During high school, my best friend was raped by a close male friend. We were a group of 17 year olds, at a nature reserve drinking cheap wine, couples split off to ‘make out’, and she returned shaking, crying and incoherent.
The boy involved was sweet and bookish. It was extremely difficult for me to see him as a rapist. But I also knew that my best friend was not lying. She had stayed at my house after the rape and I had watched her, shaking, crying, curled into a ball, through the night.
The incident split our entire friendship group in two - those who believed her, and those who believed him. It was years later that I realised that both accounts were true.
My friend had told me how she had frozen, how she’d whispered no. The boy, awkward, insecure, confused about ‘being a man’, thought he had to do more.
My friend was raped. And I believe that the boy who raped her did not realise what he had done.
Experiences like this don’t fit legal definitions. There’s no avenue of justice to pursue. Rape causes harm because of what the experience means to victims, but, to be criminal, the experience must mean the same thing to the perpetrators. According to our legal system, these experiences of rape, so familiar to women and girls everywhere, are not ‘real’ rape.
What is real rape? Social definitions of sexuality lead to a belief that ‘real’ rape involves a woman being suddenly pounced upon by a stranger in a dark alley, which is in fact one of the more uncommon experiences of rape. Nonetheless, some years after high school, this was my experience.
One night, an itinerant, violent man grabbed me minutes away from my home. There were witnesses. The police were called. They treated me with absolute respect and empathy. There was security camera footage and hospital evidence. My experience was, for the most part, fully acknowledged by both the justice system and those around me – though one close male friend did interrogate me about what I had been wearing, and drinking (because perhaps, if the answers were not ‘a nun’s habit’ and ‘orange juice’, it was partly my fault after all.)
While my experience was physically and psychologically traumatic, and while, five years later, I am still aware of the daily impact it has on me, I often reflect on all the women I know and love whose experiences of sexual violence were not inflicted by a stranger in a dark alley, but by those they loved and trusted, in their own homes, their own bedrooms. The justice system was not open to them. Some had horrific experiences with police. Many were silenced and made to feel deep shame, confusion and personal guilt after being disbelieved. While it is impossible to compare experiences and harms, one thing that is clear is that they were denied the most critical step to healing, the step that made all the difference to me – acknowledgement .
The violence that one in three women across the world experience is not just caused by evil strangers in dark alleys. It is also caused by ‘normal’ men and boys. It is the product of a rape culture. A culture in which women are held responsible for male violence.
It is an act of violence when a woman in India goes to catch a bus home and is brutally gang-raped and murdered.
It is an act of violence when a woman tries to walk home along Sydney Road and is kidnapped, raped and murdered.
It is an act of violence when any woman is raped, or beaten, or coerced into sex.
And when rape survivors are denied justice by a legal system that convicts less than1% of rapists and that so often re-traumatises them, when a woman is made to feel personal responsibility of any kind for being raped, or when her experiences are delegitimised, these are acts of violence too.
A culture which encourages and normalises violence is bred when people or companies like Brian Mcfadden, Kanye West, Dolce and Gabbana, or FHM use violence, especially sexual violence, to promote their music or products.
It is bred when tabloid newspapers and radio shock-jocks churn out victim-blaming tirades.
When misogynist cartoonists attack our first female Prime Minister with violent, pornographic imagery.
It is bred when we normalise “getting her drunk” as an hilarious, ‘wink‐wink’ male manoeuvre to get sex, when we view pornography that promotes violence, when we use labels like ‘slut’, or if we say nothing when others do.
But violence against women is not an unchangeable reality. On February 14th, 2013, I will be joining a global campaign called One Billion Rising. I will stand, and shout, and dance, along with millions around the world, to say NO to violence against women – and NO to the culture that breeds it.
A movement has been building, and it has become big. A world where women have autonomy, choice and dignity is wholly possible. I believe that this is the world that the majority of the world’s citizens – the world’s women, girls and the men and boys who love us – want. But we need to become a vocal majority. We need to start calling, loudly and unrelentingly, for the realisation of that new world.
We’re talking about one in three women. I am that one in three. So are a third of the women that you love. Look around you. What could matter more?
Melanie Poole is the Parliamentary Advocacy Co-ordinator for CARE Australia and Secretariat Chair of the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development. Melanie is also a co-founder and board member of Vocal Majority. The views expressed above are her own.