What makes a ‘good survivor’, or a perfect victim for seeking justice? Is it our physical appearance? Our emotional reactions? Is it based on how much we fought back? whether we accepted drugs, alcohol, or other items from the perpetrator? If you’re familiar with the concept of victim-blaming then the thought of these being factors will probably make you recoil. Yet, despite many of us beginning to reject these ideas, there is still a distinctive split between the victims and survivors whose abuse makes the headlines, and those who become a forgotten statistic. So what is it that makes this difference, and is there even such a thing as a good enough victim or a bad enough crime?
Sarah Everard’s name echoed across the UK for almost a month before faltering out. – A national uproar that couldn’t even hold momentum until the trial. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. I thought for once that the ‘perfect victim’ had been found. A beautiful young woman with long blonde hair and white skin, who was not intoxicated or wearing the kind of clothes that were ‘asking for it’. She had done all the right things to protect herself and yet was abducted, abused, and murdered by a strange man with significantly more power than her. And still, she was not good enough to maintain the public spirit that briefly spoke out against violence against women and girls.
Since her death, the media have quickly moved on to things seemingly more important. The Government have been busy voting down amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill which would have afforded women more protection, including those without recourse to public funds. Since Sarah’s death, at the time of writing, nineteen other women have been killed by men (or where a man has been the primary suspect).
Victims and survivors across the country felt the impact. We’ve been Sharing and reflecting on experiences of street harassment, recounting ways in which we try to protect ourselves – keys grasped between knuckles, headphones in, music off, crossing the road again and again, talking to someone on the phone and loudly announcing where you are and how long you’ll be until you’re home, avoiding dark, badly lit roads and parks, slowing down, speeding up, wearing trainers, wearing ‘appropriate’ clothing, smiling, not smiling, accommodating, being assertive, the list goes on and on. Women and girls across the country came out to share our common experiences of sexual violence, including in our schools.
We felt the impact at Reign, too. We were running a workshop together not long after Sarah Everard’s murder, wherein we shared our stories with total strangers in the hopes that they would benefit from learning about the reality of CSE, to make a different in their professional lives. For some of us, the reaction to Sarah’s murder was numbness – we’d been here before and we knew it wouldn’t be long before the attention died down. We’d heard of so many women who had been raped, abused, and murdered, that while there was of course individual care for Sarah Everard, it was limited, expended, and shrouded by numb acceptance. We were long past shock, we were angry, but there was also a sense of giving up for a bitter acceptance. For others, there was a reeling, another death, another story, another victim too many.
It left me questioning whether Sarah’s death would result in a changed atmosphere within the workshop – would we be more or less well received following such a public case of violence? Would we as survivors of sexual exploitation be seen as good enough and worthy of outrage, or not?
Good Survivors – Bad Survivors
In reality, the chance of any of us making it into the ‘good survivor’ category is incredibly slim. Even Sarah Everard’s attack, which could not easily be attributed to her own action or inaction (as it so often is when victim-blaming ideas are used) still could not sustain the immediate national uproar. There can never be a ‘perfect victim’. In fact, so few will ever be considered close to good enough because there’s always a justification as to how it might have been our fault. Our clothes, our relationship to the perpetrator, our backgrounds, race, sex, whether or not we fought back, drank, etc are all thought to have some baring on why we were targeted. Then we have to respond to the abuse in the right way – Report, but don’t ruin a mans life; get therapy, but not too much therapy; have an emotional response, and if you don’t then you haven’t processed it properly, but if you have too much of one you’re mentally ill and need diagnosing, medicating, and possibly institutionalising. Be a sympathetic victim, but don’t have a victim mentality. Be a survivor, but don’t let what happened define you. Can’t you talk about something else?
While so many claim to be against victim blaming and rape myths, there’s still a distinct difference in the the cases that we give attention to and get angry about, or get swept under the carpet, or not noticed at all such as that of Blessing Olusegun, a black woman found dead on the beach last September and whose case so far is ‘inconclusive’.
When they are noticed, it’s often not because there is a level of care for the victims and the survivors, but for it to be used simply to further a political angle.
Is anybody listening?
So many voices are missing from the stories of sexual abuse. Some of those voices are missing because the victims are dead. Some of those voices are missing because their experiences have been deemed unimportant. Some of those voices are missing because after witnessing the backlash, denial, and dismissal of others voices, survivors have kept their stories to themselves.
When we make distinctions about whose voice deserves to be heard and met with anger and who is entirely ignored or forgotten, we leave victims and survivors to suffer alone. Cases are NFA’ed (no further actioned), witnesses deemed ‘unreliable’, victims are prosecuted in turn, child custody is given to perpetrators, and all this results in our society being unable to create a world in which the sexual abuse of both adults and children can be a thing of the past.
At REIGN, we put ourselves forward to be heard, as many survivors have done in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, and we share both our professional and lived experiences of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation. For each of us, our histories include the times where we were not taken seriously. We’ve all had aspect of our abuse deemed to be either ‘too much’ or ‘not important enough’. We’ve been told that “all that can’t happen to one person”, we’ve been told that the young age of our perpetrator complicates our victim status, we’ve been told that because we were given small gifts, money, or drugs to cope with the horror of it, that our abusers wont be prosecuted. We have been let down by victim blaming systems at so many turns. We have had all types of disclosures and cries for help dismissed, played down or ignored. The result is that each time I log into or walk into a workshop, I have that same fearful thought run though my mind – are these people going to believe me? Are these people going to take my story seriously? Are these people going to dismiss me and my experiences as not being ‘bad enough’? Are these people going to question where I went wrong and how I let this happen?
Imagine what we could learn if we took on board the stories of every victim and survivor, and not just the ‘good’ ones. What would happen if we actively challenged the victim-blaming, myths, and assumptions around sexual violence and stoped pathologising the resulting trauma?
We’ll keep speaking, even if we’re not always considered important enough due to who we are and how our abuse happened. We’ll keep speaking in the hopes that one day, our voices and our experiences, might be deemed important enough to spur some change in how society views the pandemic of violence against women and girls.
We’ve witnessed national uproars like the one around Sarah Everard’s murder before; The murder of Jessica Wells and Holly Chapman; with Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford, and other town based grooming gangs; the Warwick University ‘rape texts’; even as far back as the Yorkshire Ripper, a noise is made, but it peters out. A woman is murdered by an abusive man at least every 3 days in the UK, and roughly 11 serious sexual assaults* are commited every hour. Stories become statistics.
Until all victims and survivors are listened to and these crimes are recognised, there might not be enough tinder to keep the fires of rage burning. Attacks that actually make the local or national news give the impression that sex based violence is a sudden scandalous event. If all of us received the same attention and care that those few scandals or ‘perfect victims’ get, we would no longer have the idea of the good survivor and the bad survivor. It would perhaps be an issue those who think they will not be touched by it will no longer have the privilege to ignore.
*rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration.