The BBC, rape myths and damaging ‘advice’
This piece was written collaboratively by three women, drawing on our own experiences of sexual violence and our anger at the BBC's feature this morning on a survey - 'how many men in Asia admit to rape'
The original article includes a discussion about one of the questions in the study: "Have you ever had sex with your current or previous wife or girlfriend when you knew she didn't want it but you believed she should agree because she was your wife/partner?" The article precedes this by introducing the idea that this question skewed the results of the study because it treats a "yes" answer as an admission of rape while not - according to the author - specifically mentioning force, violence or coercion. An academic involved in the study and a barrister who specialises in sexual offences respond by pointing out that the question is worded so as to show that a "yes" answer means that the man was aware of his partner's unwillingness but ignored it. However, the article suggests that the question is too ambiguous to differentiate between forced sex and reluctant consent. Another academic is quoted as suggesting that the latter may not be counted as rape if the wife consents within the context of oppressive gender norms being present.
There seem to be two main issues here. First of all, whether the question assessed the difference between no consent being given and consent being given but reluctantly, and secondly, whether that matters in defining an act as rape. One of us would like to share this from her own experience - "I am fortunate enough to have only ever been treated with respect in my long term relationships, but in my late teens I once stopped saying no to sexual acts after stating my lack of consent for many hours and being terrorised with stories of violence. Now, I know and I think the people involved knew that there was no consent there, but it begs the question: where would the BBC journalist draw the line between reluctant consent and coerced consent? If someone is reluctant to have sex and needs persuading, enthusiastic consent is clearly not being given. Some draw a line between persuasion and coercion, suggesting that persuasion is nonviolent, but within the context of an abusive relationship or even, as the last academic points out, oppressive gender norms being a part of the society in which the question was asked, I do not believe that attempting to persuade someone to consent to sex can ever be truly nonviolent."
Aside from this questionable distinction, focusing a debate on this end of the spectrum detracts from the bigger picture. There is no reason to believe that all of the respondents used gentle persuasion and have just been misunderstood - the wording of the question allows for all degrees of violence and coercion. Although the previous question in the study specifically mentions force, the question under discussion does not stipulate lack of force. The fact is that even if the statistics are not perfect, this research suggests that sexual violence against women in Asia is incredibly wide spread, and this point has been completely sidelined by this article in an attempt to justify and excuse the answers of the men. The article concludes with another quote by the second academic: "We need to start paying attention to the ways in which violence against women has become a social norm." - and this I can agree with completely.
The BBC 'Advice' on what to do if you've been raped seems intent on blaming survivors and continuing to take away the choices of those who have already had their right to choose taken away. According to this article, "you really must consider reporting your rape. This is for your own safety and well-being and that of others". This completely undermines the survivor's right to choose what to do next and disregards their feelings entirely. It negates the complexity of the choice to report and the factors the survivor has to consider when thinking about whether or not they want to pursue reporting the rapist. And it perpetuates the ridiculous notion that the survivor is responsible for the behaviour of the rapist.
The article seems to be stating that while a survivor has been through a terrible ordeal, it's really their fault if the rapist goes on to rape someone else. According to the article, "being silent only helps your attacker" - if you don't report your rapist, you're helping them out and somehow siding with them. That is beyond insulting - it's blaming the survivor for the behaviour of an individual who has violated and terrorised them, and implying that failure to report makes you just as responsible as the rapist if they go on to rape someone else.
This 'advice' also entirely fails to consider the very statistic the BBC has posted as one of the 'facts about rape': "Around 90% of victims of the most serious sexual offences in the previous year knew the perpetrator". Nowhere in their 'advice' have they considered the implications of this in terms of reporting rape. This section of the website appears to be aimed at teenagers, many of whom reading this may be survivors of rape perpetrated by their boyfriend or girlfriend - and many of whom may be survivors of rape by a trusted family member. The dynamics of these relationships can introduce another hugely complicating factor into the decision over whether or not to report. For one of us, as a survivor of multiple rapes by a family member as a child, the omission of any discussion around this is incredibly damaging - "I know that the decision over whether to report a member of your own family is far from straightforward. The power dynamics of these relationships can leave someone feeling completely unable to speak up and tell anyone that they have been raped, let alone consider the possibility of reporting the rape. Speaking out about abuse within a family can have devastating consequences for that family, and survivors of such abuse have more than enough to contend with without being faced with 'advice' that aims to shame them further if they're understandably unable to report the person who raped them. I do think it's important that survivors get help and support after being raped - and that includes being checked over to make sure that you're physically ok. It's true that the sooner this is done, the more likely it is that forensic evidence could be found to support a conviction, if a survivor chooses to report their attacker to the police. But trying to shame survivors into reporting just does further damage and perpetuates rape culture."
It is possible to encourage survivors to get help and support and provide information about reporting their assault without surrounding this with victim-blaming statements and negating a survivor's right to choose. Rape Crisis has a section on their website about reporting rape here:http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/reportingrape2.php. This page starts out where any 'advice' around the issue of reporting should start out - by reaffirming that the rape was not the survivor's fault regardless of the circumstances. They provide information while also reminding survivors that the decision to report is the survivor's choice and that no one else has a right to make that choice for you. The BBC could do well to learn from this example and provide advice without supporting rape culture and the myths about rape that they claim to debunk.
The BBC's 'Advice on Rape' page further compounds the problem by following up its statement that "rape is never the victim's fault, and is most often comitted (sic) by somebody that the victim knows" with a list of "general safety tips" which focus entirely on being "out and about" and alcohol. A relatively generous but still concerning reading would imply that they believe only rape perpetrated on 'nights out' is preventable, but more worryingly, they seem to believe that it is the victim's responsibility to prevent it. Given that the rest of the 'advice' page seems to be geared towards helping survivors who have recently been raped, it seems both galling and ridiculous to list measures which will either increase the self-blame already felt by the survivor, or be entirely irrelevant if the assault was not perpetrated in this context. The idea that these measures will help you "stay aware of your surroundings" further reinforces myths about rape and ignores the fact that perpetrators will most often have a prior relationship or at least prior contact with the victim and deliberately manipulate them in order to gain their trust. Women are already schooled into the need to be constantly aware of our surroundings, and the nature of the perpetration of sexual violence means that this is often rendered futile 'protection' by those who seek to attack us. We would advise the BBC to immediately contact Rape Crisis or other organisations with expertise in this area in order to help them redesign this page and better support survivors of rape. And while they're at it, getting rid of that stock 'ashamed woman with head in hands' photo would be nice!Download this post as PDF? Click here