When Evan Rachel Wood, the star of the HBO series Westworld, chose to reveal this week that she had been raped on two occasions, the words that she used were telling. "Well, since everything is out in the open now, figured I would share the confession letter I wrote to @RollingStone in its entirety. #NotOk," she tweeted, alongside an image of the email.
In it the 29-year-old describes how she was raped first by someone she was in a relationship with and the second time by “the owner of a bar”. She wasn’t sure at the time if the first incident was rape or if anyone would believe her. “And the second time, I thought it was my fault, and that I should have fought back more, but I was scared.”
She writes: “I think, like a lot of women, I had the urge to not make it a sob story, to not make it about me.” She goes on to talk about how “the trauma of a few minutes can be turned into a lifetime of fighting for yourself. It’s not that you can’t get over it, it’s just that you are never the same, or maybe I just haven’t got there yet.”
If you want to know whether a rape culture really exists, stop and consider those words. “Confession.” “Sob story.” “I thought it was my fault.” “I should have fought back.”
Those are the words of a woman brought up in a society that stigmatises sexual assault, minimises women’s experiences of abuse, and conditions victims to feel complicit. When we talk about the effects of the “rape culture” on women those words, right there, are what we mean.
Even more sobering than Wood's belief that she is the one who has something to "confess" was the way her revelation was received by its original recipient, Rolling Stone magazine. Reading her words in their entirety, it is all too evident that it cost her heavily to write them. Indeed, her next tweet thanked people for their support and announced that she would be taking a break from social media. (The break was over in 24 hours, but more about that in a moment.)
And yet, in the Rolling Stone story – beneath a headline that refers to her "wild past, personal demons" – her experience of rape is reduced to a parenthesis in the middle of a long section chronicling her bisexuality. In a story of 2,400 words it does not even get a paragraph of its own.
Alex Morris writes about Wood’s sexuality and a past suicide attempt, and notes that she is circumspect about “physical, psychological and sexual abuse” that she suffered, before adding: “(She was less circumspect when she e-mailed me the day after the presidential election. ‘Yes,’ she wrote. ‘I’ve been raped. By a significant other while we were together. And on a separate occasion, by the owner of a bar . . . I don’t believe we live in a time where people can stay silent any longer. Not given the state our world is in with its blatant bigotry and sexism.’)”
Playing it down
Morris may have just been at a loss how to handle something so profound. She probably meant well, and she may have believed that the kinder approach was to play it down.
But having it played down is the reaction that anyone who has been in that situation dreads most. You finally work up the courage to tell your story. You say, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this.” You say you don’t “want to be accused of doing this for attention”. You add, almost apologetically, as Wood did, that you’re actually “still not okay” and that it was “Bad. Shit. That still affects me to this day.”
But what you really mean is: "This is a big deal to me, and I want it to be a big deal to you too." And then your words land, and the first person to hear them doesn't seem to think it is a big deal; at least, less of a deal than your sexuality, the fact that you are a single mom or that you once dated Marilyn Manson.
Nobody wants to be defined by their experience of rape or sexual assault, but I am pretty sure that nobody wants it reduced to a parenthesis either. That is #NotOk.
The subsequent response to her tweet shows, thankfully, that the vast majority of people agree that being raped is a big deal, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and that it should not, as she says in her letter, be swept under the rug. Is it any wonder, though, that so many people do not report, or ever talk about, their experiences of rape and abuse? Or, if they do report, that they mostly choose to remain anonymous?
Heroic Irish women
The fact that the Irish court system offers the right of anonymity to survivors of rape and abuse acknowledges the stigma they are still assumed to suffer. In recent times, however, a handful of – frankly, heroic – Irish women have been waiving that right, allowing their abusers to also be named.
These include, over the past year alone, the courageous Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill, who went public after her rapist, a 26-year-old former boyfriend named Magnus Meyer Hustveit, was originally given a suspended sentence. (It was raised, on appeal, to 15 months.) Seeing other people’s outrage, she later said, “validated what I did. That what he did was wrong, that I had been hurt.”
And Amy Forde, who waived her right to anonymity so that her abuse, 24 years ago, by an uncle, the now 40-year-old IT worker Damien Farrell, when she was just eight, could be made public. She told the court that she was now “old enough and strong enough to stand up for myself”. Farrell got a noncustodial sentence of two years, suspended for three.
And Rachel McCauley, who was abused over two years in her teens by Richard Blackburn, an evangelical Christian youth worker, in Co Donegal. Blackburn was sentenced to two years in jail, with the last year suspended.
Thanks to women like these, and others who have done the same thing internationally, including Evan Rachel Wood, that stigma may finally be beginning to lift. When the Canadian blogger Kelly Oxford recently asked women on Twitter to tell their stories with the hashtag #NotOkay she received thousands of replies, at the rate of 50 a minute for 14 hours.
There was a gratifying postscript on social media to Wood's story, for those of us in despair about the lack of accountability for rape culture. A day after crying off Twitter Wood was back in fighting form, having apparently spotted a sympathetic story about her on the Perez Hilton gossip website.
“My @PerezHilton, how times have changed huh? From 8 years ago to now. I guess everyone is capable of change. #fistbump,” she tweeted, attaching an image of a story Hilton had written about her in 2008 that referred to her as “our favourite little whore”.
Within two minutes Hilton had tweeted a sheepish reply from his personal account: “I’m definitely thankful for growth and definitely sorry for all the hurt my past immaturity caused others.”
Nice one, Evan Rachel.