THE BLOG

Faceless Monsters: Rape in the Papers

09/08/2013 12:36 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST
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Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, child abuse, victim blaming.

I hate it when people say "It's time to talk about x", "It's time we sat down and had a serious discussion about y".

I don't propose "It's time to talk about rape". We've talked about it enough: Yewtree, Steubenville, Delhi, Twitter...

But we should start talking differently about it.

We don't hear about perpetrators. Headlines always read "Woman raped in Hartlepool", "Study shows 24% students victims of abuse". Unless perpetrators are famous or politically sensitive then reporting is passive - X molestation was committed, Y assault was reported. Potential victims are at risk of abuse - nobody is at risk of raping. This gives the impression rape 'just happens', ruins lives like a fair-weather thunderbolt. Abuse occurs randomly like cancer - the victim 'suffers rape'. Nobody in day-to-day life 'does' rape.

Up to 90% of rapes are known to the victim - family, friends, colleagues. Reporting barely acknowledges this, let alone addresses it. The media have a narrative, a nice easy story. You, the reader, already know the framework. It's a fable, a morality tale:

Young woman drinks too much and walks home alone at night and is attacked by a stranger.

I did it myself - I typed 'is attacked'. But there's no easy-to-follow fable. In reality, sex crime doesn't fit neat patterns.

By deploying the 'Rape-out-of-nowhere' card, we remove ourselves from the situation. We don't come to terms with the fact that, statistically, we probably know a rapist. The reader-writer team deny that rape is a problem for them and theirs, unless (here we go) someone they know wears a tight dress and drinks too much.

A tiny percentage - as low as 6.8% of recorded rapes and 1.1% of the estimated total - end in conviction. We don't consider whether/how we ourselves contribute to a rape-friendly culture. Whether the way we discuss bodies and preferences contributes. Whether porn might desensitise some people. Whether Page Three might inspire some objectification. Whether the way you looked at that teenager on the bus terrified them. Whether it's OK so many people think they're right to abuse partners who've deviated even slightly from angelic post-Christian norms.

Depersonalised reports do victims a disservice. We must understand that victims can be anyone. The 'rape-like-lightening' storyline imagines three victims - the attractive young girl, the innocent child, and the prisoner. These 'types' ruin police attitudes, victim support and jury mindsets whenever the real-life victim is anything else - a different age, class, ethnicity, (trans*) gender or attractiveness to what's expected.

We only hear about criminals when they're from minorities. They're comfortably far away, they're explicitly 'not us' when 'us' is the white middle-class largely-male cadre that dominates Fleet Street, Westminster and the courts. Look at stories where the criminal's in the spotlight: they're always the 'Other'. Jimmy Saville or Stuart Hall are shown as excessive celebrities living bizarre showbiz lives. Catholic Priests are unnatural, repressed and confused. Abuse rings in Rotherham, Oxford and Delhi? Racial and religious differences are seized upon. Even last week's Twitter abuse of Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez has been ascribed to virginal computer nerds.

We need to understand that rapists are not unspeakable monsters. They are like you and I. If we can only imagine rapists being unhinged psychopaths, then in court all that the defence barrister needs to do is show what a nice, normal human being the accused is, and the jury accepts that the accused cannot be guilty. If we understand that rape is something 'people' do, potential rapists may even seek preventative help. [None of that is to say we should excuse rapists.]

How to change focus?

Look at the perpetrators. America did. South Africa did, helped by our government. Indeed, our latest study peripherally discussed criminals. But people don't read/see/hear government studies - they read/see/hear news. News is written by time-pressed journalists looking for the bestselling angle. Knowing this, whoever is publishing will write a press release that panders to the clichés.

So the statistics exist. You almost certainly know a rapist, unless you're a recluse. Cycle through the mental Facebook of your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, fellow commuters and shoppers - how many?

There are great steps in the right direction. The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! are really admirable. Slutwalk highlights that rape is unacceptable regardless of the victim's appearance/conduct. However, Slutwalk's focus is on women's right to freedom and to live/dress without molestation; this arguably contributes to the narrative of young attractive women as victims.

If you think gender violence is a problem, talk about it right. Demand equal focus on the criminal. We shouldn't ignore the victim, but we must keep the whole situation in mind. Not just to aid convictions and support victims, but so we learn to tear apart rape culture and construct a society where the current brutality is unacceptable.

This blog was a shortened version of an essay posted on Haywire Thought.