When discussing policies and changes to the legal framework relating to difficult issues, a proper understanding of the issues at stake is usually key. Yet this is often not the case when it comes to issues that have a fundamental impact on the rights of women, especially physical integrity. I am of course talking about rape, domestic violence, abortion and the like. Everyone thinks that these things are happening somewhere far away, to some other people, but they are so prevalent that they are by necessity happening right here to people around us. You may not know about a person’s rape, assault or abortion, but let me assure you that you know people who have been raped or assaulted, or who have had an abortion.
How can we commonly know whether and in what circumstances abortion legislation can be tightened, if we do not understand the reasons for deciding to have an abortion or the impact that decision has on a woman? How can we know what is the right way to reduce rape if we have no idea of the circumstances in which rape is likely to occur?
These are the main reasons why I think it is so important to break the silence about these issues. We have recently had some good role models: The journalist Lucy Cavendish is an example of someone who has spoken openly and unapologetically in Britain about her two abortions. I also salute the four women who recently told their abortion stories to Helsingin Sanomat with their own names and pictures, helping us all to understand how multifaceted the issue really is, and giving a glimpse into the myriad of reasons why a woman may decide to abort, and how it may make her feel.
There are some indications of similar opening up in relation to rape – at least in the United States if not here. Hollywood actress and political hopeful Ashley Judd has talked in public about being a rape victim. A brave woman called Tucker Reed went even further: Not only did she reveal the story of how she got raped by her boyfriend, but actually publicly named the rapist as well. I would recommend Reed’s story to anyone, it might help you understand how “mundane” rape can really be, and why a woman might not even always first realise, let alone accept, that she has been raped.
There is a continuum from harassment to sexual assault to rape, which is why the Everyday Sexism Project that Ioana linked in a comment to an earlier rant is so important in more ways than one. I do believe there could well be a bit of a “broken windows” phenomenon going on here. It is not called rape “culture” for no reason –not because everyone rapes but because the culture that condones harassment and takes women’s bodies to be public property is likely to increase rape and its tolerance.
Assault, rape and abortion can be tragedies and deeply personal experiences, which is why nobody should be forced to talk about them. However, to the extent that someone WANTS to talk about them, whether to get sympathy from their loved ones, contribute to public debate or help others in similar situations, it is very important that they not be shamed into silence.
It is of course easy to encourage others to talk about their experiences, but shut up about one’s own. So here is my story:
I was living in Paris at the time, walking home late at night from a night club. At some point a man started chatting to me and I did not wish to appear rude, so initially responded. He wanted to continue the conversation and began making propositions. I declined, first politely, then more insistently. He followed me. He trailed me all the way to my building, and when I firmly told him to piss off, he made a lunge for the door and forced his way in before I could pull it properly shut. He attacked me in the atrium. We struggled for a while, but once he realised he was not getting anywhere, or it was going to be a lot of hassle and I could well wake up the neighbours with my yelling, he gave up his original idea, snatched my bag and was back out the door before I could properly realise what had even happened. Although I got away physically mostly intact, with only some minor bruises and scratches, I was surprised at the intensity of the anxiety attacks I was subject to later, and how long after the original event those kept coming back following some trigger events.
Many of you have heard the story of this attack ... But probably the version that has focused on the robbery, and omitted the fact that it was actually first and foremost an attempted rape. I now find it hard to explain why I almost automatically erased that part of the story. I no longer feel any need or desire to do that.
Yes, I was walking home alone in a big city late at night. Yes, I answered when a stranger spoke to me. Yes, I continued straight home although he was following me. No, I am not to blame for being sexually assaulted and I will be damned if I let that asshole, or anyone like him, make me change my behaviour.