‘What was she wearing?’

With recent events in the past year surrounding gendered sexual violence towards women, this blog will focus on specific examples and cases in hopes that readers understand the long term impacts sexual harassment has on victims, as well as the wider societal approach as to how women are paradoxically placed under a lens for scrutinisation when they have been victims of sexual violence.

Sexual harassment is a broad term, referring to verbal and physical unwanted sexual comments, gestures, or actions because of a person’s perceived gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Sexual harassment can and does occur anywhere and everywhere. For example, it can occur within the workplace; public transportation, educational settings, athletic settings, homes, social gatherings, on the road and in online groups. The reason as to why sexual harassment is such a serious matter is because of the impact it has on the affected individual. Targets of sexual harassment find it offensive, upsetting, humiliating, intimidating, stressful, and frightening. Sexual harassment can dehumanise and disempower individuals; causing emotional and physical stress as well as stress-related mental and physical illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is imperative to understand that incidents of sexual violence are not necessarily committed to achieve sexual gratification, but rather to attain control, power and domination whilst causing humiliation. It is the meaning attributed to the act that overrides sexual goals. This is why in order to gain power and control over their victims, perpetrators of sexual violence resort to practices such as abduction, isolation, manipulation, coercion, threats, and sexual abuse.[1]

Depending on the specific nature of the sexual assault and or where it took place, this can severely affect individuals lives. If the assault occurred at work, this may affect an individual’s career aspirations. They may feel demotivated, unhappy and leave their job. If the assault occurred within a public space such as on transport or on the road, this may affect day to day tasks i.e. travelling/ commuting. Sexual harassment can also impact individuals’ relationships, productivity, body image, self-esteem as well as their ability to do their usual routine.

In addition, sexual harassment can cause psychological issues, insomnia, headaches, stress, phobias, body distortion, gastrointestinal disturbances, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression. Individuals may alter their lifestyles to avoid or cope with the trauma. Furthermore, sometimes through secondary wounding, survivors can become stuck in distorted and unfamiliar behaviours when their pain is not acknowledged, heard, respected or understood.[2] Blame can be further embedded by the persons story being dismissed, and even worse, their actions, choice of clothing, lifestyle and social aspect of the situation being judged and scrutinised by others.

Definitions of sexual harassment have always been clouded by questions of the intent of the perpetrator as well as the intent of the victim. From a legal standpoint, sexual harassment should be defined by the impact of the action, not the perpetrators intent. However, this is not the case. In 2018, during a criminal trial in Ireland, a lawyer defending a 27 year old man accused of raping a 17 year old girl asked the jury “Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”[3] It is clear that within all historically patriarchal systems and environments regardless of what that environment is, whether it be a social space, educational institute or even a court of law, women face hostility, hatred and discrimination in regards to their own sexual assault, and are held accountable for what their bodies are succumbed to outside of their control.

Last year in May, the Minnesota Supreme Court said that a man could not be convicted of rape because the woman willingly got drunk beforehand. The woman had met the man outside a bar in Minneapolis in May 2017. The woman had been denied entry into the bar because she was intoxicated. The man invited her to a party but when she got there, she realized there was no one else there. She “blacked out” on the man’s couch and woke up to find him sexually assaulting her. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled he can’t be found guilty of rape because the woman was drunk before she met him.[4] It is clear that misogyny is not just about the patriarchy being hostile towards women, even within legal settings as mentioned before, it is also about controlling women; women’s rights and autonomy.

In the beginning of February 2022 in India, a young woman was raped. Three minor boys sexually assaulted her whilst eight women aided. A video that went viral on social media showed the victim pleading for mercy as she was being slapped by other women and publicly humiliated in front of a cheering crowd. She was dragged outside of her house and paraded in the neighbourhood. According to local media reports, the woman who is a mother of a three-year-old child, had rejected the advances of a 16 year old teenager who lived near her parent’s home. That same teenager committed suicide in November 2021. The boy’s family claimed he killed himself because of the rejection, and that this was revenge. The fact that eight women aided in the abduction and sexual assault highlights how women themselves have psychologically internalised their own oppression and marginalisation, and have conformed to gender standards. Not only does society aim to control and punish women who challenge male dominance, but it also rewards and celebrates women who reinforce patriarchal attitudes.

