Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why current rape support strategies may be creating victims (ADULT CONTENT, TRIGGER ALERT, EXPLICIT LANGUAGE). 21.09.13

“We're making a better world. All of them... better worlds.”

Before I even start, I want to answer a question many people are going to ask, probably in rather unkind tones: who the hell am I to talk about rape?

I am not a rape expert.  I have not studied it, I have not gone through systematized advocate training and I have not worked in support organisations.  I am just a person who spent a lot of time with people whose lives have been overly eventful.  I have been honoured by people sharing with me their experiences when there were no inducement to – and I mean “honoured”, because they did it by their own choice.  I had nothing to offer but my ability to listen.  I have also been the person who was deemed able to help people in times of need, when they needed someone to lean against whilst navigating the official support system.

“The plural of anecdote is not evidence”, I know.  But what I have seen and heard happened; and no amount of accepted theories and peer-reviewed papers is going to make me discount it.  Furthermore, yes, I am an amateur at rape support.  That also means that I have never operated within an ideology or a system.  I have never been officially indoctrinated about what rape is or isn’t.  I am not engaged in a moral crusade against it – which DOES NOT mean that I condone or support it, merely that my focus is different from that of most specialists I have met.  The only thing I ever cared about was to help people recover, as much as they could, as quickly as they could.  I have never been guided by accepted best practices or lofty ideals.  I just tried to do whatever needed doing to help them get their lives back together.

Also, if you think that I am talking about the subject in a cold and unemotional manner, please believe that this does not come without some serious, deliberate effort.  I am doing so for two main reasons.  Firstly, I believe people are entitled to hear my thoughts, not my feelings.  Venting how I feel about the issue is not going to help anyone other than me.  Secondly, the way I feel about the issue, if left to guide my writing, would result in a lot of vehement and vulgar language.  I know that it would be a barrier for a lot of people.  The bottom line is: it’s not that I don’t care.  It’s that I care enough to make the effort to try and present the issue in a coherent, polite, controlled manner.


I have some serious reservation about whether the current accepted strategies for rape support are helping survivors recover as well as they could.  In fact, from my limited experience, some of the accepted methods seem to actually increase the likelihood of survivors suffering long-term psychological effects from the event; in actuality, they may be turning the survivors into victims, rather than the other way round.[1]

Firstly, and it is almost an aside, post-rape support in this country (UK) is that it is often tightly linked with the reporting system.  The accepted strategy is to contact the police; they will then arrange all necessary medical follow-up procedures.  This is great if a survivor wants to report.  If, for whatever reasons, the survivor does not want to report, accessing acceptable medical support can be an ordeal, and I don’t use this emotive word by accident.  The medical system often does not appear to be geared up to handle this kind of emergency.  The most significant issues I have noticed are as follows:
  • Hospitals and surgeries unable or unwilling to offer the option of picking the gender of the doctor, and/or to have a same-gender nurse present, and/or allow someone supporting the survivor to be present.  Quite often, the last thing a recent rape survivor needs is to have one’s private areas examined one-to-one by someone the same gender as the rapist.
  • Medical professionals not having the skills to talk to rape survivors.  Some of the comments I have heard were quite staggering, ranging from the dismissive to the insulting to the plainly, obviously disgusted or terrified.  I have also seen plenty of professionals handle the situation with great aplomb and professionalism; however, the fact that some of them don’t know what to say and don’t seem to be able to keep quiet or hide their feelings on the subject can be a real issue.
  • Medical professionals telling survivors that “they should report it”.  Not having any legal or psychological training, they are ill-qualified to give advice on this issue.
  • For long-term resulting sexual health issues, the only port of call is often the public genito-urinary medicine clinic.  Now, there is often quite a stigma associated with having to visit that particular sort of clinic.  Whether that should be the case or not is beside the point – that’s how it is.  The bottom line is that survivors are effectively forced undergo a humiliating experience in order to access the necessary medical support.

And my all-time favourite:
  • Emergency departments that force people to state what the emergency is in the lobby, in front of other members of the public, with no privacy whatsoever.

This is, as I said, almost an aside.  Things, to my eyes, can get considerably worse when one tries to access the official reporting and/or support system available to rape survivors.  Once the physical and medical issues are resolved, the most significant issue rape can have on a survivor is psychological damage.  It seems to me that the way support is often offered can greatly increase the risk of long-term problems of this nature.

