Trigger Warning: Although there are no graphic descriptions of rape and sexual violence in this piece, we do link to numerous articles that are more explicit, and the general discussion may be traumatic for some survivors of abuse. Please proceed with caution.
Internet, we need to talk about victims. We need to talk about the narrative of the ideal victim, and why this narrative is extremely damaging to the actual, real-life, flesh-and-blood people who have experienced rape and sexual abuse (1 in 5 women, according to the CDC, and 1 in 71 men, though that statistic is likely much higher in both cases).
We need to talk about why it is not, ever, your place to control the narrative of someone else’s trauma–not as a friend, not as a family member, not as a partner or a school administrator or a counselor or a police officer or a doctor or a journalist.
You have been sold the lie of the ideal victim—the fantastical notion that there is an easy, streamlined process for reporting rape and sexual assault that will align the victim with the legal, emotional, and psychological resources they require to ensure that justice is served. You have been told that if a victim fails to avail themselves of these mythical resources, they surrender their right to speak up about what has happened to them. You have been given a litmus test for the ideal victim: that they must have been sober at the time of their assault; that they must have physically fought off their attacker; that they must have been dressed modestly; that they must have a squeaky clean record, with no known mental health issues, no trouble with the law, no substance abuse problems. You are told a victim must remember in minute detail everything about their attack, and that a failure to do so indicates that their story may be fabricated. You are told that the victim must only be accusing someone of equal or lesser power, because to accuse someone more powerful than you suggests a desire to get rich quick, or get your face in the media (because there’s nothing quite as much fun as having your name permanently associated with the term RAPE VICTIM).
The idealized victim is a soft-spoken, conservative, sexually pure/vanilla, perhaps even virginal woman who is raped violently and at random, by a stranger. She is sober at the time of the attack, ideally does not ever partake in drugs or alcohol (see: conservative). She is white, and middle to upper class. She will have taken “precautionary measures” to avoid even the most random, unpredictable assailant by dressing modestly, avoiding “bad” parts of town, not walking alone at night, and carrying weapons with which to defend herself like Buffy, the Rapist Slayer. After the attack, she will not exhibit trauma (panic attacks, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and an inability to think logically and clearly), and will instead behave with a detached, clinical rationality, and report immediately to law enforcement. Since this is an idealized scenario, law enforcement will of course respond speedily, competently, and with sensitivity to the victim’s feelings. The abuser will be brought into custody, and there will be no need for the victim to speak publicly about her experiences. Due process will take care of the rest. The rape, like some sort of horrific math equation, will be “solved”, and everyone will be able to go about their lives undisturbed by the horrific reality.
The horrific reality: there is no idealized victim. There is no one, clean-cut, “textbook” rape. Law enforcement and the judicial system rarely protect or advocate for rape victims.
But it’s easier to ignore all this, to pretend rape doesn’t happen that often, that those who come forward are sensationalist and histrionic at best, slutty and crazy at worst. Because we are afraid. We don’t want to believe that there’s a one in five chance it could happen to our sisters, our mothers, our girlfriends, our wives and our children. We don’t want to believe it could happen to our brothers, our fathers, our friends. Most of all, we don’t want to confront the reality that in our lifetimes, it very well might happen to us.
The Ideal Victim and the Imaginary Rapist
Shia LaBeouf is not the ideal victim. For a start, he’s a dude, and dude-victims do not fit the narrative shaped by rape culture. Dudes are supposed to want sex all the time. If you don’t want sex all the time—well, apparently you’re not very manly. There are also (somehow, apparently) huge swathes of people who genuinely believe the damaging patriarchal rhetoric that states men can’t get an erection unless they’re psychologically aroused. Which, for the record, is a giant crock of shit.
More germane to this particular point, though, is that Shia LaBeouf is a famous dude—a famous dude who in recent years has become known for being, well, a little bit…eccentric.
