Friday, 10 May 2013

Since I've got my rant on, here's another one about victim blaming and rape culture

Before I get stuck in, it seems best to warn people that I'll be talking about experiences of sexual violence. Some people may find this triggering, so trigger warnings definitely apply.

Right then, as is probably clear by now I am a 'survivor' of sexual violence. I really don't like the term 'survivor' in this context but I'll write about that another time. What I want to talk about now is how the knowledge that I've previously experienced sexual violence has actively made it harder for me to flag up problematic behaviour or report further sexual violence. Let me explain.

In my late teens/early twenties I started being quite open about the fact I'd been abused growing up. I didn't want to be ashamed any more and it seemed to me that the person who should be ashamed was my father. Three major things happened as a result: a good friend took me to the GP so I could be referred for therapy, a whole multitude of people disclosed their own experiences of sexual violence to me and a whole lot of people discovered a new way to try and silence me/shut me down.

It's that last one which was problematic. Take for instance the time a friend came to me in tears and told me that one of our mutual acquaintances had taken naked pictures of her, without her consent. She didn't want to go to the police because she was ashamed. She did want to be kept safe from this guy. After much talking, we decided to approach this guy together and confront him. We picked a time when some other friends would be around as neither of us wanted to be alone with him. So what happened? Well, the general consensus was that the pictures had been taken with her full consent but since then my friend had changed her mind and was worried what people would think of her. I countered this by pointing out the often creepy behaviour of this guy and the times he'd been inappropriate with both me and my friend. That he often used his size and height to intimidate people  - particularly girls, and that we knew previously my friend had turned him down on several occasions as she didn't fancy him.

All, in my mind fairly reasonable arguments. Why would a girl who didn't fancy him but found him creepy and intimidating suddenly agree to have naked pictures taken. The response? Well, it transpires that as someone who was abused growing up I was clearly way too sensitive to the issue and therefore saw abuse everywhere. Which meant my input should be automatically discounted. And my friend had clearly chosen me to go to as she figured I would be easy to get on side with her story.

I left that situation angry, hurt, disappointed and horrified. My friend left it pale and shaking, unable to speak. Later that night she tried to take her own life. Clearly, these were all the acts of a hardened liar who just didn't want people to think badly of her. I am pleased to report that since that day we've both gotten better friends. And that guy? The one I was clearly 'over sensitive' about and that she was lying about? He's serving time for having and taking photographs of young girls.

Now this was one incident, but it was a pattern that was repeated over and over again. Every time I expressed concern over someone's behaviour I was told that because I was abused growing up I wasn't a good judge of these things as I expected to see signs of abuse. At the time, I was young and insecure and it was easy enough for me to be persuaded that this was probably true. I am pleased to report that I no longer believe that.

The NHS runs expert patient programmes, because they recognise that the people with experience of living with a particular condition or illness are the best equipped to hand out advice and information on how to cope. When you're applying for a job, previous experience is often an asset - for many roles it's an absolute must. Choreographers have to know how to dance, so they have a working understanding of what they expect their dancers to do. Experience, it's a useful thing. So why, in this one situation is experience deemed a bad thing?

I absolutely understand the potential issues of hyper-vigilance but the fact remains: I have experience of sexual violence and this can be a useful thing. Because sometimes people feel more comfortable disclosing to me than they would to anybody else. Because sometimes I spot things in people's behaviour that flag up something is going on. Not necessarily abuse, but that somebody is struggling. Because sometimes I spot something which sends my spider sense a tingling, which tells me that someone isn't safe to be around or is hurting someone I care about.

Now, I'm not saying listen to me and me alone. What I am saying is don't discount my opinion or points out of hand. I'm not always right, I'm a person and people make mistakes. But I'm not always wrong either. I think I've been right more often than I've been wrong, particularly at the point where I feel confident enough to speak out. Even after all these years it's hard to shake the idea that I might be reading too much into something, so if I'm saying I have concerns that means I'm pretty damn confident they are valid.

There's something else that happens as a result of this weird idea that someone who's been abused in the past shouldn't be listened to, it leaves that person horribly vulnerable to further abuse. I was assaulted by a friend of a friend once. Not being one to keep quiet I told somebody else about it. They were really nice to me, all hugs and offers of support. Then I caught them talking about it to other friends. The gist of the conversation was 'you know Milli, she gets upset easy about this sort of thing. I'm sure it'll be fine once she calms down.'

Needless to say it wasn't fine when I calmed down, nor did I calm down any time soon.

See, this is an aspect of rape culture I don't think gets talked about. I mean, we talk a lot about the way sexual violence is dismissed, diminished or condoned. We talk about the way the victims are blamed for it, or how they aren't believed. What I don't think I've ever come across is an article talking about how having been believed in the past can make it harder to be believed in the future, how past experience - even that which has been acknowledged as true - can be turned into a further tool to silence those who would speak out about it. Or how it can be used by sexual predators to their advantage. So, I've written one. I hope someone somewhere finds it useful.

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