Libby Brooks: The debate on rape should focus on rapists, not victims

Arguments over women's reasons for disclosing - or not - sexual assault must not drown out the crucial conversation

Last week I shook hands with a serial rapist. Saul was one of the inmates gathered to talk to visitors who were being escorted around his prison. At first I found it baffling that, in a room full of violent murderers, it was Saul who made me feel most uncomfortable. But the reason was obvious. I very seldom worry about getting stabbed, strangled or set on fire. I regularly worry about the risk of sexual assault, and he was the embodiment of that fear.

But despite the omnipresence of this anxiety in many women's minds, our dialogue about it seems to be no less garbled than it was decades ago. What is most striking about the Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray's memoir, published this week, is her disclosure that, when a drama student, she was raped by a much older actor.

She writes of her regret at not reporting the attack, but reminds readers that "no one talked about rape in those days". Her reluctance at the time is completely understandable, and I support every woman's right to deal with her sexual assault as she sees fit. But I was curious to know why a woman who spent the rest of her career facilitating - among many other things - the open discussion of sexual violence, did not choose to reveal her own encounter with it until now.

Similarly, the French-Colombian captive Ingrid Betancourt has declined, since her release, to discuss in detail her treatment by the Farc militia. When pressed by CNN's Larry King, she told him "there are things that are going to stay in the jungle". While it is highly likely that sexual brutalisation was a part of her six-year ordeal, Betancourt chose not to make rape a focus of the story of her freedom.

These days, in contrast to Murray's student experience, people do talk about rape - if only to acknowledge how far the conversation has to go. It can sound like a stuck record: the majority of rapes and sexual assaults in this country are still not reported; only around 5% of those that are result in a successful prosecution. The outrage at these abysmal statistics is well rehearsed.

But, in spite of this, sexual assault now has a cultural context. According to research, one in eight Hollywood movies includes a scene of sexual violence. Newspapers regularly carry detailed testimonies from victims. The question of disclosure is fraught: is it an act of empowerment to publicly name one's experience, or does it reinforce individual women's fears and broader assumptions about their vulnerability? These days, people do talk about rape, but the way they talk about it worries me.

Any discussion of sexual assault must be accompanied by one crucial caveat. Only a minority of men rape. The Dworkin-ite analysis that all intercourse manifests a degree of violence and that all men benefit from rape culture has been hugely unhelpful to the anti-sexual violence project, alienating the very people with whom women need to be standing shoulder to shoulder.

It is tiresome not only because it constructs all men as perpetual aggressors, but because it constructs all women as perpetual victims. While I have great respect for the work of Jill Saward, who stood against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden byelection on a DNA database ticket, it does trouble me that, more than two decades after the event, she continues to be identified as "the Ealing vicarage rape victim".

That is not to suggest that we retreat to coy phrasing, though "survivor" is, to my mind, a preferable term. She was one of the first women to speak publicly about her rape, at a time when the silence surrounding the crime was truly deafening, and has used the enduring public fascination with her case to raise a tremendous amount of awareness. On that level, hers is the archetypical tale of triumph over adversity. But Saward's story could also feed the unspoken suspicion that rape is something one can never fully recover from, that inevitably becomes the overpowering narrative of your existence. Sexual assault is a brutalising experience, and it does change your life. But it needn't define it.

While Saward was appealing to voters in East Riding, in Wales an anonymous survey of female assembly members revealed three of the respondents had been raped but not gone to the police. While the frequency of assault wasn't surprising, what I hadn't anticipated was the judgment that greeted these women's failure to report their experience, largely from others of their gender.

Sexual violence is certainly a political issue. But that doesn't mean every woman's encounter with it ought to be politicised. Female responsibility is too often factored into sexual assault already - would that we had been more sober, not out so late, more conventionally dressed.

At the next Reclaim the Night demonstration, it's been mooted that "out" rape survivors march behind a separate banner. While I accept that disclosure has a powerful currency, I'd feel uncomfortable if this was taken to imply that women who are willing to name their assault publicly somehow have a greater moral authority than those who are not, or indeed those who haven't experienced sexual violence themselves.

Creating a hierarchy of victimhood helps no one. And insisting all women embrace disclosure only serves to deprive them of what may be the one thing they feel they can control. Just as we resist taking responsibility for our own safety to the extreme of never leaving the house, neither are we our sisters' keepers. If the conversation about rape is to continue, and it's essential for all of us that it does, then perhaps it's time to change the tone, and to talk about what makes men like Saul behave as they do, rather than prodding and poring over his victims.


Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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