I read this morning the BBC article by Nduka Orjinmo about campaigning by women in Nigeria for police, the state and the public to take seriously rape and sexual violence, and bring perpetrators to justice. The brutal rape and bludgeoning to death of 22-year old student, Uwavera Omozuwa, known as Uwa, is one of a number of cases in Nigeria in recent days.
Activists describe how reporting sexual violence and assault leads to stigmatisation for the victim. Police officers – reflecting public sentiment – will often blame victims for their dress or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, may seek to extort money and may themselves perpetrate rape.
Of course, blaming victims of sexual abuse and violence is not exclusive to Nigeria: it is the same the world over. “Rape myths are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women” (Lonsway and Fitzgerald 1994, p. 134). Edwards and colleagues (2011, p.761) identify and discuss rape myths in the United States such as, “husbands cannot rape their wives,” “women enjoy rape,” “women ask to be raped,” and “women lie about being raped”; similarly Ryan (2011, p.775) identifies the following rape scripts: “women invite rape by engaging in overtly sexual behaviour or wearing provocative dress; only certain women are raped—those who drink too much, sleep around, or hang out in the wrong places; […] women mean yes when they say no”. Rape myths circulate also around male victims and serve to undermine and silence their experience.
And so victims of rape can be reluctant to report and re-traumatised through the process when they do, since rape myths play out within justice structures and through state actors. Reforms have been made in England and Wales and elsewhere to improve police responses and adapt court processes, for example, but myths can persist in the narratives of defence and prosecution, in the closing comments of judges and in the minds of jury members.
In a meta-analysis of 37 studies, Suarez and Gadalla (2010) find that rape myth acceptance is not only, as we would expect, “strongly associated with hostile attitudes and behaviours toward women, but also correlated with other ““isms,” such as racism, heterosexism, classism, and ageism”.
And this is because, at root, myths about women, about race, about sexuality and so on, are about power. Those in power both lie about who their victims are, and blame their victims for their own abuse of power.
Women who speak up about sexual violence or sexism, for example, are dismissed by some as ‘fantasists’, ‘troublemakers’, ‘lacking a sense of humour’, ‘godless’, ‘immoral’, ‘feminists’, ‘ ‘talking too much’, ‘playing the victim card’, and so on.
I was struck by this in the coverage of those protesting the murder of George Floyd. Some sections of US media and politics referred collectively to protestors as, ‘anarchists’, ‘rioters’, ‘looters’, ‘left-wing agitators’ and ‘antifa’. The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia claimed on a front page on 5 June 2020, without evidence, that Black Lives Matter protesters had threatened “police command with spitting, inflammatory chanting and other forms of physical abuse” – before apologising and changing the story by mid-morning.
These myths serve to minimise and brush away the real story, which is abuse of power. These incidents of abuse are not a ‘repetition of history’ – there is an unbroken line of abuse of power against women, against Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, against those not complying with gender and sexuality expectations, and so on. And when these groups challenge abuse, they are blamed and undermined until the threat of their resistance to established power subsides.
It takes such tenacity, risk and heart to keep fighting for justice – more power to their breath in speaking out.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.