Rewriting the rules of victimhood

Healing from sexual assault is rarely as simple as we think

Content Warning : This article contains mentions of sexual assault

Victims of sexual assault occupy a very specific place in the public consciousness. That place is one of expectation and – in some cases – entitlement. Certain reactions or ways of healing are expected from victims by the people around them. We expect a shaking victim, a panicked victim, a sex-averse victim. Fundamentally, society looks for an easy victim, someone they can point to and understand. But real life is rarely so simple. 

Recovery can look like it does in films. But it can also look intensely odd from an outsider’s perspective. I can’t speak for other victims, but some of the things I did in the six months after I was raped were: writing what happened in intense detail over and over again; taking pictures of my bruises and printing them out; refusing to block the man who raped me on social media (despite the panic attacks his presence gave me) because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t “chill”; reading other people’s detailed accounts of being assaulted; most damning of all, consensually kissing that man six months after he assaulted me. 

The list could and will go on, but the important thing is that very little of this is explainable, and none of it looks like recovering from assault does on television. The expectation on victims to lie down and cry about it for months, then never have sex again is unrealistic and damaging. I don’t know how many times I thought about these responses in the context of what I had seen on TV or read in books and used them as yet another reason to convince myself I was overreacting.  

Other victims of crime are not quizzed on their own reactions, people don’t wonder if they are making it up because they don’t look sad enough about their car being stolen.”

Even if these expectations were accurate and benign, their existence suggests people have a certain level of entitlement to our healing. Other victims of crime are not quizzed on their own reactions, people don’t wonder if they are making it up because they don’t look sad enough about their car being stolen. Most upsettingly, this problem comes from both sides of the political spectrum. Those who tend not to believe allegations of abuse will use any strange behaviour to discredit a victim, and those who do, are interested in a politically-correct story of assault which can convince the public that rape is wrong. 

This is rooted in where sexual violence sits in our political consciousness. As a crime that is often gendered, and so rarely taken seriously, it makes sense that we have built political movements and policy proposals around it. However, victims of sexual violence can feel that the way they recover is damaging to these political movements. I spent a lot of time thinking that telling people that I kissed the man who raped me somehow damaged the perception of sexual assault, that becoming obsessed with what happened made me a bad victim. Trauma is unpleasant enough without the addition of prescriptions about how it should operate. 

When I told my doctor what happened to me, I wasn’t asked “how can I help” but “why didn’t you report?” The pressure to be the perfect victim is not only personally upsetting, but materially affects the supports which are offered to victims.”

This entitlement occurs in structural contexts as well. In our legal system, rape is not a crime against the victim, it is a crime against the state — the perpetrator must be punished because they have upset the social fabric of society by breaking the rules. In material terms, this translates to retributive consequences as opposed to restorative ones. Many victims would like to see those who hurt them put in prison. I happen to not be one of those victims, but what I share with almost every person who has experienced sexual violence is that I have been fundamentally failed by the state. Not because they failed to lock up my abuser, but because they offered no path to restoration. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s counselling service has a one year waiting list, and state mental health services in Ireland are famously strained. When I told my doctor what happened to me, I wasn’t asked “how can I help” but “why didn’t you report?” The pressure to be the perfect victim is not only personally upsetting, but materially affects the supports which are offered to victims.

The worst version of these “rules” of victimhood is the prevailing belief that rape ruins a life forever. When reading the novel Asking for It shortly after I was assaulted, the portrait of the rape victim I was given was someone who was doomed to suffer forever. This is a politically useful tool as well: sexual violence ruins lives, so we should punish it more aggressively. There is nothing more demoralising than seeing ostensibly progressive, feminist media, which champions fictional victims who do not exist outside of the context of their own assault.

There are some days where I feel like little more than what happened to me, but there are other days when I know I am more than the sum of the bad things that have happened to me. I like pour-over coffee and professional cycling and modern art and none of that has anything to do with the fact that I’ve been raped.”

What I can say now (and what I hope will reach someone who can’t) is that sexual violence does not ruin your life forever, really. It makes a lot of things more difficult. But there are ways of healing and there are ways that the other people in your life can help you heal. There are some days where I feel like little more than what happened to me, but there are other days when I know I am more than the sum of the bad things that have happened to me. I like pour-over coffee and professional cycling and modern art and none of that has anything to do with the fact that I’ve been raped. We can – and we will – heal in spite of the expectations people put on healing, but life would be so much easier without those expectations.