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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.
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.
IMPORTANT RESEARCH THIS WAY! SEXUAL VIOLENCE! >>>>>
“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: