Shame is a big reason why women don’t reveal their experiences of sexual assault. Now some remarkable young women are breaking that mould
The Guardian, Friday 1 May 2015
Women who have suffered a serious sexual assault sometimes feel as though they’ve been given a life sentence. The psychological effects can last for years, forcing victims to change their everyday routines and taking away their sense of autonomy. No matter how much we believe in the principle that women should be able to have a few drinks and walk home late at night, just like men, the cultural messages to the contrary are relentless.
That is why a letter written by a young woman who was brutally assaulted three weeks ago is so welcome, and so unexpected that it has made front-page news. Ione Wells, a 20-year-old student at Oxford University, was walking home from an underground station in north London when she was attacked near her family home. As the victim of a serious sexual assault, she was entitled to lifelong anonymity, but she decided to waive that right and publish an open letter to her alleged attacker in the student magazine, Cherwell.
“I cannot address this letter to you,” she begins, “because I do not know your name. I only know that you have been charged with serious sexual assault and prolonged attack of a violent nature. And I have one question.” What this courageous young woman wants to know is whether, while her unknown assailant was beating her head on the ground, tearing her bra and kicking her in the back and neck, he ever thought about the people in his life.
Instead of seeing him as the stereotypical lone predator, she understands that such men have a context. Even if they are able to forget about the fact that they have friends and relatives while they are committing their crimes, her own sense of belonging to a supportive community is undamaged: “I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the cafe under the railway.”
Instead of feeling isolated, as many victims do, Wells sees the attack on her as an attack on her community as well. It is an assault on their shared values, and she believes that her community will prevail because its values are better than the world her attacker inhabits. “You’ve carried out your attack,” she says, “but now I’m getting back on my tube.”
Wells is not the only young woman who has gone public in such a dramaticway. Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts student at Columbia University in New York, was so angry about the way in which the college handled her accusation of rape against a fellow student in 2013 that she began carrying a mattress around the campus in protest. In an interview with New York magazine, she said that the mattress “represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens”, turning it into a symbol of the way in which she claims she has been forced to put her private life in the public domain. On Tuesday, her alleged attacker announced that he is suing the college for allowing Sulkowicz to brand him a rapist.
What both these young women are doing, in very different ways, is insisting that sexual violence demands a response from wider communities. It is not something that victims should have to struggle with on their own, and it certainly isn’t something they should feel shame about.
It has to be said that this is very different from suggesting that every victim should follow their example. Having the choice of lifelong anonymity is an important factor in persuading women who have been attacked to report their experience. But the idea that victims should be able to draw strength from a community that shares their values, rather than blames them, is powerful. The notion that sexual predators exist in communities raises a supplementary question about why those close to them apparently don’t notice danger signs or fail to act. It addresses a matter that has caused a great deal of soul-searching since the exposure of Jimmy Savile.
Complaints against Savile were made during his lifetime, both informally and to the police, but the communities in which he held prominent positions repeatedly failed to recognise or act as a check on his behaviour. According to a report published this week by Surrey police, Savile abused at least 22 pupils and a visitor at Duncroft approved school in Staines over a five-year period in the 1970s. He was given “unrestricted and largely unsupervised” access to the girls’ school and committed at least 46 offences.
For decades, shame was one of the main reasons why more women didn’t reveal their experiences of sexual assault even to friends, let alone to police. Feminist authors and organisations have said for years that this is entirely wrong, pointing out that the responsibility for each and every act of sexual violence lies with the perpetrator. Now some remarkable young women are saying it too.
“You, my attacker, have not proved any weakness in me, or my actions, but only demonstrated the solidarity of humanity,” Ione Wells declares in her open letter. It reflects not just her resilience, but the emergence of networks of families and friends who have much more supportive attitudes towards victims of sexual violence.