Rape survivor: George Hook’s words are part of a wider problem
We need to change how we speak about sexual violence, writes Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill
Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill: I find myself compelled to address the issues
Two years ago, my case came to prominence after my ex-boyfriend Magnus Meyer Hustveit was given a seven-year suspended sentence despite admitting to several counts of my rape and sexual assault. I waived anonymity and gave numerous media interviews on the case and on my experience of the court system and rape culture in Ireland.
On appeal, Magnus received a 15-month sentence, and was released earlier this year, having served 11 months of his sentence. In the meantime, I returned to study and completed a psychology degree. I am currently working in mental-health research.
Over the past year I considered but held off from writing a piece about how victims or survivors of rape are treated. I kept reasoning that “now wasn’t the right time”. With the recent George Hook furore – where the broadcaster sought to attribute blame to the victim of a recent rape case in the UK and subsequently apologised for his comments – I found myself compelled to address the issues.
I don’t want to make this about Hook himself, but I would like to address some aspects I find frustrating from my own experiences of being a “victim” or a survivor in the public eye. I offer these thoughts as someone who has since worked and carried out extensive research in the area of sexual violence.
There are several adjectives bestowed on victims of sexual violence in media by people who don’t know them, and for the most part, have little understanding of the complex issues of trauma, or the resulting distress of sexual violence.
I categorise this as the “homogeneity of victimhood” in the media. It occurs when the same set of hackneyed descriptions of individuals who have experienced sexual abuse/violence are trotted out each time a new case is discussed.
These people who tell their stories, for the most part women, are brave and often articulate. They give heart-rending accounts of their experiences.
And yet when they do, they must put up with commentary that suggests they are as culpable as their assailants. Or that they could have prevented their attack. They are told they are promiscuous – as if there is a type of sex that naturally leads to one being raped. They are told in many different ways that, basically, they asked for it.
In the space of a few sentences in a newspaper article, the identity of the person at the centre of that article is suddenly bound up in another person’s actions.
From what I’ve observed, those found guilty or rape or assault are less likely to be referred to as sex offender or rapist while those who allege assault are readily called a victim. This shows how uncomfortable we are labelling a person based on their actions and how much easier we find it to label someone’s distress or trauma: the victim.
I’ve heard other individuals speaking about their experiences of sexual violence in the media, recounting again, and again, and again the details of the moment they were raped.
I have myself, during interviews, been duped into recalling again the moment when I realised what Magnus had done, despite making clear that I no longer wished to speak about that part of my experience. I have found myself trying to convince a TV show’s researcher that I had so much more to discuss and that I could hold my own with other professionals.
As part of my research, I was keen to know what individuals who have experienced abuse or violence need when they disclose their experiences. The resounding answer from every participant was “belief”. Those who disclose abuse have often had the experience of not being believed and many do not disclose an assault because of the same fear.
They also fear facing a barrage of never-ending questions that those who disclose experiences of abuse and violence endure:
“Did you say no?”
“Did you push them off?”
“What were you wearing?”
“Why would you go back with someone you don’t know?”
“Did you really not wake up?”
These questions aren’t ones that require answers: they are rhetorical. The questions themselves are laden with judgment. They are designed to push people into silence: “You were responsible; it was your fault.”
They are not questions. They are statements. What the questioner actually means is “I don’t believe you”. They are questions that betray a complete lack of compassion or understanding.
This line of questioning – entitled and forensic – often seems the only way we know to talk about sexual violence. It’s the rhetoric gleaned from court reports and TV dramas, even though, as is well documented, many victims will never actually access the courts.
The now out-dated Sexual Abuse and Violence report (SAVI) carried out in 2002 told us that a meagre 6 per cent of adults who had been abused, and 8 per cent of those who had experienced abuse in childhood, reported it to gardaí.
Why are society and the media – both for the most part populated by people who have neither training nor experience in trauma or abuse – at liberty to ask such questions?
In my view the general public are not entitled to the details of individual sexual-assault experiences. The public via the media are privileged to be given any access at all. And such disclosures must be treated with due respect.
The media can play a vital role in constructing a new narrative. Understandably, discussing rape and sexual assault is hard, and so is the challenge of forging this new narrative. This is where guidelines informed by services and by those who have experienced sexual abuse are important.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s chief executive, Noeline Blackwell, has called for media guidelines on approaching the topic discussing sexual violence. I would strongly recommend that those who have experienced sexual violence be called upon as experts-by-experience in leading this work.
While George Hook’s comments were unwelcome at any time, perhaps they indicate both the need for guidelines on how to report on and discuss sexual violence, as well as the now dire need for a second SAVI report.
Apologies are not needed. Change is needed. Change in how we speak about sexual violence, change in how we discuss those who perpetrate the crimes, and change in how those affected are spoken to, and about.
We need to find new ways to talk about abuse and violence and be brave in facing issues that we find difficult.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre helpline is 1800 77 88 88 www.drcc.ie