Here’s why the decision to strip Zara Holland of her title perpetuates victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted 

Here’s why the decision to strip Zara Holland of her title perpetuates victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted 

Written by: @Jessicae13Eaton

This week saw Miss GB, Zara Holland, stripped of her title for having sex on the (apparently) popular TV show, Love Island. 

The official statement read: “Following recent actions within ITV2 show ‘Love Island’ it is with deep regret that we, the Miss Great Britain Organisation, have to announce that Zara Holland has formally been de-crowned as Miss Great Britain.”
“As an organisation we have not taken this decision lightly, we are close to all of our winners and wherever possibly stand by them during their rein. That said, we feel we have no choice but to make this decision under the circumstances.
“The feedback we have received from pageant insiders and members of the general public is such that we cannot promote Zara as a positive role model moving forward.
“We wholly understand that everyone makes mistakes, but Zara, as an ambassador for Miss Great Britain, simply did not uphold the responsibility expected of the title.”

This blog post will discuss why the move to remove her title as a beauty pageant winner is hypocritical at best and reinforcing victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted or raped at worst. 

#1 She won her title for being desirable and now she’s lost it for the same reason

One of the most ironic issues the decision raises is that an entire culture and community of beauty queens, pageant fans and judges who have pushed, helped or forced girls and women through this process to be more and more desirable and sexy and attractive to win a competition based solely on desirability are now shunning Zara because what she did was perceived as ‘irresponsible’ and she is now a ‘negative role model’. How they have come to this conclusion without realising how hypocritical they sound, truly escapes me. 

I am attempting to consider the logic behind this decision. So, it’s literally your bread and butter to have women wearing as little as possible, in the highest heels possible, in the most make up possible, with the biggest hair and best nail possible, parading around a stage, posing for sexual images, competing with each other for the best bikini body and the best figure, best skin, to be the most desirable, have the most sex appeal and the most ‘beauty’ (ignoring a holistic definition of beauty completely) – but it’s not okay for her to have consensual sex with a man on a dating program because that would make her a bad role model? 

Where exactly are the beauty pageant boards drawing the line here? So judging women on a stage solely based on a male-centric definition of desirability and then having them parade around like prize cattle would make her a great role model, but demonstrating the same sexuality you have been exploiting for years makes her a bad role model?

Ah, I get it. The answer to this is #2.

#2 It reinforces the age old sexist notion that women should be ‘sexy but not a slut’ 

It has become very clear that the message we are all receiving from society at large (mainly perpetuated by the media and then absorbed and relayed by both men and women) is that we need to be sexy – but not a slut. We should aim to be seen as desirable and sexy and attractive to men – but not too desirable or sexy or attractive because then we cross some invisible line created by the patriarchy that means we no longer conform to the rigid gender roles and we will now be judged for whatever we do. 

The other way of explaining this is that we are allowed to ‘look’ sexual and ‘illustrate’ sexuality – but we are not allowed to ‘be’ sexual and ‘demonstrate’ sexuality. You have likely had a conversation in which you say ‘I want to look sexy but not too sexy’ or ‘I love this dress but do you think it makes me look a bit slutty?’ 

In my opinion, one of the most concerning factors is that people seem to think it is men that are doing all of the judging and controlling of women’s sexuality but that isn’t quite true anymore. It certainly started out that way when we look at the history of the genders and both of their roles in society over the centuries – but men don’t need to be the driving force of sexism and control of women’s sexuality anymore. They have a new ally. 

Our sexuality has been created, maintained and controlled for so long that we now employ these absorbed messages about how a woman ‘should’ behave and then beat each other (and ourselves) over the head with them. 

There are women blasting Zara for ‘being a slag’ or ‘letting herself down’ or ‘acting like a slut’ and my personal favourite: ‘she should have kept her knickers on then, the tart’ (all taken from comments left under news articles on Zara Holland dated 22/06/2016). 

