Can we stop saying, ‘She could have been your daughter’?

25th November 2018

Jessica Eaton

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Why is it that we blame women and girls so much for sexual violence and abuse? And why is the retort so often, ‘She could have been your sister, mother, daughter or girlfriend!’

On face value that seems like a pretty logical sentiment, doesn’t it?

The approach of this sentiment is to gain empathy or understanding from the other person by encouraging them to imagine that the rape or abuse could have happened to their female family member. People would most likely assume that by using this retort, the person might think ‘Oh gosh, yes, I would hate it if that happened to my own daughter, maybe I need to re-evaluate why I blame women and girls for rape?’

The reality is a little bit murkier than that. The reality is less optimistic and less effective than that.

Here are my three reasons why we should stop using ‘She could have been your sister/daughter/mother’ as a response to victim blaming of women and girls:

1. Family members are not less likely to blame women and girls for rape than the general public

2. Language and construction of women as property of someone else is problematic

3. It will do nothing to stop the global, socially embedded narratives of victim blaming of women and girls

Families are not less likely to blame women and girls for rape than the general public

Yeah. I know. Depressing, isn’t it?

My research, and the research of others such as Sarah Ullman; has shown that, after a woman or girl is raped, families are not the powerhouse of support we think they are. In fact, when women and girls are raped or abused, the family is not likely to support them – and are highly likely to blame them or shame them. The older the girl gets after the age of 10 years old, the more the parents blame her for being raped or abused. The majority of women who disclose rape or abuse, still tend to disclose to family before authorities – but they tend to be disappointed by the response they get from family, whom they expected to support and protect them.

Based on this, why would telling someone to imagine it had happened to their sister/daughter/mother help their victim blaming – if they are just as likely to blame them anyway?

We are making an assumption that they would react differently in real life to this rape happening to their daughter or sister for example, whilst all of the research shows that they would be likely to blame or even disbelieve their female family member.

Clearly, this strategy is not going to work. If family members can’t even support or believe their own sisters, daughters and mothers – why would they believe a woman they read about in the press or some girl from school who was raped at a house party?

Language and construction of women as property of someone else is problematic

The second point I want to raise is more discursive. I want to talk about the way we only ever position women as important if they are connected to us or we have ownership of them.

The word ‘rape’ comes from the Latin word ‘rapere’ and the old french word ‘raper’ which meant ‘to seize goods or to take by force’. It was usually used for property, livestock, money and items, but became used to describe sexual offences against women, because women were constructed as property of either their fathers (if they were unmarried) or their husbands (if they were married). Another man ‘raping’ that woman was therefore a crime against the father or husband, not against the woman or girl. This line of thinking still exists today in many cultures but in different ways.

Anyway, the point I am making is this:

If rape is the act of seizing property owned by the family (the woman) then our response of ‘this could be your daughter/sister/mother’ is repositioning and confirming the woman or girl as property of the person you are appealing to. You are saying to them ‘This woman is connected to you, how does this make you feel?’

This is especially true for men. An example is when fathers become obsessed with monitoring or making comments about their adult daughter’s sex lives and sexual partners, threatening new men in her life not to touch or hurt their daughter. This is less about the wellbeing of the woman and more about the status and ownership by the father. That his status and his honour would be affected by another man ‘seizing’ his daughter or sister.

We also see a very strange pattern (it’s not strange to those of us who understand misogyny but anyway…) when we interview or survey men about prostitution, porn and lap dancing (Bindel, 2017).

Lots of men say they enjoy porn. They say that women should be free to choose whether they work in the sex industry. They say they believe women should be allowed or even empowered to be sex workers and lap dancers and strippers if they enjoy it. They think the sex industry is just great.

But what do you think happens when researchers ask them whether they would be as supportive if it was their sister, daughter or mother?

Uhuh. Hell no.

The comments change to negative, disparaging insults and threats. The same men who tell us they support women to work in the sex industry tell us that they would never allow their sister, daughter or mother to work in the industry. Note the word ‘allow’.

