The expectations we have of women who are assaulted

Serena Williams.

Serena Williams. Photo: Getty

Serena Williams continues to be a trailblazer. In this week just gone, the tennis great demonstrated it's not only male sportspeople who sporadically act like lunkheads.

As an aside during an interview with Rolling Stone, the world No. 1 women's singles player, qualified nail technician and part-owner of the Miami Dolphins remarked, of a notorious Ohio rape case, that the 16-year-old victim ''shouldn't have put herself in that position''.

As you would imagine, an unholy uproar ensued, during which Williams, who is as well-known for her non-apology apologies as she is for her role as an occasional equal-opportunity boofhead, slouched out to apologise to the girl's parents for ''what I supposedly said''.

Nigella Lawson.

Nigella Lawson. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

For the girl at the centre of the Ohio case, who was hauled drunk and unconscious from party to party by a couple of footballers who photographed themselves molesting her and made jokes about urinating on her, Williams' comments weren't anything especially new - the small town in which the rapes occurred was deeply divided over the crime. Some felt the girl had invited trouble before the event and caused trouble after it for the perpetrators, both footballers of talent whose lives are pretty much ruined.


Physical and sexual assault against women is - globally - a common event. In a report released on Friday, based on interviews with 24,000 women, the World Health Organisation concluded that more than a third of all women will be physically or sexually abused at some point, usually by someone they know.

What is truly unusual about these crimes, though, is the extent to which, once committed, they tend to produce a rather unique secondary problem for the victim.

A woman assaulted by someone known to her is, in many cases, assaulted again by conflicting expectations. There is the expectation from the offender that she will forgive him/lighten up/stop provoking him. And there is the expectation from others that she will speak out/press charges/stand up for herself and victims everywhere.

How cosmically unfair it is that this double jeopardy - whatever she does will earn her contempt, or disappointment, or retribution from someone - occurs precisely when the victim is least able to cope with it, and might feel entitled, understandably, to a bout of trauma-induced irrationality or deep self-pity.

The expectations of others are often well-meaning.

When Melbourne radio presenter Dee Dee Dunleavy wrote, for instance, a stirring blog post on Monday about Nigella Lawson's apparent assault at the hands of her husband outside a London restaurant, she meant well.

''If you want us to buy your books and watch your shows on how to run our kitchens, then we need you to make a stand on domestic violence,'' Dunleavy instructed Lawson, in an open letter that has attracted substantial coverage in British media, already on red alert for Aussie DJ atrocities.

And in some ways Dunleavy is, of course, correct: Lawson is in an extraordinarily influential position, not only to confirm that physical confrontation can occur in any marriage, but to provide an inspirational example on how best to proceed when it does.

And if Lawson stays mum, no doubt it won't just be Dunleavy who is disappointed. In Britain, where the photographs of Charles Saatchi grabbing his celebrity chef wife's throat were first published, the quest for an explanation from the apparent throttler has been more than matched by the ferocity of the need for a response from the throttlee.

But what did Lawson ever do to invite this responsibility?

What victim of bag-snatch, arson, burglary or delinquent driving ever has to deal with this? This fierce expectation that - having suffered the offence itself - the target should then feel obliged to respond in the right way?

In the case of sexual assault, victims are, of course, often subjected to critique - explicit or implicit - of their behaviour before the offence, as well as after it.

Were they too drunk? Too provocatively clad? Too much of a sex worker?

Tom Meagher, who somehow surfaced through his grief and horror on Wednesday to speak about his late wife, Jill, after Adrian Bayley was sentenced for her rape and murder, reflected that most of Bayley's myriad prior convictions had been for raping prostitutes.

''I'll never be convinced that that had nothing to do with the leniency of his sentence,'' he told 7.30's Louise Milligan.

''[What that] says to people like Bayley is not 'don't rape', but 'careful who you rape'.''

What Meagher makes clear - with the strength and cogency that some victims of crime can manage, and others can't - is that culpability for rape and violence should, by definition, be a strictly limited affair.

