The silence of rape victims in the context of self-blame and the rape culture

Subject: Law
Pages: 8
Word count: 2001
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According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives” yet “63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police”. To understand why they would prefer silence when they deserve attention and justice, several resources shared what victims go through before, during, and after the rape. In the book, After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, Nancy Venable Raine described her experiences as a rape victim. Two other sources are fictional but reflected the upsetting consequences of sexual abuse on victims. In 1891, Thomas Hardy tackled the sensitive issue of rape in Tess of the d ́Urbervilles wherein Alec d’Urberville sexually assaulted Tess Durbeyfield while asleep. She left Alec though and soon married Angel Clare who abandoned her after learning she was raped. Courtney Summers’ All the Rage narrates the fury of a high-school student, Romy Grey, who had been sexually abused by a famous older student, Kellen Turner, the Sheriff’s oldest son. Since Romy was a daughter of an alcoholic, most people disregarded the factuality of her rape. Women remained silent after being raped due to several reasons including not being aware of being sexually abused, threats from the rapist, self-blame, psychological trauma, the culture of rape, social stigma, and prejudice.

Some women were raped when they were so young or innocent that they lacked awareness of the assault or even if they told someone, no one would believe them because of their personal circumstances. Tess told her mother and Angel she was too young then that she neither knew what men could do to women nor did she fully realize she was raped (Hardy 1312). She blamed her mother for not completely warning her about the ways of men; if she knew, she might have been more careful in dealing with Alec. Furthermore, Tess initially failed to comprehend what Alec did to her. In fact, weeks passed by before the gravity of the rape came to her. She needed time before completely grasping she was raped. Romy had a worse experience than Tess for when she reported the rape to the police, they discredited her. The police suggested that she wanted to have sex with her rapist; she only got what she desired. The Sheriff even had a letter from Romy to her best friend Penny which said, “Penny, I want him. I dream about him” (96). Apparently, Penny and Romy’s peers distrusted her story too for why would Penny give this personal letter to the Sheriff if she knew it would be used against her? After realizing that the public presumed her as lying, Romy stopped talking about the rape. Innocence and disbelief may result in victims who keep the sexual assault to themselves.

Besides innocence and being doubted by others, rapists who threatened to kill or harm their victims discouraged disclosure. Raine reported that her rapist warned her repeatedly throughout the rape that he would kill her if she resisted or told anyone (9). She still went to the police after the sexual assault but her life never became normal again as she constantly thought about the rapist’s threats. Items and men who reminded her of the rapist filled her with dread. Courtney E. Ahrens studied how social reactions muted sexually abused victims in her study, “Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape”. After interviewing eight rape survivors, several revealed that they remained mum due to the fear that their rapists would return and kill them. They received death threats during the sexual assault itself so the fear for their lives never left their minds. The anxiety over being killed or someone close to them being hurt is real, especially if the rapist made this threat clear. Such threats are shadows that followed the victims, keeping them restrained and unable to speak of their horrific experiences.

Aside from the rapists’ threats, some victims of rape developed self-blame so they had difficulties expressing their experiences and emotions. Tess reacted to the word “damnation” that a man painted on a board along the road and felt “accusatory horror” (hardy 1267). She thought she was damned by the public even when she was the victim of the crime. As a result, she could not tell Angel about being raped not until after they were married. Like Tess, Raine blamed herself. When she cut a plant incorrectly, she saw herself as an “idiot” and her mistake “proved [her] bad judgment, carelessness, inattention. That’s why [she] got raped.” (45). Raine thought she could have done something to stop it when she could not have. The same thinking happened to Romy who also saw herself as the cause of the sexual assault. She thought she showed too much interest in Kellen so he thought she wanted to have sex with him even when it was clear that he took her away after seeing she was drunk and forced himself on her. Many rape victims preferred silence for they were filled with guilt that they did something to deserve their fate.

Apart from self-blame, many women experienced psychological trauma that made it hard to speak about the sexual assault. Tess stayed in her father’s home for a long time after being raped as she felt everyone saw her differently (Hardy 1355). She could not disclose her experience to anyone apart from her mother since she was anxious and confused. Raine could identify with Tess for the day of her rape haunted her forever. She said she was more aware of the anniversary of her rape than her own birthday as it represented the day she died and someone new and different was born afterwards (Raine 1). Rape terrified her; she described how she still feared taking out the trash because she was raped during that time. Moreover, Raine experienced paranoia, thinking every man was a potential rapist (32). Romy felt the same oppressive trauma too; she felt depressed as people judged or ignored her. Women who are raped feel broken inside and it will take a long time for them to heal particularly if people do not trust or disregard their stories.

