How Can We Relieve The Emotional Burden Of Sexual Violence?

Cath Snow is a recent graduate of Manchester University, where she focussed her studies on the power of women’s narratives around sexual violence. She has also worked supporting adults with additional needs and facilitating theatre workshops in prisons and with young people as part of a pastoral care team. Cath is currently writing a play and lives in Manchester with her pal Molly. Here she writes an opinion piece of how we can relieve the emotional burden when it comes to sexual violence.

When I was sexually assaulted I wrestled with what to do with my experience. Should I vocalise it? And if I do, who to? Just my mum...or should it be more public? The police? But will they believe me? Will my friends? What will happen if I tell? Do I want to ruin someone’s life? Do they deserve it? Maybe they won’t do it again. Was it a one off? Maybe it was my fault? Did I give the wrong signals? Was I too drunk? Is it my duty to tell? Am I letting others down if I don’t?

These questions endlessly swam through my mind because I knew I was expected to do something. I knew somehow that the onus was on me to change. So, I vowed to be more cautious, more watchful and a little less myself. The script we’re encouraged to follow after an assault offers limited choices. You can either forget the incident and 'move on', do something about it, or pretend it never happened. I became the preventative measure because all the signals around me indicated that this was the only way to avoid being hurt again. I accepted this deal, but couldn’t shake the feeling I was being short changed.

"You can either forget the incident and 'move on', do something about it, or pretend it never happened."

I wondered why I felt responsible for something I never wanted.
I wondered why the fate of my experience had been left in my hands alone.
And I wondered if the person who assaulted me was experiencing the same, exhausting merry-go-round of internal interrogation and self-doubt.
I guessed not.

As the years have passed I have made relative peace with what happened. But there remains an itch at the back of my brain. While we’ve generally become more attentive to the voices of survivors, we still expect them to absorb the emotional labour of their experience. It is assumed that all survivors are willing to recount the event, speak out against it, and take control of their recovery. And while the majority of society agrees that demanding women to resist wearing provocative clothing and getting drunk in order to avoid rape is reprehensible – we still ask for the moderation of female behaviour.

I say female not to disregard the experiences of others, but because the overwhelming majority of those who suffer sexual violence are women. We ask girls to be on high alert, say no, and make careful decisions. We require them to second guess every sexual encounter before it's even happened. We want them to read minds. Women who have suffered sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility of being the best survivor they possibly can be. We expect articulate, preferably public accounts of what happened and for extra believability points we want to hear that ‘no’ was said at least once. Apparently, giving off persistent physical signs of discomfort are not enough. Unlike women, who presumably have some kind of special, tentacle like sensor that allows them to read every room they’re in exactly, men cannot be expected to read minds or notice a recoiling body.

Again I say men not to generalise or undermine, but to reflect the wealth of statistical evidence demonstrating that men commit the majority of sexually violent crimes.

"But we must be mindful that our current focus on ‘breaking the silence’ doesn’t burden survivors with the moral and social responsibility of what they suffered."

Recently ‘breaking the silence’ has become the most important thing a survivor can do and to some it’s their moral obligation. And it is important. Of course it is. Every personal testimony adds a piece of puzzle to the jigsaw, and every first-hand account forces us to acknowledge that sexual violence is sewn deeply into the fabric of our society. But we must be mindful that our current focus on ‘breaking the silence’ doesn’t burden survivors with the moral and social responsibility of what they suffered. We must not dilute the accountability of assailants or scrutinise survivors who choose not to share their stories.

I haven’t shared the details of mine publicly because I don’t want or need to. This shouldn’t make me feel guilty. ‘Breaking the silence’ is only thinly papering over the cracks created by massive gender inequality. Sexual violence permeated every corner of the globe before #MeToo and will continue to do so unless we address its most obvious pattern.

"We must not dilute the accountability of assailants or scrutinise survivors who choose not to share their stories."

Unlike physical violence, which can leave scars, the impact of sexual violence is frequently invisible. This leaves survivors exposed to doubt and questioning in a way that other crimes don’t provoke. Like a literal minded child, society often struggles to comprehend something that isn’t immediately evident.

This leaves women who have survived sexual violence relegated to a position that is tantamount to limbo – forced to wait for a time when their traumatic narratives will be deemed as plausible, palatable, and non-threatening by the status quo.

Survivors cannot be sure that their testimonies will be listened to or understood. They cannot be sure that their trauma will be believed, and they cannot be sure their suffering will be known to exist within a culture that appears at pains to deny its presence. But we can help one another to share the emotional labour of sexual violence. We can and should allow survivors to process their experience how they need to and in their own time. Pressure to behave in a certain way must be relieved. “It’s OK, I believe you” should be said until the person you’re reassuring believes you and believes it themselves. There is no substitute to someone who will listen without judgement.

I don’t believe there will be any major change until we’re all more honest about the root causes of sexual violence. But until then I will always try to unburden its survivors.

You can also follow Cath on Twitter here.

Image taken from our sixth print issue, The Strong Issue where Anna Pigott delved into The Feminist Library archives for us. It's unfortunately all sold out now, but read about how we need to keep The Feminist Library open and view more from their archives here.

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