Shia’s eccentricity peaked at the beginning of the year when he participated in a group art project/performance art installation in Los Angeles entitled #IAMSORRY, where art-fanciers were invited to queue for hours for the privilege of sitting down in a room with Shia (who had a paper bag over his head) and trying to get a reaction out of him. Various implements were provided to exhibition attendees, including a wrench, Hershey’s Kisses, and a whip, a la Marina Abramovic’s 1974 performance piece, Rhythm 0.
Now, LaBeouf has stated he was raped during #IAMSORRY by a woman who whipped him for ten minutes before stripping him naked. If you are not completely horrified by that, there is something wrong with you. And yet, somehow, folks are turning this into a discussion of art and consent, of whether by making himself vulnerable to his audience Shia was somehow asking for this. As if rape, when you’re a famous Hollywood guy doing an art show in downtown LA, is just an accident waiting to happen.
What the actual fuck, internet?
I’ve seen smart critiques deconstructing Shia’s rape as, in some way, part of the narrative of #IAMSORRY (insofar as the self-imposed silence Shia adopted during the show mirrors the silencing experienced by rape victims), and I think these are thoughtful, well-meant pieces. But I don’t think they are necessarily helpful, because they are couching a criminal act, a horrific trauma, inside the discourse of artistic criticism. Is it helpful, to talk about rape—anyone’s rape, in any context—as if it is part of a story? As if it is dislocated from reality, or as if it operates under narrative conventions?
But I understand the impulse. At least they are not trying to flat out deny that Shia was raped.
If you don’t want to wade through Piers Morgan’s lengthy and offensive litany of victim blame-y bullshit, allow me to summarize it for you:
- Shia should have physically fought off his rapist.
- Shia should have stopped his rapist from leaving the exhibition space.
- Shia should have spoken to someone immediately after the rape.
- Shia did not visibly emote after the rape, so therefore Shia was not raped.
- There are minor inconsistencies in Shia’s reportage of events and the events his collaborators reported (very, very minor), therefore Shia was not raped.
- Shia did not call the police, therefore Shia was not raped.
- Shia consented to the rape by being passive.
Just think on that last one, for a second. What does that say, to the victims who are unable to consent due to forced passivity: victims who are drugged; victims who are sleeping; victims who are so traumatized that they cannot react?
Piers Morgan helpfully defines rape for us as “someone…not [giving] consent to a sexual act”. Well, yes. And by his own account, Shia did not give consent for anyone visiting the gallery to engage with him sexually. Therefore, Shia did not consent. Therefore, Shia was raped.
By Piers Morgan’s twisty thinking, it is apparently necessary to have a giant sign up in your art exhibition saying “PLEASE DO NOT RAPE THE ACTOR”. Otherwise, you’re consenting. Because art space is so separate from real-life space that the laws of the outside world do not apply. After all, Shia and his collaborators strongly implied it was okay to whip him and feed him chocolate. Clearly sexual violation is also on the table.
But underpinning all this is the assumption that Shia is an unreliable narrator—in common parlance, a liar. We are supposed to disbelieve him because he’s eccentric, he’s erratic, he’s crazy. Morgan outright declares that Shia is just showboating for the media attention. Gee, those accusations sound awfully familiar. They’re the very same things rape culture tells basically every rape victim ever.
The Ideal Victim and Narrative Control
Like Shia LaBeouf, the UVA rape victim (identified only as Jackie), has not given a full account of her rape in her own words. Where LaBeouf’s statement about his rape amounted to a few quotes that were extrapolated upon by the media, Jackie was interviewed numerous times and her “story” investigated by Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely. It’s a truly disturbing and horrifying incident, the reporting of which opened up an essential discussion of rape on college campuses, in particularly within Greek culture. Or at least, the discussion seemed to be moving in a progressive direction until Rolling Stone issued a weak semi-retraction after Erdely’s journalistic process and ethics came under fire.