I have known three groups of people who I have seen reliably recover from rape, returning to “normal” within as short a period of time as possible: sex workers[2], people in the very lowest socio-economic levels and women living in war zones or under military dictatorships.  These groups have some characteristics in common:

    They accept rape as a real possibility.  They do not condone it or excuse it, but they do accept that it can happen to them.  Rape and other violence are a reality in both street culture and lower socio-economic levels.  They are facts of life.  People living in those cultures have a completely different grasp of the subject from the majority of the public, to whom it is a vague, mythical issue that is grasped only conceptually, if at all.  These people don’t live “under the spectre of rape”, because rape to them is not a spectre – it is flesh-and-bone reality.  This has three huge impacts on how they operate around the subject.
Firstly, if it does occur, it does not blindside them.  It is not an unexplainable horror that comes out of nowhere.  It is not something that “just doesn’t happen to the likes of us.”  It is almost an occupational hazard, a calculated risk. 
Secondly, by accepting it as an eventuality they prepare against it to the best of their abilities.  They have a plan to avoid it as much as they can.  If it does occur, they can genuinely say that they have done everything they could to prevent it from taking place.
Thirdly, they have a plan to survive the actual physical events.  They have thought of steps to minimise the physical damage they incur.  More importantly, as the rape is unfolding they are not necessarily passive victims; they are actually busy keeping themselves as safe as they can.  This can have a huge impact on the way the view their role in the event[3].

They know other rape survivors.  They have seen people who have gone through the event and come out of the other end relatively unscathed and functional.  This is called “modelling” behaviour.  They know functional people whom it has happened to – so they know that recovery is possible.  They also know that rape survivors are people just like them, not a separate class of human.  They are able to share their experiences, if they want to, with people who understand their position.  They are able to get some informed practical help without having to access the “system”.  Most importantly, when rape is a shared experience it loses a lot of its stigma[4]

They do not see rape as “a fate worse than death”.  Rape is a horrible event.  However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are worse things out there.  It can be terribly hard for a lot of us to appreciate that for some people rape can be the least injurious option, because we do not deal with death and/or torture as part of our daily life.  Some people do.  Some people can walk out of a rape and genuinely think that “they got away lightly”, because they didn’t die.  All of their limbs, although injured at times, are still present and correct.  To a lot of people who walk with death on a daily basis, that is a definitive bonus.   Furthermore, the hyperbole about it being worse than death is a big part of modelling permanent victim behaviour.  Rape is, overwhelmingly, not meant to kill.

Please note that I am NOT minimising or excusing rape.  All I am doing is listing the characteristics of three groups of people who seem to survive it remarkably better than the majority of us.  The reason I am doing so is that these strategies seem to work, yet they run antithetically to the way rape support is currently offered.

We are taught to view rape as an alien occurrence that just shouldn’t take place.  When it happens, it blindsides us.  We may or may not have a strategy to avoid it.  In fact, there is an increasing resistance to teaching women about self-protection but pre-assault risk reduction.  This because it is classed as “victim blaming”.

We are also taught that all rapes are the same.  They are all monstrous, traumatic, unforgivable event and they are all about power and control.  The truth is that rapes happen for a whole variety of reasons, in a whole variety of settings, and some of them are just about the sex.  It doesn’t justify them in any way, shape or form, but it makes them different.  We should be allowed to have feelings and thoughts specific to our personal experience. 

My biggest bugbear, however, is the throwaway sentences you routinely get as soon as someone comes forth as a rape survivor.  “It is not your fault”, I have no problems with.  We operate within the belief that there is still a stigma associated with being the survivor of a sexual crime.  How much of that is based in reality is a different story.  Personally, the only people I have ever seen genuinely “victim blaming” are people who are likely to rape, rapists, and people who have a vested interest in defending rapists, for instance lawyers and close family members.  We are unlikely to ever be able to fully eradicate those groups, I guess, so it is worthwhile to continue to reinforce this concept.  It hurts nobody and it can do some good.