In March 2021 in the UK, Sarah Everard, a 33 year old marketing executive was kidnapped in London, England as she was walking near Clapham Common. Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer arrested her, claiming that she had breached COVID-19 regulations. He drove her all the way across London towards Dover, where he raped and strangled her, and then disposed of her body.  Six years prior to this, Couzens was investigated for an indecent exposure allegation after being accused by a member of the public of driving naked from the waist down. At the time, he was working as an officer with the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), the Kent-based armed police force in charge of protecting civil nuclear sites. Kent police investigated the claim but decided no further action should be taken.[5] In addition to this, evidence had emerged that while working for the CNC in 2011, Couzens’ co-workers were aware that he was attracted to violent pornography and allegedly nicknamed him The Rapist because he made women feel uncomfortable. Just two days prior to Sarah Everard going missing, Couzens was also linked to a flashing incident at a fast food restaurant in Swanley, Kent.[6] Couzens had been linked to four flashing incidents prior to the disappearance of Sarah Everard, but no further actions were taken.

In addition, during Sarah Everard’s vigil in March 2021, police officers were criticised for physically manhandling women. Paradoxically, this was at a vigil against male violence in honour of a woman who lost her life and was a victim of gendered violence at the hands of a police officer. And just recently, details of messages from WhatsApp groups and a Facebook chat group exchanged by Metropolitan Police Officers including multiple references to rape, violence against women, racist and homophobic abuse were unveiled by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

Systematic failures allowed Sarah Everard’s killer, Wayne Couzens, to be employed as a police officer. It is clear that there is a culture of protecting colleagues within the police force, even when those said colleagues are a threat to society. The National Police Chiefs’ Council admitted some people were attracted to policing “because of the power, the control and the opportunity it affords them”.[7] Denzi Ugur, its deputy director, said: “We need to see a radical overhaul of how the police respond to violence against women, especially within their own ranks, which means “Greater accountability and urgent, co-ordinated and strategic action to address violence against women.” Ultimately, widespread institutional failings within the police force across the board need to be addressed and amended, if even that, before we can even begin to address women’s confidence in the police. This in itself however seems highly futile.

The cases outlined above are prime examples as to how sexual assault cases surrounding women refuse to acknowledge women’s autonomy. Whilst sexual harassment and rape by men towards women is about men having control and power, and women being dominated and subordinated against their will, cases are legally and socially handled in ways which imply that the female victims are in control and or gave their consent and wanted to be sexually coerced, in some shape or form.

This rhetoric of blaming the victim is framed through the scrutinization of her clothing, social environment, time of day or whether she was intoxicated to name a few. Society holds women liable and culpable for being sexually assaulted as opposed to holding male perpetrators, by standers and enablers responsible for creating a culture that allows and encourages women to be sexually assaulted. The handling of sexual assault cases shows how ingrained sexism and misogyny is in society, even within spaces of jurisdiction and authority amongst the most ‘socio-economically’ developed countries in the world. Time and time again, women’s bodies are treated as passive vessels, yet women are morally held responsible for what their bodies are succumbed to outside of their control. 

The cases mentioned above, from Minnesota to India to the UK highlight how sexual violence towards women is normalised in society. This normalisation is constructed and created on a global scale which knows no cultural barriers nor bounds. It is clear that society is in dire need of a global cultural shift in attitudes surrounding the social and economic status of women, which can only be achieved once the consciousness of men first and foremost is raised. It is not only about re-educating and educating men, it is also about educating boys early on within primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools on the importance of respecting women and girls.[8]

[1] Kalra, Gurvinder, and Dinesh Bhugra. “Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 55,3 (2013): 244-9. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.117139 [last accessed 15/03/2022]

[2] Daniels, Sue J. Working with the Trauma of Rape and Sexual Violence A Guide for Professionals, Jessica Kingsley Publishers (England: London, 2017) p.116

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/world/europe/ireland-underwear-rape-case-protest.html

[4] Minnesota Supreme Court: Drunk rape victim not ‘incapacitated’ (usatoday.com)

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/04/wayne-couzens-case-how-do-you-lose-your-job-in-the-police

[6] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/sarah-everard-police-failings-b958339.html

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-sexual-misconduct-uk-b1935993.html

[8] https://www.rollingstone.co.uk/politics/news/sadiq-khan-launches-new-campaign-to-tackle-misogyny-and-sexism-12848/

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