Criminality and Victimhood in Sexual Assaults
What does it mean to be the victim of a crime?
Nothing throws up the various tensions that underpin the concept than thinking about violence against women. Over the last week, various incidents have thrown the tensions into relief. The apparent attack against celebrity chef Nigella Lawson by her own husband in a restaurant in London. The grim statistics on rape and violence against women released by the World Health Organisation this week, finally recognising it as the pandemic that it is. And personally, beginning my work with the Rape Accountability and Prevention Project (RAPP) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As far as violence against women goes, this week has affirmed that victimhood knows no race, no age, no socio-economic status.
An online etymology dictionary tells me that the word “victim” is a late 15th Century word that has its roots in the idea of “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power”. Over time, the concept evolved to encompass the sense of a person who is “hurt, tortured or killed by another” or a “person oppressed by some power or situation”. Finally today, the word has become a broad church to define any person or groups of people who have been taken advantage of by another, presumably more powerful person.
Theoretically, anyone who has suffered a crime is a victim, but in reality, victims of violence against women, and specifically sexual assault, are perceived in a very specific way. More than just about any other crime, sexual assault is accompanied by a process of public shaming; ranging from your garden-variety victim blaming, to the heinous honour killings that blight large swathes of the world. As a result, many people – of both genders – elect to remain silent when they are assaulted, deflecting the baggage of other people’s judgement at the cost of internalising the psychological costs of being assaulted.
Yet, anyone who has suffered it will tell you that there is something particularly heinous about sexual assault. Perhaps because of the mechanics of the act, which unlike other forms of crime involve having a foreign object invade the intactness of your body. When someone breaks into your house and steals your television set, you still suffer a sense of disorientation – the anger that comes from having that space that you consider sacred and personal, violated. That feeling is only magnified and intensified when the space in question is your corporeal self – your very body, which most of us are taught from childhood to be the only thing that you ever truly own.
So why do victims of sexual abuse get shame in a way in which victims of robbery or fraud never experience? Why is it victim blaming for rape victims tolerated in a way in which would be inconceivable to uphold for victims of theft, robbery or fraud?
At the heart of the notion of victimhood is the idea that the victim played no part in finding themselves victims. Not so with victims of sexual assault. Indeed the tension with regards to victims of sexual assault seems to be in the perception that to truly have no part in inviting victimhood, the putative victim must herself (or himself) be pure. This flawed view resonates the original definition of the word, where only the purest would be considered worthy of being offered as sacrifices.
The trouble is, in so far as the definition of “victim” has expanded and evolved, these underlying notions of purity have not. Think about it. Even if you left your front door open while having your big screen television and top-of-the-range computer in full view of the street, you would still be considered a victim of a crime. Stupid maybe, but still a victim. But somehow, the moment a woman or man does something to detract from their apparent purity – how where they dressed? Why was she drunk? – we no longer allow them to claim victimhood. We are prepared to accept that all the caution in the world is no perfect protection from any other crime, except sexual assault. Or maybe, more distressingly, we are still struggling to accept that there is something fundamentally wrong with robbing someone of their sexual dignity.
So even when we propose solutions to end stranger rape, date rape, partner rape, the use of rape as a weapon of war, we end up in the same place: increasing the burden on victims to demonstrate whatever notions of caution dominate our respective cultures. Give them guns. Teach self-defense. Castrate all rapists. Marry the victims off to their rapists to neutralise the criminality of the act. All of which do nothing to interrogate the thought processes and patterns of behaviour that would lead a man to rape.
Through all this, there is a far less considered side to victimhood that my experience in Haiti has brought into focus. In many parts of the world, the notion of victim has woven into it implications of weakness. By shaming victims of sexual assault, we wrongly imply that if the victim had somehow shown a little more strength in that moment, maybe the rape wouldn’t have happened. In victim blaming, we wonder: why didn’t they “just” resist?
The women that I have encountered here reject that notion in the way they chose to move forward. They embrace each other and create a zone of safety, where they can permit the younger participants to still be embarrassed at a social worker’s description of the sexual act, just as in any other sexual education class. They’re not gathering to seek pity. Empathy, yes, but not pity. They recognise the criminality of assault and emotionally encourage the lawyers pushing back against the system to fight for their justice. They talk openly about the brutality of their attacks, not to titillate, but to affirm that what happened was a crime, that no amount of strength or caution would have prevented.
The women in our network are declaring a powerful truth to the world; one I hope more will listen to. Violence against women is a crime, not because it violates the honour of family or the sexual purity of the victim. It is a crime because it robs the victim of the dignity and corporeal sanctity that derives from the very fact of her existence.