Some women don’t realise they are sexually assaulted until later due to internalised sexism, writes Louisa Adjoa Parker

Reframing sexual violence

Louisa Adjoa Parker is our guest blogger for April

An entry in my 1980s diary reads: “X tried to make me have sex with him again today… I had to fight him off, really hard!!”

I was fourteen. He was one of the local boys I’d ‘get off’ with. Sometimes I wasn’t entirely willing – as an insecure teenager of mixed heritage, I’d internalised racist and sexist beliefs to the point where any male attention felt flattering.

In my thirties I messaged X, mentioning the racist abuse he put me through. He said, “Sorry if I offended you”. I didn’t mention the sexual abuse because it was only in my mid-forties that I finally understood: he had attempted to rape me.

The realisation dawned after watching Louis Theroux’s documentary Looking back at Jimmy Savile. One of Savile’s victims only understood what had happened to her when she heard other victim’s stories. Another viewed the assaults as just “what men do”. I understood then that women sometimes don’t recognise sexual assault and tuck their experiences deep inside themselves.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I know women who have been raped and sexually assaulted and I don’t consider myself a victim. What happened to me seemed so much a part of everyday life that it only hurt when I reflected on it decades later.

In order to survive in a patriarchal society, we sometimes swallow toxic beliefs about ourselves. We are conditioned not to “make a fuss”. Girls are taught to avoid “creepy” men, to dress a particular way and not to be out alone at night. The responsibility is on us, because men, presumably, are wild animals unable to resist their desire for female flesh.

It can feel as though our bodies don’t belong to us: they are policed by men who rate our worthiness based on how they perceive our attractiveness. We are fat-shamed, slut-shamed and sexually harassed. It is understandable, therefore, that we might not recognise an assault for what it is or not tell anyone about it if we do.

According to Rape Crisis England & Wales’ headline statistics 2015-16, approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. One in five women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence.

It is widely known, however, that sexual violence is underreported and crime statisticians estimate that the real numbers are about six times the amount reported to the police.

Conviction rates for rape are low: in 2015-16 just 7.5% of recorded allegations led to a conviction. A woman might go through the painful process of reliving what happened when coming forward but the perpetrator is likely to walk free. It might be easier to try and forget or even to not properly recognise the assault in the first place.

So how can we reframe sexual violence? We can run campaigns such as Reframe (Colorado State University, 2015) which aimed to get the community thinking and acting differently to help end sexual violence. We can teach young people about consent and provide people with skills to respond to problematic behaviours.

We can avoid language which underplays abuse such as “kiddy fiddling”, “perv” or “a bit rape-y” – this reinforces the idea that sexual assault is not worth taking seriously. “Date rape” implies that because the woman knew or willingly met the perpetrator, the assault was not as bad as stranger rape. Sexual assault should not be graded. We need to say it how it is, not shy away from uncomfortable truths.

Our stories can be shared safely. Last year in response to Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” recording, US author Kelly Oxford started the #NotOkay Twitter campaign, asking for women’s first sexual assault stories. She received over a million responses in one evening. Some of these women created new Twitter accounts to share their stories anonymously. As far as I am aware, this has not yet been replicated in the UK.

We need to have honest conversations about our experiences, even if this is painful. Sharing our stories and recognising that it wasn’t OK and wasn’t our fault can empower us and help us to heal. The only person responsible for a sexual assault is the person who commits the offence, but we can change the way we think about such violence and recognise it for what it is.

Image by Maja Karlsson, from Unsplash. Used under Creative Commons Zero licence.

Image is of a woman standing against a brick wall, slightly obscured by the shadow of a tree. She wears a black baseball cap that covers her eyes. She is looking to the right of the frame as if staring at something we can’t see