They talk about how disgusting and easy they would be. How they would have failed as a father or brother. How dishonourable it is. How it would make HIM feel to know his sister or daughter was working as a stripper or escort.

Even the men who actually tell us that they USE prostitutes and fully support the legalisation of prostitution, tell us they would never allow their own daughters and female family members to do it (Bindel, 2017).

So, it appears that when we ask people to ‘imagine it was your sister, daughter, mother’ – what we are really doing is appealing to their ownership and connection and control over their female family members and asking them to be angry that someone would ‘seize’ their female loved one.

All we have done here is repositioned the woman as property of her family and tried to get that person to stop blaming based on the logic in my first point, which we’ve established, doesn’t work. So we appeal to their ownership of the woman.

Weird, huh?

It will do nothing to stop the global, socially embedded narratives of victim blaming of women and girls

My final point is that – well, we are missing the point.

When we try to appeal to people by saying ‘she could have been your daughter, sister or mother!’ – we are not addressing victim blaming or shaming of women and girls who have been raped or abused.

We are not challenging their victim blaming, we are telling them to imagine the woman is someone they care about being raped.

We are saying to them ‘Look, I know you don’t care about this woman being raped, but imagine if it was someone you cared about!’

Nah fuck that.

We should be saying to them, ‘You SHOULD care about this woman or girl being raped. She doesn’t need to be related to you. She doesn’t need to be someone you knew or loved. She is a human being who was attacked. Sort your victim blaming shit out. She is not to blame. At all.’

Why should we use tactics to appeal to these people who victim blame women and girls that attempt to get them to pretend the victim is someone they love? Why can’t we just challenge their responses directly?

The more important question to me is, why would they ONLY care about rape if it was a woman in their family? Why does it need to be a woman they are connected to or feel ownership over for her rape to count as abhorrent?

Isn’t it funny how we never say this about murder? When a man or woman is murdered, people are generally horrified. They are shocked and appalled. They don’t need reminding that the person was a human being. We don’t have to say to them:

‘Now, now, I know you don’t care that they are dead because they weren’t related to you, but imagine if they were your mother or sister or daughter.’

No one needs to say that, because no one is making stupid ass comments like ‘Well if you’re going to go out dressed like that, you’re obviously going to attract a murderer’ or ‘He should have known that if he went out drinking, he was going to get shot in the restaurant’.

When it comes to sexual violence, some of us would try to respond to these victim blaming comments by trying to get the person to imagine it happened to their sister, daughter or mother.

And I’m saying – we need to have a think about why we feel the need to do this to gain empathy from victim blamers by getting them to imagine the victim is their female family member.

I’m more interested in why they are blaming any women for rape and abuse.

And I would be willing to bet that if they hold those views about ‘that girl who was raped at that party’ – they probably hold those views about their own sister, daughter or mother.

Written by Jessica Eaton

Website: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet: @JessicaE13Eaton

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Women and girls who have had babies from rape

Written by Jessica Eaton

14/11/2018

Content warning for discussion of children being conceived in rape, abuse and trafficking. There are no descriptions of sexual offences, but the article discusses the issues frankly.

It was a warm spring day in 2015 when I got the phone call from the Passport Office. I was at work and nipped outside to take the call. I listened and tried to take in what they were saying to me.

“Is there no way you can trace the biological father of your child?”

“Yes, ” I said, “But I am not going to. He’s a repeated, convicted offender of battery and sexual and domestic violence. He doesn’t know where we are anymore and I have been free of him for 6 years.”

“And you say you were raped? And you reported it to the police?”

“Yes.”

“So, could you get a letter from him, maybe? To approve the passport?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Could you find out where he is living and ask your family to go and get a letter from him?”

“No.”

“Do you know his parents or family members, would they convince him to write a letter for you?”

“Do you not get how dangerous this is? I ran away from my home town with my baby. I just want a normal life. I just want to go on holiday with my kids. You cannot possibly expect women who have been raped to find the rapist years later and ask for permission to go on holiday.”

