Monday, November 26, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

As a very innocent 19 year old, coming back from an evening with friends, I was once mauled by a stranger on a train. Nearly forty years later I can still remember the feeling as he leant over me and put his hand on my breast. I screamed and ran out of the compartment into the next carriage, asking for help.

Hardly anyone even looked up - those who did sniffed disapprovingly. When I pleaded for someone to go back into the compartment and fetch my bag and coat, one man - old enough to be my father - obliged, but grumbled as he did so. I slowly realised from the mutters around me that my fellow passengers thought that I was to blame for what had happened - though in my innocence, I actually couldn't understand why. I left the train weeping.

I tell this story not for sympathy, but to illustrate the fact that society forty years ago made completely unwarranted assumptions about sexual attack. I had not been drinking heavily (one glass of wine), nor was I outrageously dressed (perfectly decent shorts, in an age where everyone wore them). Yet the assumption of my fellow travellers was that I had 'asked' to have a total stranger come across and put his hand on my breast.

I also tell this story to point up the fact that forty years on, sadly not much has changed. The announcement this week that juries are to be given information packs to counter 'rape myths' highlights the fact that we still as a society believe those myths. The stories of female binge drinking, the media hype on promiscuous sex - all of these mean that as a society we think that women (and men, for the victims of sexual assault are not unilaterally female) are living wild irresponsible lives and that therefore they are to blame for anything that happens to them.

My own experience forty years ago - and my current knowledge of the young people I regularly mix with, and hear from through my columns - is the opposite. Yes, there are exceptions, yes youth is a time for pushing the boundaries. It was ever so. But in many ways, young people are more aware nowadays, if anything more responsible.

And in any case, that isn't the point. It was the man who crossed the train compartment and put his hand on my breast who was at fault, not the 19-year old me travelling home on the train. It is the predator, male or female who is at fault, not their prey. Attackers have a choice to do right or wrong, however vulnerable their victims are. By claiming that the victims 'invite' the attack we muddy the waters, offer excuses, let wrong-doers off the hook. We also insult the vast majority of normal, decent men by suggesting that any male who sees a short skirt is automatically and excusably inflamed to rape, that any male who sees an inebriated woman is inevitably and forgivably driven to abuse. The result? The conviction rate for rape in the UK is currently 6% and 40% of adults who are raped tell no one.

Which is why I am delighted that the legal system is in the process of pointing out all the above to those who make crucial decisions in court cases.

Now all we need to do is to convince the rest of society, and we will at last - forty years after my 'little scare' - be getting somewhere.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So true what you say...I was drugged by my childhood dentist and my own mother didn't believe me. I avoided the dentist until my teeth started to fall out 20 years later. You don't need to be raped to be damaged by a breech of trust, whether by your dentist or your expectation that you deserve a safe passage home in decent society.