And a third of the world's women would no doubt quietly agree.

Annabel Crabb is the host of Kitchen Cabinet, which returns to ABC1 from July 2. She tweets as @annabelcrabb


  • Leave serena williams alone!! she mad a valid point. Funny how if she was a man she would be called a "misogynist" by people like you. But I dont think she was blaming the victim; she just said you have to take necessary precautions.

    Date and time
    June 24, 2013, 10:21AM
    • Ahhh JordyBordy. You encapsulate with such brevity everything that is wrong with our patriarchal society.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 12:36PM
    • Pardon?

      How about expecting not to be raped? I should be able to go out to a party amongst my peers, drink my face off and not expect to be penetrated or pissed on. Am I an idealist or are you crazy? We cannot afford let let victims have their actions scrutinised any more. I would like the men who are raping people be held accountable for ruining peoples lives. Let us SHIFT the emphasis to "don't rape" rather than "be cautious about the potential for rape ladies".

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 12:41PM
    • Um, I don't think anyone ever thinks that an attacker is the innocent party; far from it. Look, as a guy (solidly built) there are a lot of things I would never do to reduce the risk of myself being assaulted. I ain't giving hitchhikers lifts; I ain't getting out of the car if I see someone lying face down on the road; and I avoid public transport late at night / early morning.
      Yes, a woman should be allowed to dance in her bikini on a deserted street at 2am, and I should be able to walk through Redfern with hundred dollar notes attached to my clothes. But we don't live in Utopia. Generally speaking, I think it's fair to tell people -- all people -- to take safety precautions. Of course it's also inappropriate to shove that nugget of wisdom in a victim's face fresh after they're attacked.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 2:21PM
    • What necessary precautions? If the victim of the Steubenville rape case had not been drinking at all but had suffered some medical issue that caused her to become unconscious the men who assaulted her would still have assaulted her. These cowards saw a fellow human being in trouble and decided that rather than assisting her get home, they would rape her, film the rape, upload the rape onto the internet and then brag about it to their super dooper friends. Not too many precautions you can take against evil cowardly men except never leave the house. Your silly opinion Jordy is unworkable in the real world. The only workable solution is to lock scum like this up for a very long time with no chance of parole. They've shown the world what sort of characters they have. They don't deserve to live among the rest of us who would have assisted the victim.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 2:42PM
    • @JordyBordy

      Did you actually read Serena's comment?

      The biggest problem is that Serena had a lot of sympathy for her attackers and as a sportsperson seemed to be thinking more about their window of opportunity in professional sport than what had happened to the girl. The girl who was raped did what a lot of us have done at sometime, drunk too much. She may have miscalcuted how much she could drink but their assault was very calculated.

      We're educated on not walking around alone at night but we don't expect to be hurt by the people we know. Real friends would have taken her home.

      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 3:52PM
    • What precautions ? She wasn't walking alone and attacked by a stranger. What precautions do you take against the community that you live in ? They did their level best to shut her up and mostly succeeded before others got involved and forced some action to be taken. The two boys who were convicted were just the tip of the iceberg.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 4:50PM
    • No. She did NOT simply point out that we all have to take necessary precautions. She openly speculated about the girl's virginity and labelled the assault as a stupid "mistake", thus exonerating the boys involved from having committed the crime they were punished for.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 4:56PM
  • Abusive relationships have power and control at their deformed heart. Dictating to Lawson that she must use her profile to make a statement is to again deny her control of her own destiny by serving the agenda of others. As important as the issue is in society and as golden as the oppourtunity is to make a point lets not trample the person in a rush to leverage the persona.

    Date and time
    June 24, 2013, 10:45AM
    • Absolutely.

      The reactions, sadly, reflect a lot about our own culture, and thus broader social values. This in turn, needs to be approached from broader social efforts.

      Date and time
      June 24, 2013, 11:14AM

More comments

Comments are now closed