I lowered my voice, aware that the windows of the office were open and people were likely to hear me having this argument. The conversation continued and I spent another 15 minutes crying, arguing and freaking out at the prospect of having to track down a rapist to ask his permission to go on holiday with a child he has had nothing to do with.

Fast forward to 2018 and I was on the phone again, this time to a colleague who also has a son from rape. We talked for hours on the phone and realised we were wrestling with all sorts of questions:

  • Do we ever tell them the truth? How? When? Why?
  • What will happen if we hide the truth but then they find out some other way?
  • How do you protect a child from a person they don’t know anything about?
  • What is in their best interests whilst protecting yourself as a victim of rape?
  • Why is there no support out there for us?
  • How do you get around the issues with birth certificates, PR and custody?
  • How many other women have children from rape and how are they coping?
  • Are any of us doing this right? Is there a right way at all?

Last year, I was privately commissioned to conduct anonymous research which explored the prevalence and experiences of women who became pregnant or had children from rape – and the prevalence and experiences of men and women who were born from rape. The study has remained private but will be being published with free open access under victimfocus soon.

What does the (limited) research teach us?

Well, a comprehensive literature review turned up very little. Most of the research in this area concentrates on rape during warfare. This led to me designing and conducting my own study – which would be one of the first of it’s kind. The findings of my first study present one of the first sets of results in the UK about the prevalence, experiences, stereotypes and myths about women who have children from rape.

One of the things that struck me was of the 315 people who took part, only 44% of participants said they had never known a woman or girl who had become pregnant or had a child from rape. Of the 56% who said they did, 111 people said they knew at least one woman or girl who became pregnant from rape or abuse, 72 people said they knew at least one woman or girl who had a termination after rape or abuse and 67 people said they knew at least one woman or girl who had a baby conceived in rape or abuse and brought them up herself.

However, despite this being so high, when participants were asked whether they had ever known someone in their lives who had been told they were conceived in rape or abuse, 88% of participants said they didn’t know anyone who this had happened to.

In addition, from the sample of 315 people, 7% of the females said they themselves had a child from rape and a further 8% of the females said they had become pregnant from rape but had a termination.

The rest of this particular study asked the 315 people ‘What do you think the public perception or opinion is on women who become pregnant from rape or abuse?’

The answers to this question were very important and guided my thinking as to what we do next. The majority of the participants wrote answers about women having abortions, hating their babies, damaging their children and resenting the baby. Less common answers also included people who wrote that women were probably lying about being pregnant from rape, that women didn’t have any support, that people would think negatively of the woman and the myth that it is impossible to become pregnant from a rape.

This demonstrated to me, that there was much work to be done. It is also worth noting however, that 87 participants mentioned that they thought women would be blamed for becoming pregnant from rape and 56 participants stated that they ‘had their sympathy’.

Extract 1:

‘My friend was still in school when she was raped and became pregnant. She was bullied horrendously by our peers and even some adults, unfortunately when it came out how she fell pregnant it seemed like she still deserved the snide remarks and comments. Like it was her own fault. Still a lot of stigma around shame and victim blaming that somehow the woman failed or was weak to allow it, that victims are forever ‘damaged goods’, inferior women.’

I then asked participants the same question again, but about the perception or public opinion of children born from rape or abuse. Again, the 315 participants were given space to write their thoughts before I analysed their responses using thematic analysis.

The answers to this question included very strong themes about the child having severe mental health issues, that the child would be pitied, and most worryingly, 90 participants wrote that the child would become a rapist themselves and ‘follow in the father’s footsteps’. Less common answers included discussions of children being taboo, shamed, judged, isolated, unloved, abused, unwanted and disgusting to the mother.

Extract 2:

‘It’s a tragedy – unfortunate – Lacking a father figure, potentially dangerous genes; mothered by a mother who might be traumatised/who might not be able to adequately protect herself or child. That they are born into a ‘broken’ family. The mother is not a good mother etc. Feel sorry for them, may expect them to inherit ‘bad’ genes from their father.’