It’s pretty safe to say that patriarchy and sexism has succeeded in playing divide and conquer with us as a gender and we now wage war on each other rather than work together to support each other when we are victims of this type of judgement about our sexuality.

What perplexes me more is that the beauty pageant board (and the general public that are chastising her now) seemed to have no problem with the tonnes of lingerie shoots, bikini shoots and sexualised poses directed to her in her photo and promo shoots. It’s as if they have drawn the line at actual, physical sex but everything up to that is fine. It’s okay to ask her to pose in lingerie and bikinis in sexualised positions that scream sex appeal but god forbid she actually has real sex. 

Which brings me nicely to #3. 

#3 It demonises the normal, consensual sexual appetite of women 

So, she had sex on TV. It’s not the first time that has happened on a reality TV show. You know what though? She didn’t have sex with herself, on her own. She had sex with a willing and consenting adult partner. They flirted and found each other attractive and they both wanted to show that attraction by touching each other and being sexually intimate with each other and for it to feel pleasurable. I was worried I was missing something here, because I didn’t really see the problem with this. 

I shouldn’t have worried however, because lots of people have made it clear what their problem is with her having sex with someone on TV and some of those comments are above. The word ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ tend to be used when people are talking about females who are seen as overly sexual or overly sexually active. 

‘Overly’. Like there’s a limit. Didn’t you know there was a limit to the amount and types of sex you can have? Silly you. Of course there is! You’re a woman. Duh. 

So the first issue seems to be that people are finding it irresponsible, disrespectful and uncomfortable that she has chosen to have sex with someone for pleasure and wasn’t scared to do it on the TV show (which by the way is pretty much about people hooking up on an island called Love Island). We have to consider our responses to this. Why do so many people have a problem with this? Why are so many people aiming their problem at Zara and not at the guy she slept with? I’m pretty sure he was just as involved as she was. He’s being virtually high fived by a tonne of people on social networks whilst she is being demonised for partaking in the same sex act. 

Is this because sex is seen as a male act that is done to women? Well, unfortunately, the answer to this is yes. Porn, and increasingly, the mainstream media is overwhelmed with scenes in which women are depicted as submissive sex objects used for the pleasure of men. The pleasure of the woman is only really depicted whilst a man is slamming into her from behind or cumming all over her face (not to judge here, but I’m not that sure that all women tend to orgasm from having cum splatter all over their face the way they do in porn). The rest of the pleasure and servitude is shown from the perspective of the man who uses and abuses the body of the woman throughout the scene. Sex becomes about the woman serving the man and delivering pleasure to him. It’s easy to see how the sexuality of women is owned, policed and controlled by men when a very large proportion of the sexual materials in the world are created and produced via the male perspective. 

What the board are saying in their statement is: “You can perform our rigid version of sexuality when we want you to and how we want you to, but you are not to perform your own version of your own sexuality at any time because we will find that to be highly offensive behaviour.” 

Zara having control of her own sexuality and sexual activity really pushes against this rigid expectation of how she should perform sex (coy, submissive and when she is expected to). 

#4 It allows people to reframe her as unworthy and unable to be respected as a woman 

Zara has swiftly been repositioned as an irresponsible woman and a poor role model by the board of the beauty pageant and unfortunately, the general public have blindly followed this viewpoint. By having sex when she wanted to and controlling her own sexuality, she is now no longer conforming to their twisted boundaries of an acceptable and desirable woman. She has crossed the line. She has gone past sexy and into the realms of slutdom. She can’t be Miss GB anymore because she is no longer just looking sexualised and being looked at, but is acting sexualised and being touched by someone. This is somehow unnacceptable. Her sexuality is for them, not for her. 

The board apparently imposed a contract on Zara that she could only go on Love Island if she agreed not to partake in any sexual acts in order to uphold her title. Again, who are they to police her sexual activity based on the fact that she is a ‘beauty queen’? 

