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Safeline’s Ambassador, Ethan MacLeod, has curated a “What were you wearing?” exhibition both at Stowe School and more recently at the Norman Rea Gallery in York.  

Inspired by college exhibitions in America, the exhibitions illustrated stories shared by survivors about what they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. The exhibitions aimed to shatter the myth that a person’s clothing choices can imply consent to rape.  A crime is a crime and victim-blaming has no place.  Instead of asking what someone was wearing, we should be listening and asking how we can help.

Whose side are you on? Why we blame the victim in sexual abuse?

Research from lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp was recently released which analysed public reaction to high profile cases of sexual assault and rape.

  • Research into Twitter posts, news headlines and online forum posts about sexual abuse cases finds that, while support for survivors is prevalent, there is also support for perpetrators.
  • Cases involving celebrities (like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly) garnered higher percentages of positive posts across genders (10% and 8% respectively).
  • Negative comments about the #MeToo movement has increased over the past year (from 31% to 40%).
  • Lizzy Dening, founder of Survivor Stories, says “we must hope that understanding one type of sexual abuse will translate to a deeper understanding for all survivors.”

In January 2020, Harvey Weinstein – accused of five sex crimes against two women – started his trial, the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries returns with a follow-up a year on from the original series, and a change in California law allows Wade Robson and James Safechuck to sue Michael Jackson for the abuse they allege he put them through when they were children.

With the new decade already promising further momentum regarding sexual abuse cases, specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp analysed online posts on social media and news forums to investigate how the public reacts to high-profiles cases of sexual assault and abuse. The new research, conducted alongside Lizzy Dening, founder of Survivor Stories, uncovered that, while there is support for survivors, the public also tends to “blame the victim” – or side with the perpetrator rather than the person they abused.

This behaviour took many forms, from reacting negatively towards the survivors, to lamenting the potential demise of the celebrity in question and making light of the issue as a whole. The following insights from the research show the stark differences in the way we choose to react to specific stories of sexual abuse.

Men are vocal when children are abused but reluctant to speak when women are abused

While the overall gender split across all five cases was balanced with 51% of authors being male and 49% being female, there were interesting discrepancies in individual cases. Most notably, men got involved in the online conversation far more when children were the target of abuse, and took a step back when the abuse centred around female survivors.

For example, men contributed heavily to the conversation in the Bob Higgins case (72% male commentators), the Jimmy Savile case (69%), and the story about the Rotherham grooming circle (72%). In contrast, only 40% of comments were from men when it came to the first wave of coverage of #MeToo, (rising to just 48% in the second wave of coverage a year later) and only 41% of comments were from men for the R. Kelly story.

As Dening points out, “Men can’t be expected to imagine being a woman raped on a date, or by their husband, but they do perhaps remember being a small boy at a football club […] and perhaps look back and realise they were in a potentially vulnerable position.”

When the accused is a celebrity, fans prefer to vilify victims instead

Another startling factor in the way people talked about cases of sexual abuse online centres around accused celebrities. Cases involving pop stars and rappers (like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly) garnered higher percentages of positive posts across genders (10% and 8% respectively), with commentators jumping to the celebrities’ defences. What’s worse, many comments sought to vilify, discredit or cast doubt on the survivor’s story, simply because it allowed the poster to continue to support the celebrity in question.

When commenting about the Leaving Neverland documentary that brought forward child sex abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, some commentators expressed disappointment at the fact that Michael Jackson was facing accusations rather than sadness about what the survivors had gone through. The hashtag “#Facts Don’t Lie – People Do” was also popular, and used by commentators who didn’t believe the veracity of the survivor’s stories.

Posts regarding the R. Kelly case – where, in the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, several young women alleged that they were groomed and abused by the rapper– paint a more encouraging picture. Of the approximately 2,000 posts that expressed anger, some of it was directed towards those who tried to blame the victims. Dening explains that “victim blaming is all about placing unreasonable expectations on people (statistically mostly women) to act in a certain way to keep themselves safe, while expectations are rarely placed on the perpetrator (statistically mostly men) to put the feelings of others above their own.”

How successful was the #MeToo movement?

As well as looking into sexual abuse cases in the media, Bolt Burdon Kemp’s research analysed online conversations surrounding the popularised ‘#MeToo’ movement. While usage of the hashtag ‘#MeToo’ has decreased over the last year, the movement itself has prompted industries outside of Hollywood to interrogate their workplace sexual harassment rules and procedures.

“What was so powerful about the movement,” says Dening, “was that it allowed anyone to share their story – whatever age, race, gender or background. It was such a simple, effective way to demonstrate both the scale of the problem, and also that sexual violence affects a variety of people, not just those who the media tend to represent.”

