How does that sentence make you feel? It makes me feel confronted and uncomfortable. It makes me feel scared and uncertain. It makes tears prickle behind my eyes and the hairs stand up on my arms. And yet, it also makes me feel bold and, perhaps, even somewhat secure. Rape is never easy to talk about. Not in any circumstances, not to anyone, not ever. But talking about rape is definitely better than not talking about it. Rape happens. Frequently. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. We’ve tried that and it clearly hasn’t helped. Anyone. Except rapists, that is. Silence aids them to continue their behaviour, makes them believe we’re all OK with what they do and protects them from the consequences of their behaviour. It’s time we learnt to talk about rape.
It won’t be easy. Talking about rape isn’t like talking about ice cream or the weather or what you watched on tele last night. Talking about rape requires a sensitivity, a humility and an openness that we don’t often come across. The first thing to remember when you’re discussing rape is that you have no idea how it feels. There is no other way to know rape than to have it happen to you. Rape is not abstract. It is a very real, devastating and appalling experience. No two experiences of rape are comparable, either. So, even if you know something of rape, you know only that – something.
There is no single definition or experience of rape. There is no such thing as ‘real’ rape. There is no hierarchy of experience that can be applied when it comes to sexual violence. If someone comes forward and says, “I was raped”, we need to take that person and that claim seriously. We need to believe them and support them. We need to encourage them to seek the support they feel might help – whether it be counseling or reporting to the police or seeing a doctor or doing nothing. We need to support their choices and their right to be safe.
This applies whether we are talking directly to someone who says they have been raped or whether we are talking about a particular rape case or whether we are talking about rape generally. Even when we are discussing rape as a phenomenon, as a crime or as a human rights abuse, we need to remember that we are talking about a subject that has the potential to silence victims, enable perpetrators and jeopardise individuals’ safety and self-esteem. Every time someone offhandedly, unthinkingly dismisses an allegation of rape or makes light of an alleged act of rape or disparages a victim (or any other of the myriad ways people can minimise sexual violence), that person becomes not only that particular rapist’s ally but the ally of rapists everywhere. In so doing, they compromise the safety of us all.
However, when we choose to talk about rape sensitively, compassionately, factually and with an awareness of all that is at stake, we can make victim/survivors not only feel safer, but actually be safer. For it is only when we can acknowledge the full reality of sexual assault, its presence and impact upon our society that we will be able to prevent its occurrence. We must be willing to admit that sexual violence is rampant in our society and we must be willing to examine our culture, our attitudes and our behaviour in order to see why that is. We must listen to victims, hear their experiences and be willing to learn from what they have been through. We must act if we learn of the actions of perpetrators in our community – we must report them and hold them responsible for their actions. We must all be willing to look at our own behaviour, our own attitudes as a result of what we learn and make changes if necessary, and, most importantly, if we are to ensure that no further victims of sexual violence are created.
Sexual violence is a man-made problem. We can unmake it. We can undo it. We can stop it. That possibility is open to all of us. We can be part of a culture that supports victims, derails perpetrators and respects the right to safety and dignity that each of us is entitled to. Or we can just turn our eyes away, refuse to listen, dismiss compassion and let one in 5 women and one in 20 men continue to become the victims of sexual violence. The choice is ours. What will you do?