This article is written from a heterosexual female perspective, which in no way implies that people of any other gender or sexual orientation can’t be sexually assaulted or silenced.
It’s also worth noticing that when oppressed people – women, transgender, non-heterosexual, non-caucasian, disabled people, etc. – are silenced, discrimination is behind it. Sexual assault and the silencing related to it are used as tools of oppression against certain groups of people.
Finally, a person can belong to more than one oppressed group. The more oppressed groups one belongs to, the more likely they are to experience violence and silencing related to it (for instance a white woman is more likely to be believed than a black woman is when it comes to sexual assault).
Sexual assault is not an easy topic to talk about. Most people prefer to avoid talking or hearing about it. Those who do hear about it directly from survivors often end up silencing them, even if they mean no harm. Silencing occurs because people don’t want to accept the fact that survivors know more about sexual assault than anyone else, having experienced it first hand. The experts on any event are those who lived it.
Nobody struggles to accept that a person who has been playing tennis knows more about tennis than one who has never played tennis in their life. It’s also easily understood how a person who was attacked by a mountain lion knows more about animal attacks than one who hasn’t.
Nobody would even consider telling someone who was attacked by a mountain lion if they’re absolutely 100% sure they were attacked by a mountain lion. Nobody would question, deny or minimize it. As you can guess, this doesn’t apply to sexual assault.
In a society were terms like rape culture and objectification of women exist, it’s easy to imagine why women are not believed in general, not to mention when they’re talking about sexual assault. They are considered less than rational human beings and as such an unreliable source on anything, whether they lived it or not.
But those who silence female survivors are the irrational ones, because they believe that they know what sexual assault is and how it takes place better than a woman who (unfortunately) experienced it, due to their field of expertise or perceived authority or superiority. But, since they were never sexually assaulted, they can’t possibly understand sexual assault better than a woman who went through it – no matter what their field of expertise is.
They might have read articles, definitions (legal, scientific or clinical ones), even entire books or manuals on the topic. They still won’t know any better than a woman who lived it. No matter how many books a tennis expert read on tennis, since they never played tennis, they can’t understand it better than a tennis player.
Imagine someone who never played tennis telling a tennis player “look, I’ve read a number of manuals on this topic, your definition of tennis is wrong, you are only looking for attention, what you were playing was not tennis”. How ridiculous does that sound? Non-survivors who lecture survivors about sexual assault are just as ridiculous. Non-survivors can be policemen, psychiatrists, therapist, judges, lawyers who fail survivors due to a mixture of ignorance, narcissism, entitlement and discrimination.
In a world were discrimination is institutionalized and the oppressors feel entitled to speak about things they have no clue about, it’s important to remember that you are the only reliable source on what happened to you, no matter who is silencing you and what their professional background is.
Silencing, especially when discrimination and entitlement are behind it, is very harmful. It’s oppressing and traumatizing, like the violence itself. It tells survivors that their reality isn’t true, their emotions are disproportionate, their thoughts are irrational and their opinions are unworthy of consideration.
This is why it is crucial to identify it when it takes place, in all its forms, and detach from it so it won’t affect you. If you know what you’re dealing with, you gain some power over it. If you can recognize it and observe it as a witness, then you won’t be subjected to it. So here are 5 common ways women can be silenced when they try to share their experiences of sexual assault.
Denial happens when a person refuses to accept something horrible that happened to them because it’s too painful. They’re “in denial”, they’re unwilling to accept what happened to them.
But here I’m talking about people who are unwilling to accept what happened to others. They say things on the lines of “you misinterpreted his actions, he was just trying to show you affection” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that” or “that’s not what it was, it was just miscommunication between you guys”.
This might sound like minimization, but it’s more oppressing than minimization. They’re not just downplaying your experience, they’re denying it; they’re saying it never happened. In short, it goes like this “I was sexually abused” – “no, you weren’t”.
This is different than victim blaming because they’re not blaming the victim, they’re erasing the victim. The victim doesn’t exist because the crime doesn’t exist – except it does, of course.
Others allow the possibility that you might be right, but not so fast. They don’t seem to think you’re completely wrong, but they don’t like the way you’re telling your story and they want to adjust it.
They say things like “sometimes we receive attention we are not ready to receive yet”. They’re not saying it wasn’t sexual assault just yet, but they’re not accepting your words nor validating your experience. They’re adjusting your story and substituting your words with creative euphemisms.
Sexual assault is nothing like unwanted attention. Where “unwanted attention” is annoying and disrespectful behavior and can be abusive and unlawful (stalking for instance), sexual assault is a severe violation of a person’s human and legal rights, their personal boundaries and their bodies.
Sexual assault is a crime, and it’s not caused by the desire to give someone attention, it’s caused by the self-serving goal to exert one’s power over someone else in order to reaffirm one’s perceived superiority.
This one is very funny. Like it happens with minimization, here our interlocutor is not explicitly denying what happened to us, but they’re doing so in a subtle way.
They say things like “but did he overpower you?”, “did you fight?”, “did he leave bruises on you”, “did you willfully go to his place?” – note that these are all questions, because it’s like they’re implying “ok maybe you’re right about what happened to you, but only if x, y, z are true”. They’re willing to believe you but only if certain conditions are met. And guess who gets to pick those conditions? They do.
But it’s not for them to decide, it’s not their story, and they’re ignorant on the topic.
In reality, sexual assault happens even when x, y and z do not (in fact, in most cases, they don’t) because:
- In the face of trauma, people often freeze and therefore their perpetrator won’t need to overpower them;
- Sexual assaults can happen without physical violence – and even if there is physical violence, there might not be physical signs of a fight;
- Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by partners, friends or acquaintances, people whom the survivor trusts enough to willfully go to their place, and there is no way to tell if someone is a sexual predator or not.
4. Victim Blaming
Discrimination plays a big role in this. If you belong to any oppressed group, good luck with this type of investigator. They say, for instance: “was he drunk?”, “were you drunk?”, etc.
- It doesn’t matter if he was drunk or not, because he was conscious enough to make the decision to sexually assault you. Plus, studies show alcohol doesn’t make people more physically or sexually aggressive, it simply lowers their inhibition. This means that one can’t become aggressive after consuming alcohol, they can only feel more free to behave accordingly to their nature due to their lowered inhibition. Low inhibition does not cause sexual assault, being a misogynistic sexual predator does.
- The fact that you might have been drunk only matters to determine your lack of consent, and in no way it makes you responsible for the assault. You’re not responsible and you’re not guilty because you are not the person who committed the action, your perpetrator is. Alcohol can make you ineligible to give consent, it can’t make you responsible for the actions of others.
It’s funny how these people claim that if you were drunk then alcohol makes you guilty but if they were then alcohol justifies them. Isn’t it apparent that they’re just looking for a way to blame you?
This sounds a lot like gaslighting. They’re trying to hide the truth and confound you.
“People are complicated”, “these situations are tricky”, “these things are hard to define”, “young people don’t understand certain things” (meaning they’re justified if they sexually assault you, because it’s youth it’s not misogyny).
But teenagers can and do sexually assault other people and being underage doesn’t justify them. Plus the whole it’s hard to define / people are complicated nonsense makes me think about the song “Blurred Lines”.
The lines are very definite. They made a very clear decision that they were lucid enough and old enough to make. I can’t conceive how someone can be too young to understand consent but not too young to make the decision to sexually assault another human being. They were not “just too young”, they were just too selfish, too misogynistic, too entitled, they were simply awful people.