She has gone from being a well known and famous beauty queen to being labelled a slag or slut for having consensual sex with one person. If we compared that to men who have been in positions of power or authority or fame, I cannot think of a comparable example in which a man has had his role or title stripped of him for having consensual sex with an adult. I mean, we struggle to strip their titles and roles from them when they have non-consensual sex with children let alone adults. Usually because the same thing happens, the sexual behaviour of the women or girls are demonised. 

#5 How all of the above relates to the victim blaming of women and girls who have been sexually assaulted or raped 

To summarise and pull these (ranty) ideas together, I am going to link them to victim blaming. Victim blaming happens when a woman or girl is blamed for someone else choosing to target and abuse, assault and rape her. This is alarmingly common and embedded. Despite the need to focus on the behaviour and choices of the perpetrator, the focus is shifted back to the behaviour and choices of the woman or girl so she can be blamed for why it happened to her. 

Why would the act of de-throning Miss GB have links to victim blaming? 

Well, if we go back through our points, we have that a woman is supposed to be desirable but not too desirable otherwise she has broken her gender role norms and is acting like a slut. We also have that her sexuality and sexual desirability is not owned or policed by her and it is seen as irresponsible and disrespectful for her to own her sexuality and make her own sexual choices. We have talked about the way women are depicted as submissive sex objects for the pleasure of men to look at or to touch or to have sex with. 

And when you put all of these things together and then add in the fact that if a woman ever steps outside of these very strict expectations of her dress, her character, her sexuality and her behaviour; she is quickly demonised, outed as a bad example or poor role model and made to feel shame and guilt about her actions, we have fertile ground for victim blaming to be planted and to grow quickly. 

Twitter: @Jessicae13Eaton


Rape Apathy – The Real Responses to Research in Sexual Violence

Rape Apathy – The Real Responses to Research in Sexual Violence

Follow me on Twitter @jessicae13eaton 

Today was the first day I have ever presented my research to hundreds of people whom are not in my field and have no knowledge of sexual violence or psychology. 

The title of my research is ‘Things I ‘Should’ Have Done Differently: Exploring the effect of victim blaming and self blame in rape and sexual violence’. I am conducting this research for my PhD in Forensic Psychology, but most of all, this is my lifelong passion. 

Jessica Eaton, Jun2016
I want to tell you the stories of the people I met and observed today to propose that the real reason we are making such slow and painful progress towards appropriate, sensitive and respectful responses to people who have experienced rape is what I am going to call ‘rape apathy’. Never have I ever seen it so clearly as today. I have been in this field for 7 years and it has never been this blindingly obvious. Maybe that’s because I am usually speaking to hundreds of people who have come to hear me speak about victim blaming and sexual violence – so in a way, I’m preaching to the converted. I drove home in awe of the apathy of the majority – and inspired by the empathy of one woman in particular, who I will introduce you to later on in this article. 

The ones who screwed up their faces and walked away 

This was probably one of the most common reactions from academics, students and the general public today. I was stood next to my research poster ready to explain and answer any questions. These people stood a few feet back from me. These people approached me with a relaxed face, sometimes chatting to their friends. They sometimes smiled at me and then looked from my face to the title of my research. I could see them reading the title, taking in the words and the topic at hand: women who have been blamed for being raped and sexually assaulted and have then absorbed this blame from family, friends, authorities and society – and have blamed themselves. These people all seemed to pull the same face. They screwed their nose up, they pursed their lips and they narrowed their eyebrows. It was a strange mixture of looking disgusted by the topic and perplexed as to why I would give years of my life to this cause. These people usually continued to stare at my research with the screwed up face and then stare at me, still with my optimistic smile on my face, and then walk away or look purposefully at the researcher next to me, who was presenting her research findings on proteins in plants.

