Combatting sexual violence: challenge the culture in court and in our communities
One thing is clear from the widespread allegations currently tearing through Hollywood: sexual harassment and violence is endemic. The brave women who broke through a culture of secrecy and silencing to disclose their experiences of abuse have sparked a global conversation.
But changing that culture isn’t easy. Liberty is intervening in the case of DSD and NBV – two victims of ‘black cab rapist’ John Worboys – who is thought to have sexually assaulted or raped more than 100 women between 2002 and 2008.
Due to the Metropolitan Police’s failure to properly investigate reports of his crimes, the dots weren’t connected and he continued his attacks for years. But now the police are arguing they should be under no legal obligation to properly investigate such serious crimes.
In the coming weeks the Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling in this crucial case for victims’ rights – and effectively decide whether reports of sexual assault should be taken seriously by police.
Beyond the courtroom, when public bodies and culture-shaping industries fail sexual violence survivors it’s crucial we create safer, sympathetic environments in our own communities – as well as holding the powerful to account.
I recently took part in Women’s Aid’s Ask Me training, which aims to do just that by giving people the tools they need to challenge myths and stereotypes, and respond to concerns from their communities.
During the training we spoke about misogyny as the soil from which sexual violence and domestic abuse grows. We covered gender discrimination, the emotional and psychological aspects of abuse, and the dangers of leaving an abusive relationship – but also the many support networks available.
We learned to recognise how perpetrators can threaten their partners by creating financial dependence, isolating them from their networks, or wielding male privilege like a weapon. When we normalise scrutiny of survivors’ behaviour – questioning why they didn’t “just leave” – we miss the point.
Women’s Aid showed us how important it is to understand how women can be doubly or trebly disadvantaged according to race, class or disability – especially given the strength of a largely white, heterosexual patriarchy.
Sexual violence is primarily viewed through the lens of heterosexual relationships, which can result in other experiences – especially LGBT+ voices – being side-lined.
There are challenges specific to LGBT+ communities. Transgender women are statistically the most vulnerable to gender-based violence. Perpetrators can rely on societal homophobia to deter victims from speaking out, and there are fewer services that cater to all genders and sexualities.
Tools for change
But we have the tools to challenge our broken system. There are many refuges and charities supporting survivor recovery and encouraging systemic change. And the Human Rights Act is a vital instrument for sexual violence survivors to seek justice in court – upholding, to the Met’s disappointment, the obligation police have to investigate their reports.
The seemingly global backlash against women being empowered – or even having an opinion online – is a stark reminder that power is not easily relinquished.
Sexual violence is one of the most appalling symbols of our distorted, male-dominated world. But schemes such as Ask Me can provoke conversations at a local level and help to create an environment where survivors feel better able to talk about their experience.
By challenging injustice and speaking out in our communities, we can all help to create a culture where they will be understood and believed.
Services and support
Rape Crisis have a free helpline open every day between 12pm and 2.30pm, and between 7pm and 9.30pm: 0808 802 9999
Galop is an anti-violence LGBT charity and runs a national LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
Southall Black Sisters have a helpline open Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 9.30am and 4.30pm: 0208 571 0800