This is a convoluted issue. Initially, folks were not necessarily saying they disbelieved Jackie. What they were saying was that Erdely’s failure to fully explore all avenues available to her as a journalist, in particular her failure to even attempt to reach the accused fraternity members for comment, raised questions not about Jackie and her rape, but about the way in which the story was being reported. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope from the way in which the story is told, to the veracity of the story.
Erdely and her editor have stated they decided to tell the story from Jackie’s point of view, because “We were telling Jackie’s story. It’s her story”.
Are you sick of that word, yet? “Story”? As if what happened to this young woman amounts to nothing more than an arc, a plot, a sequence of events shaped by a journalist to fit a theme and a timeline and an argument.
Jackie is not the ideal victim because she does not have her own voice. She has been given, through Erdely, the illusion of a voice. She’s been given assurance that “her story” will be told, but is it really her story, when a writer has a subject in mind already, and scouts for victims who fit the narrative she wants to tell?
I believe Erdely’s intentions were good. I believe she wanted to talk about rape, about rape culture at Universities, about institutional cover ups and the low rate of reportage due to shame or fear of social ostracization. But Rolling Stone have now thrown Jackie under the bus. Instead of responding to critiques of their journalistic practices, they’ve told us that their trust in Jackie was “misplaced”.
Like Shia, Jackie becomes an unreliable narrator—mostly because she’s not actually doing any narrating herself. She’s being puppeted by Erdely, whose overblown and cinematic descriptions of the rape, and the aftermath, border on the kitsch. Writing for Reason, Robby Soave calls Jackie’s friends (who discourage her from reporting the rape) as “almost cartoonishly evil”—and he’s right. If this were a story, we’d be saying the dialogue is unbelievable, that the plot is hackneyed and garish.
But this is not a story. This is a young woman’s life.
The misogynist peanut gallery who are now viciously dismantling Jackie’s rape, who are claiming that it is a hoax, are doing so based on the perceived inconsistencies between her “story” (read: Erdely’s story) and the few quantifiable facts. In particular, they’re fixating on the fact that Jackie says the attack took place at a frat party, but when calendars were checked, no such party was held at the house that night.
A cornerstone of the ideal victim narrative is that they are able to remember clearly the details of their abuse. Not only are they able to remember, but they’re also able to communicate this clearly and logically to others—namely, the police.
Several reports have surfaced that indicate Jackie has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the two years following her rape. PTSD is not at all uncommon in victims of sexual abuse, and those who suffer from PTSD frequently have difficulty remembering the events of the trauma clearly. This flies in the face of the common conception of PTSD, which is that “triggers” (such as being touched in a certain way) catapult the abuse victim back into an extremely vivid recollection of the trauma, as if they quite literally travel back in time and experience the event all over again.
The reality is more nuanced and complex. In fact, in a bid to avoid reliving the event, victims often retain no clear memory of the trauma, despite reacting strongly to triggers. Psychologists call this failure to remember “reduced specificity of autobiographical memory”: in other words, your brain may not be able to effectively erase all memories of the event, but specific details might become fuzzy.
Specific details like remembering the exact date of the night you were gang raped at a frat house.
I’d go one step further, here, and suggest that anyone, traumatized or not, would have difficulty remembering something as specific as the date of a party they attended two years ago.
The ideal victim, of course, has the date burned into their skull, because that is how we want to believe our memories work in the face of trauma. We want to believe we’d know our attacker anywhere, that in these moments of intense stress and panic, our brains will silently record the facts we need. And if we don’t believe that, then we believe Jackie should have…what, made a note of it? Written it down? Dear Diary, today I was sexually violated…
I keep hearing: she should have reported it. She should have come forward. She should have, she should have, she should have…
The sad fact is that Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article is Jackie “coming forward”. It’s Jackie attempting to reclaim her trauma, to speak up so that no more women have to attend “the rape school”. And her trauma has been twisted by a presumably well-meaning, but opportunistic, journalist, the blanks in her recollection filled in by someone who claims to be telling it from her “point of view”.
