The normalisation of gendered violence:The importance of allowing women and girls to name their experience of violation as real.
I recently read a blog on The Guardian’s website describing how some male students at Oxford University are wearing white ribbons to protest against and acknowledge the very real experiences of their fellow female students of sexual violence and misogynistic behaviour on campus. The campaign ‘It Happens Here’ has seen a number of women come forward and disclose their personal experiences of gendered violence. Accounts range from them describing their feelings after experiencing a sexual assault, their sense of self-blame, questions about whether or not the behaviour was actually a violation, decisions not to report it or even tell anyone and their own inability to even articulate that their experience was a rape – to name but a few.
I have conducted much of my own research into rape and sexual violence both in relation to women’s decisions to withdraw allegations from the police and also police officers perceptions of the victims they encounter and as I read through these harrowing accounts as part of this campaign it was like hearing the voices of the very brave women I interviewed for my research a few years ago. The issue that comes back to me time and time again when I read accounts from women about their experiences is that the very factors that make them feel self-blame, question their violation and internalise their horror are often the same factors that officers utilise, and indeed society in general, to weigh up whether or not a victim’s story is credible.
How much has she had to drink, what position did she put herself in, what is she like as a witness, did she know the assailant and is her narrative credible are all issues I have heard used by officers to weigh up stories from the victims they encounter. My job here is not to portray the police in a bad light or question that they haven’t moved on from the days of Roger Graef’s TV documentary in the 1980s. I truly believe they have - however my concern sits with the impact that such accounts and perceptions have on other women when they are considering reporting an act of gendered violence.
Following my reading of this Guardian blog, I caught up on the documentary ‘Blurred Lines’ which was aired on TV some weeks ago. I was horrified to hear young women quoting in what seemed to be quite a blasé fashion that they would not report an experience of sexual harassment or abuse in their own college environment to anyone. When probed by the interviewer about their decision they openly stated that such behaviour was seen as every day and in a sense normal. Therefore they saw little worth in reporting it. The implications of the feelings these young women had about a: such behaviour being perceived by many as simply to be expected as a young woman even though they seemed to understand it was not acceptable and b: the sense of normalisation of such acts is immense. At what point should it be deemed acceptable to harass an individual because of their gender?
I do not necessarily believe that this is a new concept, indeed I remember in my teenage years a close friend of mine being, what I now know to be raped, and her not being able to articulate or even consider it as that for a range of reasons. Whilst these issues were similar to the factors that feature today it seems different from this described sense of normalisation. When I was in my teens I had no real understanding of what rape was aside from the stranger danger mythology that gave me the incorrect perception that rapists were unknown to their assailants and would jump out of a bush in the dark. It wasn’t until I went to university to study criminology that I understood the facts around this area. However such issues are now far more openly discussed and people are generally far more aware of issues about sexual violence, the real amount of women who experience it and indeed who likely assailants are going to be. Certainly in my friends experience the reason she never reported what happened was not because she felt the behaviour was normal but more that she didn’t have the knowledge about what a violation even was when it involved a boy she knew relatively well.
Surely now in theory with all the evidence, research and campaigners out there fighting for the rape and justice women should feel empowered to come forward and name their experiences as wrong. However, whilst I understand there are a plethora of highly complex reasons why women do not come forward and disclose experiences of gendered violence whether it be to the police, rape crisis centres or even their family the issue that this behaviour has, conversely become normalised and to be accepted is surely something we need to change and fast. Much research conducted suggests that women often don’t report because they do not know if what they have experienced is rape. If inappropriate touching and harassment is seen now by young women as normal and to be expected as a woman what are the implications of other forms of sexual violence. We need urgently to educate young people from early on about consent, gendered violence and teach them that none of such behaviours are either acceptable or indeed to be normalised.
Until we accept this and address these issues sexual violence will remain unreported, women will continue to perceive such behaviour as normal and self-blame and the questioning of whether they have even been violated will continue.
Women and girls need to be able to name what has happened to them as sexual violence and not something they should just accept as part of their gender.