The disturbing expectation on how female rape victims should act

New research shows women are expected to behave a certain way during and after the assault in order to be believed.

New research shows women are expected to behave a certain way during and after the assault in order to be believed. Photo: Stocksy

Contains discussions of sexual assault

The 'perfect' rape survivor.  Who do we imagine she might be?

Did she fight? Did she co-operate with the police? Was she helpful and articulate when questioned? Or did she, like most humans after a life-altering trauma, simply freeze?  

It's a terrifying prospect, isn't it? The idea that a victim of violent assault has to behave a certain way to be believed.

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 Even in 2016, the media and -- by extension -- the wider society are so ready to blame victims for what happens to them. It's either the short skirts or the walking alone in the lead-up to the assault. That's the classic place victim blaming occurs. Did you lead him on? Why were you out alone? Weren't those clothes just asking for it?

But what's equally disturbing is that women also have to behave a certain way during and after the assault in order to be believed. It's not only the way you look which attracts judgment.

We are now one step closer to finding out what  the society thinks it takes for a rape victim to be believed, and for her perpetrator to be punished, thanks to groundbreaking research by Renata Bongiorno.

Bongiorno, a psychology academic at the University of Queensland, finally proves what we all feared in our hearts, that for women to be believed about sexual assault they have to do things which may not come naturally to them.

Firstly, they must struggle during the assault. And secondly, after the assault, these frightened women must fully cooperate with police. But as she says, research shows us that many women are far too traumatised and shocked to respond in that way.

These are the results from research which has just been published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, with colleagues Blake McKimmie and Barbara Masser.

As Bongiorno says, powerful stereotypes exist about how female rape victims should act. But they're unrealistic.

Karen Willis, the executive officer of  Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, could not be more blunt about the damage these stereotypes do.

"They want to see belted up women...if you don't have physical injury it's really difficult. People don't understand that these are two separate crimes  . . .  people want to see the evidence."

And she says being believed is even more difficult for women of colour,  for women who have a drug or alcohol issue, and for women who have a mental illness or an intellectual disability.

"If you can't speak terribly well and you don't daintily hold a tissue to your eye as you cry, you have no hope in hell. It's really difficult," she says.

What's even more depressing in Bongiorno's research is the revelation that a victim's failure to act in line with stereotypes matters most when the perpetrator is white. It' s here where there is a terrible intersection of sexism and racism.

A perpetrator from a western background was much more likely to be thought innocent by those in the study if his victim didn't physically resist. The same leniency was not shown to perpetrators whose backgrounds were culturally different.

The study asked participants, from a white Australian community background, to examine an incidence of sexual assault. The scenario was a work Christmas party. A man and a woman go back to a house after the party. In each scenario, the man was on a work visa – but his home country was different. In some he was from the UK or the US, in others he was from Pakistan or India. They caress and kiss and then she asks him to stop.

"This is where victims really struggle to get justice," says Bongiorno.

She goes back to the house after meeting him at a work Christmas party. They kiss and caress and she asks him to stop. But if she doesn't behave in that perfect way, if she doesn't struggle and fully cooperate with police, Bongiorno says, "that helps the western perpetrator the most".

"The only difference is that if you are 'good' victim, [they] will believe you. If you don't behave how you should, that will help a white man get off."

The mere concept that telling a perpetrator to stop will somehow make him stop infuriates Willis, "because the average sex offender is not really going to listen to that."

In her view, the continual judgment of women which always accompanies cases of sexual assault is "through the roof".

"People want to know if you kicked and struggled and kicked and bit. But women ring us and they say, 'I just froze'.

"And I tell them, 'You survived. You did exactly the right thing'."

Willis says the good news is that across Australia, police officers overwhelmingly reject the stereotypes.

"It's when it gets to court that the problems begin."

And as Bongiorno says, "We need to let people know that the use of these stereotypes is motivated. It's about protecting perpetrators 'like us'. We need to understand when these stereotypes are used in order to effectively challenge them."

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For support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Sexual Assault Support Service for crisis centres near you.