Trigger warning: several versions of sexual violence discussed in some detail.
A note on language: the range of words used to refer to different types of sexual violence are used interchangeably to denote the many ways someone can experience it.
‘Asked whether she had herself ever been sexually assaulted, she replied, to the astonishment of the interviewer: “I have not. Because I never put myself in that position.”’
This was the response of the female lawyer at the centre of defending Harvey Weinstein.
I would be the first person to say that it is never anyone’s right to ask someone whether they have experienced sexual assault, never mind in the context of an interview that is set to be viewed in the public domain. However, her reply is extremely problematic.
This comment comes right at the end of the article, with no explanation nor space to fully consider what it is saying. There is a lot to be said in response to this lawyer’s statement.
INTERNALISED MYTHS ABOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE
People are socialised to believe that if they experience sexual violence, it is entirely their fault. This is a combination of: usually being able to protect ourselves if we are under threat, the shame of being sexually violated, and the reinforcement of a victim-blaming society that needs this dynamic to be maintained so that sexual violence continues to be perpetrated without consequence.
Dissecting the above statement is possible at figurative and literal levels. Saying that you would literally never put yourself in a specific position where you would be on the receiving end of sexual assault assumes that there are specific circumstances where you have enough control to stop sexual violence from occurring.
This reinforces a very specific narrative, and set of beliefs, around sexual violence. This mistakenly reinforces the idea that sexual violence only happens to certain people, that perpetrators only fall into a certain category, and that sexual violence only happens in specific circumstances.
What if you’re fleeing your home country because it’s not safe enough to stay, and the people you trust to get you to another country to seek asylum rape you? What if you’re a child left in the care of a family member who uses that opportunity to repeatedly sexually assault you? What if you’re trapped in a relationship where rape happens routinely, and you can’t leave because your financial resources are removed, social circle is eroded, and your self-esteem is dictated by the perpetrator? Are these appropriate positions by which to be sexually violated?
THE DIVERSITY OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
There are countless circumstances in which sexual violence happens, and it is never straightforward. This is often because sexual violence is more likely to happen between people that know each other, so there is a pre-existing relationship with all its complexities to untangle amongst the traumatic impact of assault.
It is why rape in a relationship is reduced to one person’s word against another’s, and people aren’t believed in their personal networks nor in a court of law. The places where someone might be able to speak out is filled with mis-placed blame, shame, and guilt which only serve to reinforce their silence, and disempowerment. There are many things a survivor goes through before being able to tell someone what has happened to them, and how badly it has affected their life.
By its very nature being sexually assaulted means you are not in control of what is happening, how your body and mind respond at the time, nor how you are affected afterwards. Being able to take up a position of choice is forcibly removed from you.
Sometimes people are able to say ‘No’ and have it respected, and sometimes people are able to push someone away. However, the most common response to being sexually assaulted is to freeze, so even if you want to speak or move you absolutely can’t. Saying you would literally never be in a position to experience sexual assault is assuming you have personal power over how your body, and mind will try to survive this life-threatening experience.
Weinstein’s lawyer is asserting that sex was used against Weinstein as leverage by the women accusing him of rape, and assault to exploit him for professional opportunities. Rape, assault, and exploitation are not types of sex. Sex is consensual. A person is able to withdraw consent whilst they are having sex with someone. Being sexually available is not a precursor to assumed consent. Being alone in a hotel room with someone does not necessarily mean you are sexually available.
MEETING SURVIVOR’S NEEDS
A lawyer promoting these views is unethical, and irresponsible. In a context where the UK rates of conviction in rape cases are lower than ever (1.5% in 2018/19), we can see ever more clearly how internalised myths about sexual violence permeate the criminal justice system. This is in addition to the many ways that survivors are re-traumatised by this process, sometimes to the point of withdrawing a complaint.
My aim in writing in response is to push back against multiple levels of misconception this lawyer’s comment risks reinforcing. Comments such as this reinforce societal conditions where sexual violence continues to be perpetrated by individuals who abuse others, and is condoned by passive onlookers.
Recovery happens when we respond with empathy, interest, and stepping toward a survivor. We need to ask about the specifics of someone’s experience, and untangle myths with them, so that we maintain contact with the person amongst the trauma. We need to continuously start from a place where we believe someone when they tell us they have been sexually assaulted. We need to ask them what they need, not force them to fit into a false narrative, as this only compounds the traumatic impact of sexual violence.