One in four women. That is one in four women in your office, gym class, lecture, or family. One in four women who have experienced some form of sexual violence.
The World Health Organisation defines sexual violence as: “Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” This can include anything from unwanted advances in a public setting, to marital rape, and is considered to be one of the most traumatic, pervasive, and most common human rights violations.
As someone who has worked with survivors of sexual violence for nearly 10 years, I have come to realise how widespread this issue really is. Recently in the media, Angelina Jolie and William Hague chaired an important conference about rape as a weapon in war, however in this instance I couldn’t help but wonder “What about the rape that is being experienced here?” Everyday in clubs, bars, pubs, halls of residence, offices, and even at home, more and more people are becoming victims of sexual violence. But what can be done to help? And how can we stop blaming the victims?
One of the things which I have found can help victims come to terms with their experiences is to educate them on the body’s natural reaction to this kind of violence. Often, women are made to feel ashamed, guilty and somewhat responsible for their victimisation, with questions such as “Why were you there?” “What did you do?” and “I thought you liked him/her” often becoming more important than the simple answer: It’s not your fault. And while these comments may come from individuals that love and trust the victims, they can unknowingly perpetuate the stigma associated with sexual violence, and contribute to what we know as ‘rape culture’. Rape culture is essentially victim-blaming, but in the context of sexual violence this can be extremely harmful for victims.
However, what is not common knowledge to most is how our brain reacts to trauma such as sexual violence or rape. In instances of extreme stress or trauma, the brain uses a different system to its usual rational system, known as the survival system. When the survival system kicks in, the body goes into a flight, fight or freeze response. These responses are similar to a rabbit in headlights or mouse playing dead when a cat catches them. They are life preservation responses. Most commonly in rape or sexual assault freeze or appease are the primary responses. This means that victim’s brains make an unconscious decision to either freeze or appease because evolution has taught humans that these are the least dangerous options.
When the threat is over the survival system shuts down and the rational system comes back on, however this system is greatly influenced by environmental cues and norms, which means that a victim may begin to blame themselves, especially if those around them do. This needs to change. And for this to happen it is important that as many people as possible understand the body’s reaction to sexual assault, and how asking questions about the experience can sometimes feel like an attack. Remembering sexual violence can be painful in itself, as it requires the individual to revisit the trauma – so before you begin asking questions, ask yourself; is this necessary? Our society has a responsibility to survivors to understand, and not judge or invalidate what they are feeling.
No one questions survivors of cancer, or natural disasters, if there was anything more they could have done, and no one should suggest that this was a possibility for victims of sexual assault. Anyone could be the target of sexual violence, and no matter when or how, there is never anything they could have done to prevent it. The blame is always with the attacker. Psychotherapy can help individuals to normalise their experiences, and realise that they are not alone. Anyone would have reacted in the same way, because the survival system takes over.
I believe that educating the general public about why we respond the way we do to sexual violence will greatly reduce stigma, and potentially shift attention away from the victim and to their attacker. The most common responses from women are shame, guilt and a sense that they did not do enough to stop the attack. This is often reinforced by other people’s reactions, but is simply not true in any case. As long as we maintain this emphasis on the individual’s reaction, individuals will continue to believe they are responsible for being raped. What is more important is understanding when to stop asking questions, and start supporting the women (and men) whose human rights have been violated.
Anya is a therapist on the Dr Julian platform www.dr-julian.com search "Dr Julian" on the app store you can have a counselling session with her on your iPhone/ iPad for £60/ hour
Source: Dr julian