The ones who read the title aloud, looked at me and walked away

These people interested me, too. They meandered around the conference and engaged in animated conversation with other researchers and then they arrived at me. I smiled, shook their hand and introduced myself. They did exactly as the heading suggests. They read the title aloud to themselves (sometimes to their friends or colleagues) and their voices changed as they got through the words in the title. One woman’s voice rose more and more until the words ‘rape’ and ‘sexual violence’ were almost said in an intonation that expressed complete disbelief. Most people read it aloud until they got to the words ‘rape’ and ‘sexual violence ‘ and suddenly hushed their voices into a quiet growl with a grimace. What happened next was quite unnerving. They looked at me as if to assess me – and then they immediately walked away before I could say anything. What were they looking for? It was an inquisitive look. Were they wondering why I had chosen this topic? Were they wondering if I had been raped? Were they asking themselves why I thought this was an appropriate topic for a huge A1 research poster? All I know is that all of these people took one look at me and walked away without even saying goodbye or gesturing towards me at all. 


The ones who saw my presentation, put their heads down, avoided eye contact and quickly walked past

There were lots of these ones. I watched them like I watched everyone else. They were confident people, good conversationalists, knowledgable and interested in the array of research topics on offer today. They walked towards me and started to read my huge poster from afar, but within a few seconds, I knew that they were not going to engage with me at all. These people put their heads down, looked at their watch, became incredibly interested in their pen or their phone or their badge or their nails and avoided every single attempt I made to make eye contact or even verbal contact. I was so desperate to engage these people that I even said hello to a few with the hope of reassuring them that I was approachable and personable despite the difficult subject matter. None of it worked. They picked up their pace and got away from me and the subject of rape and sexual assault as quickly as they could without breaking into a jog. 

The ones who said my research wasn’t real science and was a waste of their time 

There were only two people that fit this category today but their response concerned me. Both were male academics in an unrelated field but this should not be a reason for their behaviour. Lots of men talked to me today. Lots of people from other fields talked to me today. But from these two men, I learned that my research was not real science, was not worthwhile and didn’t even merit actual conversation to my face. 

I was stood next to my poster when they approached me. I was expecting them to engage with me as they were stood less than three feet from me. Their bodies were turned towards me and they were both looking at my poster. I smiled at both of them and attempted to make eye contact but neither looked directly at me. Suddenly, they began to speak:

Guy on the right: I mean, this isn’t even real science 

Guy on the left: It’s about ‘sexual violence’ (said in a strange growling low voice)

Guy on the right: It would be more worthwhile if it was about archeology or something 

Guy on the left: And we are supposed to actually talk to this presenter about the research? 

Guy on the right: Apparently… 

Then they both looked at one another knowingly and walked away, probably to seek out ‘real science’ or a ‘worthwhile’ research project. I was clearly not regarded as interesting or knowledgeable enough to ask a question of me or to even gesture towards me in any way. I was just the woman who was wasting their time with the research about sexual violence.

On balance, I don’t believe this to be down to gender. This was demonstrated to me a few moments later when a woman approached me and explained that she was looking for PhD researchers to present their research at a series of seminars for retired academics she was arranging. She then glanced over my shoulder at my research. She very sharply told me that she wouldn’t be interested in my research because:

“Let’s face it, no one wants to hear you talk about sexual violence!”

And there you have it, folks: Rape Apathy. 

No one wants to look at the poster. 

No one wants to engage with me about the topic of victim blaming of women who have been raped and sexually assaulted. 

No one wants to make eye contact with the woman who talks about rape. 

No one wants to hear about the way I will explore the experiences and champion the voices of women who have been blamed for being targeted and attacked by sex offenders. 

No one wants to hear me talk about sexual violence. 

So, why do people exhibit such obvious apathy towards rape and sexual violence? 

1. Because it doesn’t affect me 

Like many of the important issues in society, the ones that understand the importance the most are those that have personal connection to the topic. LGBTQI people understand the importance of having their voices heard in policy and research because they know the feeling of marginalisation. Black people understand the importance of statistics that continually show the tiny percentage of black professors in academia. Women who have been sexually assaulted or raped understand why I am holding the issue of victim blaming and self blame up as a serious societal problem.

So what about those people who have never been touched by sexual violence? Whilst being careful not to generalise, it’s fairly safe to say that people with no history or understanding of sexual assault or rape can successfully distance themselves from my research because they don’t feel it relates to them in any way. What does my research have to offer them? What can I possibly tell them? Why do they even need to know about rape and sexual assault? Why would they want to think about it? 

