You don’t have to have been raped to care about the occurrence of sexual violence. You don’t have to be a rape victim in order to be shocked by the appalling prevalence of sexual violence. Nor in order to be horrified by such an abuse of a fellow human being. Nor in order to be distressed at the appalling attrition rates for sexual violence. Least of all, in order to want to do your part in ending this violent and distressing crime.
It is hardly surprising that empathy is so hard to generate when we are confronted with the ordeal of a victim/survivor of rape. Rape is something no one should ever have to go through, an event nobody wants to consider, something we’d all rather not know about. Rape is a devastating, destructive and traumatic event and yet, it is easier for the bystander if they diminish their sense of that horror, if they distance themselves from those who have been there and settle on blame and accusation. Each of these reactions constructs a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and this helps us to feel safe, to believe that this couldn’t happen to us, that we don’t have to worry about it.
But for the victim/survivor of rape, this, albeit understandable, response is crushing. Having been brutally disrespected and dehumanised so effectively already by the rapist, to have the experience repeated is catastrophic. The rapist has deliberately made you feel like a lesser human being – he needs to in order to be capable of committing his crime. If he cared about and respected his victim, if he saw her as an equal human being with the same rights as he values for himself, there is no way he could do what he does. When those who are aware of your ordeal refuse you empathy, dismiss what has happened to you or refuse to hear you, to support you, they reinforce the rapist’s message: you are less, you don’t deserve what the rest of us do, we don’t need to respect you.
Empathy is a choice we can all make and an extremely powerful one. Empathy undoes the rapist’s damage, denies him his message, withholds the basis for his crime. Empathy supports the victim, upholds her essential and inalienable human rights and, therefore, the essential and inalienable human rights of all of us. It may be a profoundly confronting act to empathise with a victim/survivor of rape – it undoubtedly is – but it is one we must commit to if we are to end this appalling and devastating human rights abuse. While we open ourselves up to the horror that human beings are capable of committing, to a knowledge we will never be able to forget, to a sadness and hurt about the consequences of gender inequality and the prevalence of violence in our society, we simultaneously open up the possibility that things could be otherwise.
Until we learn to hear victims, to witness their testimony and learn from them, along with them, from their ordeal, to stand in solidarity and offer them our sincere and abundant empathy, we simply cannot hope to end the travesty of sexual violence. Empathy with victims is the first step on the path to a better, and safer, world for all of us. Not one of us would want to be in the position of a victim/survivor of rape. We know this. It is no place to be, no place anyone ever should be. But far too many people are there. Every single day more of us are forcibly moved there, against our will. Ignoring this has not made it go away.
We must accept not only that millions of women and men worldwide are forced to live out their lives from that very place, that distressing, heart-breaking wilderness of rape survivor-dom, but that we have allowed that place to be made and remade, for all this time. Sexual violence is a human act by ordinary human beings. We have allowed it to become a common act, a frequent occurrence, a global epidemic. If we can enable it, then we can disable it. In order that we may each live in the confidence of never having to know that barren wilderness, we must reach out to those who are there now. Empathy, acknowledgment and feeling that horror are the only way to a future free from sexual violence.