Besides trauma, many women did not report rape incidents for fear of judgment particularly in the context of the culture of rape. The rape culture trivializes or normalizes sexual violence by blaming women for being sexually assaulted (Burnett et al. 466). Burnett et al. studied the rape culture in a college campus and learned that rape myths contribute to it. They defined rape myths as the denial or minimization of victim injury or victim-blaming (466). Tess told her mother she was raped yet the latter responded, “You ought to have been more careful if you didn’t mean to get him to make you his wife!” (Hardy 1312). The mother thought that Tess seduced her rapist, an example of a rape myth where the victim desired the rape in the first place. Angel is another person who supported the rape myth when he looked at Tess like she was a “guilty woman in the guise of an innocent one” (Hardy 3672). He blamed her for being raped instead of being angry at the rapist who took advantage of her. As a result, Tess nearly killed herself and said she would do it “on account of [her] shame” (Hardy 3756). Shame as a result of overwhelming social judgment can push victims to suicide. Another manifestation of the rape myth is when women themselves preferred to push rape under the rug. A woman responded to Raine’s essay about rape, “Let’s face it, people don’t want to read about such terrible things” (5). She provides proof of the rape culture wherein people treat rape as too grotesque that it must be forgotten. Raine asserted however that “to a rape survivor, nothing is more desired or more impossible than forgetting” (36). The more people want to normalize rape, the larger the shame becomes for many rape victims and the more they would think twice in reporting it. Furthermore, Ahrens’ study showed that all victims experienced being blamed for the assault: “These survivors were blamed for putting themselves in vulnerable positions and were frequently told that they should have known better.” Ahrens noted that these responses were “common from community system personnel, especially the legal system” where interactions “were characterized by questions about whether the assault qualified as rape, their role in the assault, and whether they deserved the assistance the legal system could provide.” The culture of rape blames the victim which will make it hard to prosecute rapists. As a result, rape victims may feel they are hopeless due to poor social and legal support.

Apart from the shame brought about by the rape culture, rape victims preferred to not disclose what happened due to social stigma. Being raped produces undesirable stereotypes that reduce the reputation and dignity of victims. Angel ostracized Tess by saying she turned into a different person the moment she was raped (Hardy 3672). He described her as “grotesque” and “prestidigitation” which is a noun for devilry or dishonest conduct (Hardy 3672). As someone who was sexually assaulted, Tess looked deformed physically and spiritually to him. Though Angel recognized that she was “more sinned against than sinning”, she was “want of firmness” (Hardy 3733, 3741). He implied that losing her virginity equated to immorality as if a broken hymen breaks souls too. Similar to Tess, Raine felt another form of stigma which made her doubt herself. After telling her close friend about the rape and that she slept in her mother’s bed for six weeks, the latter said Raine had “unresolved issues” (44). The friend focused on Raine’s inability to handle the rape instead of listening and showing empathy. In a way, she asked Raine to quickly move on as if the rape never occurred. Social stigma happens when people either see victims as damaged goods or make insensitive remarks that differentiate and hurt victims psychologically.

Aside from social stigma, victims of rape experience prejudice as well. Prejudice is different from social stigma as it refers to an aversive attitude to people who belong to a certain group and are presumed to have the same negative qualities as the latter. Prejudice usually comes from social processes rooted in subjugation and exploitation while stigma is caused more by social norms. Angel showed prejudice against Tess when Hardy wrote “the essence of things has changed” (3657). Angel represented patriarchal thinking which favored power over people and since someone else took Tess’ virginity, he felt slighted and saw Tess as an inferior human being. Angel claimed to forgive her but left her behind; he even tried to bring a mistress with him. His hypocrisy of judging Tess as immoral as he conducted dishonorable deeds indicates his prejudice against raped women. Furthermore, blaming women for being the cause of rape is gender prejudice. Romy and other rape victims in the studies of Ahrens and Burnett et al. experienced being blamed for their rape because of how they looked and acted. Essentially, the rape culture justifies sexual assaults when victims dressed or talked like a “slut”. The central attack is on women and how they are the culprits of rape. If women knew they would be seen this way, they would rather go into their shells than report to the police and ask help.

Rape victims do not speak up because they blame themselves, their culture blames them, or perhaps even both. The existence of the rape culture and the inability of the police and close relationships to offer empathy and support are hindrances to self-disclosure. As a result, while their rapists had silenced them during the sexual assault, their society sealed their lips as well. Hence, if victims remain silent, society should be significantly blamed for it protects rapists more than it believes in and defends people who were raped.

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  1.  Ahrens, Courtney E. “Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape”. American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 38, no. 3, 2006, pp. 263–274.
  2. Burnett, Ann, Mattern, Jody L., Herakova, Liliana L., Kahl, Jr., David H., Tobola, Cloy, and Susan E. Bornsen. “Communicating/Muting Date Rape: A Co-Cultural Theoretical Analysis of Communication Factors Related to Rape Culture on a College Campus”. Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 37, no. 4, 2009, pp. 465-485.
  3. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d ́Urbervilles. Kindle ed., Vicens Vives, 2003.
  4. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Statistics about Sexual Violence”. National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015, http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf.
  5. Raine, Nancy Venable. After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. Kindle ed., Crown Publishers, 1998.
  6. Summers, Courtney. All the Rage. Kindle ed., St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.
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