However, the second sentence is usually “there is nothing you could have done to stop it.”  THAT I have huge problems with.  Saying that “there was nothing I could have done” makes me blameless, to be sure, but also powerless.  I was powerless to stop that attack.  Hence, I will also be powerless to stop it happening again, and again, and again.  If you want to build neurosis into a person, I can’t think of a better way.

How much control do we have on whether we get raped or not?  Well, how much control do we have on our lives?  The only answer that makes any sense to me is “some”, but I have hit a lot of sharp corners in my life.  As humans, we tend to operate within accepted narratives that grant us illusion of control and an acceptable story about things we can't control. These often work together (e.g. I'm in control of my world, but the reason I can't get ahead is because I'm the wrong gender/ wrong race/wrong size/my family is keeping me down/the boss hates me, etc.).  By hanging onto these narratives we make ourselves gods and in control of our world, yet we can farm out the blame for many of our problems.

Going from “I am in control of my life and that kind of thing doesn't happen to me” to it having happened is a hardcore reality crash.  The person feels exposed and vulnerable. The easy options to choose at this point are the extremes – either it’s completely someone else’s fault and I had no control, or I will take full responsibility so I can still be in control.  Usually neither of them are factually correct.  Often there was something that could have been done, but there is no knowing how much it would have helped, if at all.  The more balanced, healthier conclusion we can reach is “I can control some things, but not others”.  The way we often reach it is by going through the two extreme phases first – only, if you are a rape survivor, you are not allowed to.  You are never allowed to “blame yourself”, because you’re a “victim”.  It does make me wonder whether one of the reasons survivors are often not willing to seek help or to continue getting it is purely the fact that it can hinder their recovery, that it only makes them feel worse.

The system may be engineering trauma into survivors, and this isn’t a theory I developed out of thin air.  If we look at the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they include both exposure to a trauma and a response of fear, helplessness, or horror[5].  The current system teaches rape survivors that they were helpless and they should feel horror.  How can this possibly help them recover?

On the surface the focus of the system is not on so much on helping the existing “victims”, but on a moral drive to abolish rape altogether.  The emphasis is on “I will right this wrong!” rather than on “how can I help this?”.  As a consequence, unpalatable or “morally unacceptable” solutions are often disregarded, even though they can be seen to work for those groups who have to survive rape because they just can’t avoid it.[6]

If you do not believe that support systems are being hijacked by a moral crusade, just think of the contrast between the response to rape and other forms of interpersonal violence, which is frankly no picnic either.  You can be beaten to within an inch of your life, be severely physically damaged as a result, yet the moment you come round you will be automatically treated as a survivor.  This makes logical sense, because you did survive; you didn’t die.  The emphasis from that point forward will be on your recovery, not on your trauma.  You will be given a menu of services to aid your recovery that may include psychological help, but you will not be told that you will need it.  You will be told that you need to manage (not repress) your emotional reactions, and supported as required.  You will also be told, with due care and respect but quite clearly, that you might need to make some changes if your emotional reactions are hindering your recovery.

As a survivor of non-sexual interpersonal violence at no point are you likely to be exposed to professionals having any sort of emotional meltdown regarding your ordeal.[7]  This is really very important, because humans are designed to emotionally infect each other and usually trained from a young age to respect the authority of professionals.  This is particularly true during emergencies.  If a specialist is openly horrified and tells you that you must be very traumatised indeed and probably broken forever, you are likely to buy that unquestioningly.

By contrast, generally speaking, the system expects rape survivors to fall apart.  In fact, not only do they expect it, but with the modelled behaviour and information they provide, they pretty well guarantee it.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Now, you should not be ashamed if this happens, because it can be a natural reaction.  It isn’t the only acceptable reaction, though, and you shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed if that’s not what happens to you.  You should be allowed to think that “it wasn’t so bad”, if it helps you – even if that may be perceived by some as deflecting some of the blame from the perpetrators, because it should not be about them.  You should not be encouraged to feel more traumatised than you actually are.

