What does a rape victim look like? What sort of person is she? Where does she come from? What does she do? Who is she? How did this happen to her?
When we think of rape, what do we understand it to be? What words and images, what actions and ideas, what kind of people and places do we associate with the word rape?
These are questions many of us never ask ourselves. Certainly, they are questions that publicly are almost never posed, let alone answered. And yet, we all have ideas about rape, rapists and rape victims. Every community, every culture forms specific convictions about what rape is, who commits it and who is the victim of it. But, mostly, these ideas remain unspoken and unexamined, a vague collection of judgments and presumptions.
What most people ‘know’ about rape consists only of confused, distortionary and downright false ideas. Because we never discuss rape openly and honestly, because we are seldom able to broach the topic of sexual violence without conjecture or prejudice, because we never approach victims and invite them to tell us what they know about rape (or rarely believe them when we do hear what they have to say) and, especially, because we so rarely successfully prosecute rapists; the knowledge that circulates in society about sexual violence is little other than vague hearsay and murky surmise.
The truth is that rape victims look like ordinary women, and men. The truth is that rapists look like ordinary men (& occasionally ordinary women – 98% of sexual violence is perpetrated by men). The truth is that rape is a devastating and horrific act of violence, the most frequent human rights abuse in the world today. The truth is that rape can, and does, happen to anyone, anywhere, of any background, any religion, any culture, any socio-economic group, at any time. Rape happens in the home and in the street, in times of war and times of peace, to women and to men, to children and to adults. The most essential truths are that rape happens too often to too many of us and, that we can prevent it.
Solidarity with victims and the distribution of accurate, precise information about sexual violence are two of the most powerful things we can do to establish a culture that will resist sexual violence, rather than enable it. The two go hand in hand: when we can publicly hear victims, care for them and support them and, when we can discuss rape calmly, factually and candidly, then, we will be able to see rapists for the criminals they are, prosecute them appropriately and, most importantly, prevent further victimisation from occurring.