So yesterday afternoon, I was idly browsing, and I came across the Mumsnet “We Believe You” campaign.
A Mumsnet survey revealed (as most similar surveys do) that a large number of respondents had experienced rape or sexual assault, but most (80%) had not reported it, through lack of confidence in the system or fear of being disbelieved, among the primary reasons.
I posted about the campaign, and then on Twitter @mmelindor noted that she hadn’t reported a sexual assault, and @andromedababe added that she had never reported breast-grabbing or hand-up-the-skirtage. Which got me thinking – how much are we NOT reporting? I started the #ididnotreport hashtag and the rest is history, recorded for posterity here and here.
I had no idea how powerful that would be. I had imagined that it was predominantly low-level street harassment which was not reported, but it wasn’t just this sort of abuse, that came up on that hashtag. Far more serious attacks go unreported.
Low level harassment
This is almost exclusively the preserve of women, the abuse that women get for being women. I think it has happened to all the women I know – the shouts from car windows, slapping your bottom as you cycle past, an ‘accidental’ grind on the tube, a grabbed breast – and although those things are all offences, we don’t report them because they’re “too minor” and because we didn’t get a good look at the guy who did it, and because the hassle of reporting it would be so great.
If we do think about reporting it, we’re “overreacting,” the abuser was “just trying to be nice.” It’s a compliment; so what?
One woman tweeted to say that depressingly, getting older and fatter meant she was more likely to get insults than leers – a sad reminder of how a woman’s worth is linked to male opinion of her fuckability, at the same time as some people feel it’s acceptable to pass comment on a stranger’s sex appeal.
I’ve categorised this as ‘low level harassment’ but it is all criminal behaviour. Making a woman feel threatened by actions or words is a s.5 public order offence. Grabbing a tit is sexual assault. And this is the stuff that goes totally unreported because it’s just accepted as part of life. Many men don’t even believe it happens; see the Guardian comments here. The reaction to that article was not horror at the fact that women get hassled in broad daylight on London streets in 2012, but a flat, blanket “we don’t believe you.”
It is of course a vicious circle: we don’t believe you because surely everyone would know if this sort of thing went on? There would be zillions of reports? And we don’t report because we are not believed.
It made me wonder: what would happen if, just for a month, or even a week, every woman who is intimidated or threatened or groped or grabbed or fondled or frightened by street harassment actually did report it? I imagine the criminal justice system would collapse. And would it remedy or intensify the culture of disbelief?
The #ididnotreport tag did not just include street harassment of women.
It also included accounts of child abuse, of rape, of assault on men, assaults on trans* people, assaults on sex workers. Numerous women tweeted to say they did not report because of a previous negative experience when they DID report. I was overwhelmed by the number of people sharing experiences of serious attacks which were not reported.
Interestingly, the primary reason given by men was also belief: that they felt nobody would believe that a man could be sexually assaulted. There were far, far fewer men using the tag – which I think probably reflects the gender bias in sexual assault generally – but those who did, were revealing serious assaults.
Women who had experienced serious assaults felt they would not be believed, blamed themselves for their own behaviour, or felt that there was no point reporting it.
It’s difficult to know where the system can start with supporting victims of sexual assault, but starting from a position of We Believe You would be a very good one.
There is a perception among survivors of sexual assault that the criminal justice system is the least likely to believe them, based on the 6% statistic. However, that’s a figure to be treated with care: while it is true that only 6% of cases reported to the police end in conviction (the attrition rate), the conviction rate is far higher – of those cases which are charged, 58% end in conviction, broadly in line with all other crimes. I’d urge readers to look at and support @_millymoo’s 58% campaign here.
There is obviously still a huge issue with the criminal justice system in that way too many cases are dropped before charge. The chances in percentage terms once a victim steps foot into a police station are low at 6%. But if the CPS can be persuaded to charge, the chances are much higher: an anomaly worth thinking about for those who are wondering whether to report or not.
On that note, it’s important to reflect on the fact that many of those who have contributed to #ididnotreport cited CPS or police attitude to a previous report as a reason they didn’t report another. Perhaps we should focus efforts on training at the police / CPS level as well as further up the system.
Ultimately, the police, the criminal justice system, and the juries are all made up of ‘normal’ people, normal people just like the commenters on Comment is Free who don’t believe survivors because they just don’t. Normal people just like the charmer who posted in #ididnotreport to say that he thought all these stories were “highly questionable.” Belief, or the fear of being disbelieved, are enormous factors – possibly the greatest factor – in the decision someone makes as to whether to report an attack or not.
And it’s not just Them (with a capital T) who have victim-blaming or denial mentalities about sexual assault: it’s Us. You can’t live in a rape culture all your life and not absorb some of the messages that Nice Girls Don’t Get Attacked, or that She Must Have Been Asking For It, or that Well She Was Quite Drunk.
Shame is the other side of the coin of disbelief, and it’s a powerful silencer. Victims quite often blame themselves and that is why it is doubly important that the message goes out that if you report – no matter who you are, how you were dressed, or what you’d been drinking – we believe you.