actions and behaviours – creating shame within them.

Shame, then, has become linked to the idea of ‘normality’ and ‘acceptability’. I believe we need a cultural sea of change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators, rather than their victims.

Male Entitlement. Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. This sense of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. When entitled individuals do not receive what they want, they may become hostile or violent: Higher rates of self-reported sexual aggression have been found among college males who also reported a higher sense of entitlement.

THE IRISH CONTEXT

I have three words that explain – to a large extent – how victim blaming, shame, and male entitlement manifest in an Irish context. Those three words are Roman, Catholic, and Church. The rise in religiosity in Ireland can be traced back to what the colonising English called ‘The Famine’, and the Irish refer to as An Gorta Mór 1 , when English parliamentary commissions indicated that the ‘civilising of Irish society depended on giving more power to the Catholic Church’.

1 ‘THE GREAT HUNGER’

The population of Ireland was thirded by starvation and emigration as a result of An Gorta Mór. Those who remained developed strategies to ward off similar catastrophes. These included religion, education, and culture, which the Roman Catholic Church took ownership of. I think it’s safe to say that there is a strong religious ideology in Ireland. Regular mass attendance is down, but people still do their hatching, matching, and dispatching in churches; and most children are still forced through three sacraments before they start secondary school.

Shame itself is constructed in Irish society with reference to Roman Catholicism. But there’s also a peculiar Irish complexion to shame that doesn’t cast equally on men and women. Women’s bodies are policed, their actions, educations, and possibilities, are mediated by peculiarly Irish social norms. Catholic notions of sexual morality proved to be especially oppressive for Irish women, who were told their bodies were shameful – but, apart from that, they were not discussed. It was not uncommon in 1950s Ireland for women to marry without basic reproductive knowledge.

Male entitlement in Irish culture is underpinned by our patriarchal, hierarchical, paternalistic norms, which favour men. Economics, social policy, and law, all reflect, and are reinforced by, dominant ideologies, constructed by men. The structures they underpin are patriarchal. Sometimes, these structures have with a paternal gloss to intimate a protection of women and children, but which undermines, and limits, women’s agency. Women are only considered in their proximity to, and relationships with, men; and our differences are seen as aberrations from a male norm.

 

Believing the Victim

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One of the hardest things a victim has to do is disclose their abuse for the first time. I’m not saying it gets easier with every telling; but some people can be easier to tell than others. It can be easier, for example, to tell your doctor – in a matter-of-fact, clinical way that you have been abused – than it is to tell a new romantic interest before you get intimate with them. (In my experience, it’s better to tell them before rather than after, but more on that later.)

As a society, the first thing we need to do us understand that we have to believe the victim. Victims and survivors need to know that they will be believed or they will not disclose. That matters, hugely, not just for the possibility of their own recovery and healing, but in order to instigate action against the person who raped or abused them, and prevent it happening to someone else. Because, here’s the thing; sexual predators do not stop abusing because they wake up some day with a eureka moment, and think ‘oh that’s not a very nice thing to do, I’ll stop now’. If a behaviour is serving someone well, they have no reason to change that behaviour. So, if a sexual predator is not stopped from abusing, they will continue to do so. They will just become more devious, more adept at finding people to groom, more sneaky about the ways they use to find and silence their victims.

This is evident from the number of high-profile sex-offenders who abused many children over many years. They were not stopped because their victims didn’t disclose for fear of what would happen to them afterwards, and for fear of not being believed. In fact, many of the women who were raped by Bill Cosby were not initially believed when they came forward.

Of course, we’ve all heard that people make up false allegations about abuse and rape in order to exact revenge on a man who has upset them. This tiresome trope is all the more tiresome because false allegations make up fewer than 1.5% of rape claims that were prosecuted in the UK.  Given that, I would suggest that anyone who makes allegations of rape or sexual assault be believed until it is reasonable to think that their allegations are false.

In my case, I was ‘lucky’ in that I was always believed.   Along my journey, I have always been believed by doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, police, judges – anyone who mattered, really, found no reason not to believe me. In fact, most went out of their way to reassure me, and emphatically declared that they did not doubt me. This was probably aided by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse never denied it. (More about that later).

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to have to go through being assaulted and then not believed. It’s hard enough to muster the strength to report a rape or an assault in the first place – whether that reporting is official (to the police or a healthcare professional for example) or unofficial (to a friend, partner, parent etc.) – without having to go to extreme lengths to ‘prove’ that an assault has taken place.

Contributing to the culture of disbelief is a misinformed notion of what a victim ‘should’ look like, or how a victim ‘should’ behave. If a victim presents in ways that go against these ideas – which are often promulgated by media in various forms and guises – s/he has a more difficult time being believed.

Rape and sexual assault have devastating effects on those who are hurt. They damage in ways that are seen and unseen. They take so much from the victim that cannot be replaced. The very least victims deserve is to be heard and believed.