Slutcamp thoughts: the psychology of rape and victim blaming and the need for a Birmingham rape crisis centre

Birmingham Slutcamp

Yesterday, in the drizzle, a group of women and men stood together in solidarity for Birmingham slutcamp. It was a scaled down event after the council refused permission for a march, but for those who came along it was an emotional event with some excellent speeches from a variety of different walks of life, including psychotherapy, sex work, the arts and education. There were many more unable to make it who stood with us in spirit, but as the speakers outlined the overarching message of the day – “the radical notion that no-one ever deserves to be raped” – I found myself wondering why thousands more were not stood there with us.

Beyond those who could not make it due to other commitments (and of course there were more of these once the council cut the march because the window it took place in shrunk significantly), those who agreed with the message but had issues with the delivery, and those who really are apathetic to any form of protest, there is a real unpleasant underbelly of victim blaming in our culture and this, the reason behind the movement in the first place, was I suppose also the reason why we weren’t filling the square or even the city with our anger at the injustice of the guilt and shame heaped onto rape survivors from the very society which should be helping them to pick themselves up.

So, where does it come from? Standing there in the rain it occurred to me that I haven’t up to this point spent much time thinking about the psychology of victim blaming, but this really needs to be understood if we are ever to make those who choose deafness listen to our painful but important message.

There are two main cognitive problems in the way we as a society think about and try to make sense of rape. The first, which is perhaps a simpler problem, is that we misunderstand the psychological purpose of rape, believing that it is about sexual desire when it is actually about power. This is where non-evidence based stereotypes of confused rapist comes from. To clarify, rape does of course involve sex and arousal, but that arousal comes from act of overpowerment itself rather than, beyond a surface level, the characteristics of the victim. This is why we have huge levels of male rape in prison – it is not that the perpetrators are suddenly able to experience homosexual urges in the absence of female company, but rather that they seek to overpower and humiliate their victim. We do our rape survivors a huge disservice in not recognising that this is not in any way different from rape on the outside.

The other main mistake in victim blaming basically comes from what is called an attribution error. Attribution is the psychological process by which we seek to make sense of the world, particularly in terms of understanding the motives and reasons behind other people’s behaviour. The error comes from a human tendency to try to uphold a belief in a “just world” – a defensive form of thinking where we see all events as having an understandable but more importantly avoidable cause. This kind of thinking helps to navigate the moral complexities of modern life but also provides a defensive cushion from what would otherwise be a world full of risk. It gives the psychological resources to live life as if we are protected from the ever present possibility of unfair suffering. In the case of rape, people take the mental shortcut where dressing in a certain way (which is within the survivor’s control) is elevated as a causal factor up there with the psychology of the rapist (which obviously is not). This way, if we buy the “dress sensibly” argument instead of doing any deeper thinking on the matter we are psychologically protected from the real and terrifying truth that we, our daughters, our sisters, our wives and mothers (and of course all the male equivalents) are actually vulnerable to rape.

Unfortunately this type of thinking and arguing, which ignores the statistical evidence that most are raped in their homes, that women who do wear sensible clothes are just as vulnerable from “classic jump out from a bush rape” (or whatever the lovely description was), that, as was addressed by Salma Yaqoob, one of the speakers yesterday, rape is just as big a problem in countries where women wear the veil as it is over here, has real and terrible psychological consequences for others. Real consequences which I have heard in the stories of women who have shared their stories with me this week – real people. Women like you and me. Women like those who fought their tears to stand with real courage in Centenary Square yesterday against a culture which excuses their attackers.

When someone affected by this “just world” thinking makes an argument that women should dress “defensively”, that if only they stopped giving out these signals rapists would no longer be confused (poor confused rapists) and be able to control their urges, they add to a huge cultural reserve of very similar arguments, and reinforce a strong (if not dominant) belief about rape that reaches out and strikes survivors when they are most vulnerable. Although a lot of majority thinking is often based on mental short-cuts like the just world belief, we are evolved to be social creatures so majority arguments are often very difficult to resist mentally. And so we end up with rape survivors internalising the belief that they are somehow to blame, that they somehow confused their attackers – the 15 year old who blames herself for wearing a mini-skirt after she is raped by her friend – and have nowhere to turn. We end up with mirrors of doubt and uncertainty from family, from friends – the very people survivors would normally turn to in times of stress often look on with disapproval and disbelief, and so the support network which another crime might invoke crumbles. And lastly and just as damagingly, we continue to muddy the waters in terms of how rape is understood to the people who potentially could carry it out. We perpetuate the belief in society that not all rape is straight-forward, that there are grey areas, that sometimes women (or men) really are asking for it, providing the rapist with some self-justification which allows him to live with and repeat his act. Herd thinking is dangerous exactly for this kind of reason.

So, there are difficult challenges ahead in terms of breaking down this kind of thinking. Attribution errors are very resistant to change, because they provide a foundation of sense in terms of the way the world is understood. Change would lead to a whole reevaluation of core beliefs, and would leave the individual in a place of uncertainty and fear. I don’t have any answers as to how to tackle this, and while we can all continue to work on putting arguments out there that look at the evidence and the actual experience of rape, these are very easy to dismiss when one’s whole sense of well-being is otherwise at stake. One very important concrete thing to come out of yesterday is a group of committed individuals determined to lobby for a Birmingham rape crisis centre. A crisis centre to provide the backing that society strips from our survivors, to help them deal with the psychological after-effects of assault, by giving them the understanding and support mentally and legally that they deserve. In a time of economic uncertainty rape crisis centres are under threat but we absolutely have to stand up for survivors. It is really the very least we can do.

(link to working group here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Slutwalk-Birmingham-Working-Group/219502104750358?sk=wall)

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