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Disquieting Sexual Violence’s Silencing Effects

By Prof. Jennifer Brown, co author of Revealing Rape’s Many Voices

This blog argues that we need improve investigative and prosecutorial practices in order to better support the many people implicated in rape’s hidden sphere of harm and the silencing of victims.

Silencing is a key feature of rape. The act of silencing has been reflected in literature for centuries, including in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It tells the story of King Tereus who rapes and abandons his wife’s sister Philomena, cutting out her tongue so as to silence her from revealing what happened. Similarly in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the fate of Lavinia is even worse. At the end of Act 2, she enters with the stage directions: ravished, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out. Her rapists, Chiron and Demetrius, taunt her: “So, now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak, Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.” In both stories, the rapists deprived the victim of her voice. 

A modern, less violent version of this is in the attempts by those accused of rape to silence the alleged victim by suing them. In a UK case, Hay versus Cresswell, Nina Hay wrote a blog naming her attacker Billy Hay who then sued her for libel. The judge found that on the balance of probabilities Hay had assaulted Nina and there was a permissible public interest defence in her speaking out about what had happened. 

Beyond considering the victim, it is important to consider the thoughts, actions and feelings of the many others caught up in rape’s tsunami effects. As Jan Jordan says whilst traditionally being raped was considered shameful and so unspeakable, it is still so today. The silencing begins with the rapist’s efforts to ignore the victim during the attack and threatening them not to reveal what has happened. Often fear of disclosure or retaliation are reasons for not reporting a rape. 

If a case of rape is reported, then a police response of disbelief can result so that the complainant feels so invalidated that they may cease their engagement. Fear of being judged may result in failure to disclose or minimising prior behaviours such as drinking alcohol before the rape. Jordan speaks of a silencing spiral because such omissions fuel police scepticism. The suspect too may feel shame, although often being unacknowledged they can create displaced anger and indignation at being accused.

If a case gets to court, then complainants often find themselves both dominated and disqualified from telling their story in their own words and pace, by virtue of the adversarial process. Moreover, the victim, now as a witness to the crime, finds herself subjected to innuendo or blame for her own assault and is assailed by rape myths which seek to attribute culpability to her and exonerate the defendant. 

Rape myth also imply that only some kinds of women get raped thereby introducing the idea of more or less deserving victims. Sometimes referred to as the ‘missing white girl syndrome’, this speaks to the racial disparities that characterise some rapes and attacks exemplified by complaints made by Mina Smallman contrasting the treatment of her daughters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry with that of Sarah Everard. This demonstrates that not all victims are equal in that those with mental health vulnerabilities or from sexual preference minorities are subject to a lack of professional curiosity, as in the case of Stephen Port whose victims were young gay men.

Supporting a victim is also challenging. In the speech of Marcus in Titus Andronicus, he says when confronted with the raped Lavinia: “O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast/That I might rail at him to ease my mind!” This epitomises what many partners, parents and friends feel when trying to comfort a loved one who has been raped. They often don’t know what to say or how to deal with their feelings of impotent anger. 

Our book, Revealing Rape’s Many Voices, is not a counsel of despair given that rape is so difficult to investigate and prosecute. Instead it outlines innovations such as restorative justice alternatives, specialist support for male and LGBTQ+ victim/survivors and describes new initiatives like Operation Bluestone Soteria that that may just improve investigative and prosecutorial practices in order to better support the many people implicated in rape’s hidden sphere of harm, and to disquiet sexual violence’s silencing effects.

Jennifer Brown is a visiting professor at the Mannheim Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. She recently co-edited a second edition of Rape: Challenging Contemporary Thinking (Routledge).