The other thing you won’t be told as a survivor of non-sexual interpersonal violence is what coping mechanisms you should select.  That is often not the case with rape survivors.  Now, I have known rape survivors to use all manners of coping mechanisms, ranging from hunting down the perpetrators, to having sex with them again to exorcise the fear, to discounting the whole event as “just another f*ck”.  Some of these mechanisms would work with me; most wouldn’t.  This doesn’t matter to because the thing is, this is not about me – it’s about them.  And as far as I’m concerned, anything that helps them get better and move on, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else (including themselves), is just grand.  This applies even when their choices do not fit in with my ideals and my strategies – because, let me repeat it, this is not about me.  Ultimately, telling people that there is a “right way” to feel and to cope is a bit too close to teaching them how to live, which nobody can convince me I have a right to.

It seems apparent to me that there are inherent flaws in the support system, and they all seem to stem from the fact that it is focused on fighting rape.  Now, you tell me that rape is an abomination, and my thinking is “Gee, well spotted there.  Congratulations on this amazing realisation.  Now, can we focus on the fact that a person is hurting?  Can we save the crusading for later?”

I hugely admire people with ideals.  I am all for the abolition of rape, as well as all other forms of violence.  It would be lovely to be living in a completely safe world.  But we don’t, and I can’t see it happening in my lifetime, if ever.  Right here, right now, we have to deal with the reality we live in.  I find it morally repugnant to put ideals ahead of people, principles ahead of practicalities, theories ahead of what can be seen to work in practice.  I think we are letting rape survivors down, and I believe that they should come first in our considerations.  I think we should select whatever strategies can stop them from becoming victims, before we engage in any moral crusades.

[1] I dislike the word “survivor” when it is misapplied.  I appreciate that it is used as a “term of empowerment”, but to apply it to certain situations is inaccurate and often hyperbolic.  However, I HATE the word victim.  To me, a victim is someone who not only had no control over what happens but also does not recover; that is the one thing I have always tried to avoid.  For this reason, I will use the word “survivor” throughout the article as the lesser of two evils.

[2] If you think you can’t rape a sex worker, congratulations: you have successfully managed to lead a more sheltered life than many of us.  Please watch “Leaving Las Vegas” before reading the rest of this article.  If that doesn’t help you see things from a slightly different perspective, go fuck yourself.

[3] To take things to extreme, consider the difference between thinking “I got raped and couldn’t do anything to stop it” and “I got raped but I stopped the bastard from slitting my throat”.

[4] And no, I am not advocating that it SHOULD be a shared experience. 

[5] Based on criteria from the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000).  The current edition of the manual will remove these criteria.  However, a significant reason behind the change is that they were preventing military personnel from receiving adequate psychological support.  As we are dealing with civilians, I feel justified in sticking with the old criteria.

[7] Unless you are dealing with domestic violence and/or domestic abuse, which is often handled in a very similar way to rape.


Drew said...

Excellent post. I was thinking about this exact same thing recently, it's like you read my mind.
I also can't help but feel that all the "fate worse than death" stuff actually ends up making the "weapon" of rape far more damaging and effective (for the rapist) than it otherwise might be if the messaging was more concerned with empowerment and protection/preservation.
We should be taking power away from them, not giving them more than they already have.

Marc said...

Powerful stuff there. Well written and more importantly well spelt so I have to take it seriously (sorry saw the conversation on Marc MacYoung's facebook page and maybe an inappropriate joke about such a serious subject.) I can appreciate Marc's view and yours that there does seem to be an industry that self generates itself by keeping people as victims. There was a great advert up here in Scotland by the government here where two teenagers are making out and the girl wants to stop but the boy insists and then it shows the boy from outside viewing his behaviour and shouting stop to himself so I do feel that would educate younger people to watch and curtail certain types of behaviour and maybe empower girls to do some self defence or at least think about that type of situation and not place themselves there through sloppy thinking. So both sides can learn although for the predatory rapists, this would have no effect. There is a great film, The girl with the dragon tattoo where Daniel Craig is investigating a murderer and rapist of girls and when he discovers who the person is, he leaves the house but the person sees him and invites him in as they had previously met before using the conditioned socialisation of not being rude. Anyway, the rapist is congratulating himself about how he had used it to lure him in that is until the girl rescues the captured Daniel Craig. So maybe people especially women (they are probably at more risk of rape) need to be aware of how their socialisation could be used against them and what can be done (Rory's giving themselves permission to act if they feel something is not right).

Anonymous said...

"The plural of anecdote is not evidence”

Actually anecdote is evidence, just not particularly good evidence.