From business and politics to fashion and hospitality, industries are refining their processes and changing regulations to combat the issues of workplace sexual harassment – although some industries including finance and manufacturing have been slower to address issues and incorporate changes. That said, countless companies from academia, publishing, theatre, tech, news and media, law and politics have asked their staff to take surveys inspired by #MeToo.

One key finding was that almost 80% survey respondents had either experienced sexual harassment or knew someone in the workplace who had experienced it. While this finding is stark, the fact that some companies are engaging with these issues is promising.

But public sentiment has soured 

The research by Bolt Burdon Kemp has found that while the gender split between commentators around #MeToo has evened out over the last year – from 60% women and 40% men to 53% women and 48% men – the negative sentiment has increased among both genders (from 31% to 40% year-on-year). The majority of negative posts were regarding the movement generally, although some posts did betray negativity towards accusers, while some were negative towards the accused.

Women were responsible for 35,298 posts that had a negative sentiment in October 2017 to April 2018 while men were responsible for 22,386 posts with a negative sentiment. A year later, over the same time period, there were 14,790 negative posts by women and 14,468 negative posts by men. [HH2]

Dening points out that, “like most big news stories about sexual violence,” there hasn’t been a lasting impact, with “the new demand for services not reflected in funding to rape crisis centres and the like.”

Why do we blame the victim?

“It’s hard for people with no experience of rape to understand it,” says Lizzy Dening, founder of Survivor Stories – a collection of stories about sexual assault told in the survivors’ own words. But the best way we can try to help is to listen empathetically when survivors choose to share their story. “Victim blaming harms us all,” says Dening, adding “it’s an insidious problem that runs throughout our society.”

So, why is society so quick to blame the victim in cases of sexual abuse? Some possible reasons brought forward by researchers include:

The ‘just world’ hypothesis: 

According to researcher Sherry Hamby, “the biggest factor that promotes victim blaming is the ‘just world’ hypothesis.”

It’s the idea that good things happen to good people – which also implies that, if something bad happened to you, you must’ve done something bad to deserve it. “There’s a really strong need to believe that we all deserve the outcomes and consequences in our lives,” she says, adding that the idea that we’re all in control of our own destinies plays into this myth.

A defence mechanism:

Professor Barbara Gilin notes that people tend to default to victim-blaming thoughts and behaviours as a defence mechanism in the face of bad news. Because, if we can pretend that the victim was targeted because they did something wrong, we can tell ourselves that as long as we do everything right, we can prevent ourselves from becoming a target too.

The ‘stranger in an alley’ myth:

Researchers also found that “victims of stranger rape are the least likely to be blamed for their assault while victims of marital rape are much more likely to be found culpable. […] In short, as the victim and assailant become increasingly familiar and romantically involved, victim blame increases.” “The ‘stranger in an alley’ stereotype is seen frequently in the news,” says Dening, “making it seem more common than it is. In fact, around 80% of rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows. And yet there’s a level of public sympathy for the ‘stranger in an alley’ type of crime that is sadly lacking when it comes to people raped on dates, by their partners or someone they met in a nightclub. Anyone is entitled to withdraw sexual consent at any point.”

Evolution and instinct:

Dening adds that victim blaming might have an evolutionary basis. “Humans have a pack-animal mentality, and we tend to go along with the dominant ideology rather than wanting to stand out. The dominant ideology in a patriarchal society is that of a male – everything is tailored towards a male viewpoint, especially how we think about sex and power. This, added to rape culture where general behaviour tries to normalise or minimise sexual violence and rape, means there’s a gender imbalance, with women being worse off.

The impact of victim blaming

“Victim blaming might not bother the survivor the first time they hear it, or the second, but to see it every day, from people they consider friends, or from respected news outlets, it builds up, and makes survivors feel at fault,” says Dening. “As survivors often already feel guilt or shame (a normal psychological reaction to trauma) this compounds that response and makes them less likely to come forward to seek help.”

How to support people who have been abused 

Dening has the following tips on how you can support people who have been abused:

  1. Listen, without judgement. When someone chooses to confide in you, you can make it clear through your words and actions that you are someone they can trust.
  2. Talk about cases in the news. Stress how much you believe the survivors featured, and how you know they aren’t to blame.
  3. Don’t force them to go to the police – or, in fact, to do anything.
  4. Don’t expect them to behave in certain ways – everyone is different, and trauma can have strange and terrible effects. The way a person behaves after trauma doesn’t minimise or invalidate the suffering they’re going through.
  5. While rape crisis centres are a great resource for survivors, it can also be useful for their friends and family. It may be worth visiting your local branch for advice on how to help them, as well as how to look after your own mental health.

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