If they feel that they are in some way immune to rape and sexual assault, not only are they wrong but they are likely to fall into the trap of #2.

2. Because it only happens to certain kinds of people

One of the most common reasons why we are getting nowhere fast is because humans have developed impressive cognitive biases that can help them to feel safe from horrid things that could happen to them. If humans accepted that at any given moment, life changing and horrible things could happen to them, it’s pretty safe to say that we would be in a constant state of anxiety and defence. The best way to combat this reality is to find a way to pinpoint ‘types of people’ that are raped and sexually assaulted and then mentally differentiate themselves from those ‘types of people’. Indeed, this is one of the most important underpinning factors of the rape stereotypes. It could be ‘women that wear revealing clothes’ or ‘women that get drunk in nightclubs’ or ‘women who stay in abusive relationships’ or ‘women from the rough estate’ or ‘women in poverty’ or ‘women who cheat on their husbands’. 

Whatever the irrelevant and illogical category placed upon the ‘type of woman’ who is raped or sexually assaulted – the purpose is to enable people to use that category to blame the woman and then announce that it would never happen to them because they are not (insert type of woman here). Society are not ready to accept that rape and sexual assault happens to men, women and children through absolutely no fault of their own – the world is random and unfair. 

Whilst this ‘it only happens to certain types of women’ rationale continues, we will never make the progress we need because there will be a large portion of the population who could be standing arm in arm with us that are instead stood at the sidelines reassuring themselves that they will never become a victim.

So this is pretty disappointing, right? 

But let me tell you about one last person. 

Here she is. 

The woman that lifted my spirits today. The woman who stood and spoke to me with equal enthusiasm and reminded me that there are people with huge empathy and understanding for women who have experienced victim blaming and self blame after rape and sexual assault. 

The one who made the sign to encourage more people to speak to me

After a day of confused looks, walking away, ignoring me, undermining me and being too uncomfortable to talk to me, a man said to me:

“Hang on, my wife would love your research. Let me go and find her for you.”

A few moments later, she arrived. I introduced myself and we shook hands. She looked at my research title and she beamed. She smiled. She kept looking at my diagram and my research studies. She asked me to explain my theories and my studies and we had a conversation that lasted well over 30 minutes. After a while she said:

“May I ask you something? Have you had many people stop and talk to you today?”

“Honestly? Not really. I think people may be a little intimidated by the topic… Plus, I’m kind of at a weird angle so I don’t think people know I’m here…” I admitted. 

She shook her head, “I’m going to do something about this! You watch!”

I suddenly felt anxious. What was she going to do? 

The photo above is what I spotted a few moments later. The woman went off to find paper and a pen and was stood at the back of the conference hall scribbling away. I watched her with interest. After a few more moments, she came back to me flapping her piece of paper that she had folded into a makeshift arrow. 


“Look, I’ve made you this sign. I’m going to stick it up over here so everyone knows to come and talk to you. I’m going to send people to speak to you. More people must understand the experiences of women who have been sexually assaulted and raped. There are hundreds of people here and your message is important!” She explained passionately whilst attempting to stick the sign to the notice board behind me. 

Her sign and her personal referrals must have worked because I quickly became unindated with people wanting to hear about my research. At one point, I had a crowd of 8 people huddled around listening to my poster presentation in a tiny space. Through the huddle popped the woman, again. 

“I’m so proud of you and your research. I’m going home now but I’ve brought you a drink…” She smiled as she passed me the cup. 

Despite the large number of people who did not engage with me today for the reasons discussed above, I appreciate ‘the one who made the sign’ and she was a perfect, passionate and timely reminder that there are others in the world who see the importance of breaking down victim blaming of women who have experienced rape and sexual violence. Now our challenge is to help the others I met today to understand this importance and help us to champion it in their communities alongside us. 

A picture of my poster from today: 


Twitter: @jessicae13Eaton