Clearly, we have a very, very negative view of these mothers and their children. There were only a handful of participants who believed that children could be loved and supported by their mother, that they could grow up to be happy and healthy, and that the mother would do a good job.

The topic of women pregnant from rape, and children conceived in rape is uncharted territory. We are suddenly discussing something that is seen as even more taboo than rape, than FGM, than ritual abuse, than paedophilia, than snuff films. Plenty of research exists on all of those topics, and whilst they are undoubtedly taboo, there are years of reports, articles, research and support groups to be found. The same cannot be said for women who have had babies from rape.

The findings from the first study were a big mix of rape myths, misogyny, victim blaming, myths about children, myths about sex offending being inherited in genes and a number of other misunderstandings and stereotypes of women and children. The research in forensic psychology shows us that when people do not have personal experience or knowledge of a topic, they rely upon societal scripts and schemas to form an opinion or perspective. Their scripts and schemas often come from media, peers, culture, religion or societal norms.

Without any decent knowledge, facts or science, we have an entire population relying on fictional scripts and stereotypes. Would women or the children get the right support? Probably not.

So what can we do about this?

Well, as you will know, we are making a film with women who have had babies from rape and abuse.

I am also designing and preparing a range of resources, guides and even a new website which will host all of the information, research, advice and support in one place. This will launch in 2019. The website is already built, but I am still populating the pages with content and useful stuff.

The second thing I did was invested in further research. Launched in October 2018, I began a study with women who had become pregnant, had terminations or had a baby from rape, abuse or trafficking which has now had 110 submissions in the first two weeks. The study focuses less on prevalence data and more on the experiences and opinions of women, what they felt they needed, what it has been like to be pregnant or have a baby from rape and what we can do to support them better.

Another thing I have been doing is telephone discussions and interviews with women who have children from rape. These women have children aged in their thirties right through to young babies. I’ve spoken to women who were raped in a relationship, women who were being trafficked as children, women who were raped in care, women who had babies from sexual abuse by a family member and even women who became pregnant when men deliberately put holes in condoms or refused to let them take their contraceptive pill.

A message for women with children from rape

Right now, we don’t have many of the answers, but together we are building a body of stories, evidence, research, suggestions and advice so that this silence does not continue. Before I finish this blog, I have a message for the women who are reading this, having had pregnancies or babies from rape:

I have now spoken to or heard from over 600 women who have had babies or become pregnant from rape and abuse. What I can tell you with certainty is that we are all winging it. We are all different, unique individuals with varying circumstances. Some of us tell our kids. Some of us don’t. Some of us look at the child and see the rapist, some of us don’t. Some of us struggle with what happened every single day, some of us don’t. Some of us are facing custody battles with rapists who want access to children, some of us don’t even know where the rapist is. Some of us know our children have siblings because the rapist went on to rape others, or to have families of their own. Some of us have lied to our kids, some of us haven’t. Some of us are confident in what we are doing and some of us are shitting ourselves. Some of us reported to the police and some of us didn’t. Some of our families supported us and some of them ostracised us. Some of us remarried and have families, some of us didn’t. Some of us gave our kids up for adoption, some of us didn’t. Some of us decided to have a termination, some of us didn’t – and some of us didn’t even know we were pregnant until we were giving birth. Some of us are psychologists, police officers, social workers, writers, teachers, retail managers, artists, engineers, receptionists, athletes, TV presenters.

We are not one homogeneous group. Nor are our kids. We are a very diverse group from every corner of society. We are many. You are not alone. Nor are your children.

But despite us all being so different, we are all presented with the same problem: there is very little information or support out there for any of us.

I am committed to changing that over the next two years. Beginning June 2019, there will be research, reports, advice, support, professional training and education. We can change this silence, together.

 

Jessica Eaton

VictimFocus – Challenge, Change, Influence

http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Email: Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk   |   Tweet: @JessicaE13Eaton