Because we want to read rape stories from the victim’s point of view, right? As long as it’s filtered. As long as it’s a narrative we already recognize—one that we can make sense of, one that we understand. One with a victim who does not challenge us.
The Ideal Victim, Silence, and Voice
What is it about first person accounts of rape and abuse that we can’t handle? Is it too raw? Too real? Or is it just that we’d prefer to keep rape culture where it is: hiding in plain sight, its invisible fingers coiled tightly around us.
I guess nobody likes to feel unsafe. When the media reports on a rape, there’s a level of disconnect—particularly when the rapist is a noteworthy figure. The issue of rape is raised at a safe distance: we all agree that it is awful, a terrible thing, but we are not pushed too hard to confront the disturbing reality. It’s one of those things that happens to other people, one of those things we can avoid if we make the right decisions (like never going to a frat party with a date we trust, and never holding a performance art exhibition). When we read the truths of victims in their own words, it becomes much harder to uphold the myth of the textbook rape. It becomes harder to pretend that we’re safe—that it can’t happen to us.
Statistically, the majority of sexual assaults are not reported to police. While disclosing to the general public is doubtless very different from reporting to law enforcement, I would argue that doing so is no less difficult, and no more common. Reporting to the police comes with its own set of microtraumas—take for example the 1100 rape and sexual abuse cases the New Orleans Police Department failed to properly investigate. Victims who report to police often suffer a beating from the institutionalized arm of rape culture: they are shamed, they are mocked, and they are disbelieved.
But reporting to the general public—writing your trauma, sharing your horror—this act is no less painful and difficult. People talk a lot about the feminist echo chamber, but if you’ve been to the comments section of any website ever, it’s not hard to see why victims feel disinclined to speak up. You are shamed. You are mocked. You are disbelieved. And because this is the non-institutionalized arm of rape culture we’re talking about, the arm attached to a legion of fingertips flying away anonymously over keyboard keys, you are often threatened and harassed, as well.
Fear of backlash silences victims. Because the last thing you want, after suffering a severe trauma, is to put yourself on display, to open yourself up for even more trauma.
This is something I will never understand, about the narrative that rape culture upholds: there is nothing fun about telling folks you’ve been abused. Again and again I hear “they did it for the attention!”—as if the attention you get, from coming forward as a victim of sexual abuse, is the good kind.
Earlier in the year a number of women came forward to accuse various young men in the on-line literary scene of sexual abuse. Amongst those accused was Gregory Sherl, a poet and novelist whose history of abuse first came to light when his ex-girlfriend, Kat Dixon, blogged about it back in January. Kat has been outspoken about her traumatic experience with Sherl ever since, most recently publishing this creative non-fiction piece which details some of what she suffered after the rape and psychological abuse she endured at Sherl’s hands resulted in her being committed to a psychiatric facility.
Later in the year, Sherl’s former fiancé Sarah Certa came forward with her own catalogue of atrocities. The testimony of the two women was upheld by many others, anonymous and not, who attested to Sherl’s character, his behavior towards women, and his propensity for emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Full disclosure: I was one of those women. Though I was fortunate enough to escape the physical and sexual abuse inflicted on both Sarah Certa and Kat Dixon, I know firsthand the damage inflicted by Sherl’s brand of psychological abuse—and I believe, without question, that he uses that abuse of power to control and manipulate his victims.
There was, of course, some crunching from the misogynist peanut gallery when Dixon and Certa spoke up–but by and large the immediate community was supportive. Maybe that’s because it’s harder to look a woman in the face (even if the “face” is just a computer screen) and say the kinds of things that folks are saying about Jackie, or about Shia LaBeouf. Maybe it’s harder to denounce her when she’s standing right there, ready to bleed for you, to bleed out as much as it takes until you finally listen.
But victim’s aren’t just silenced by the peanut crunching crowd—they’re silenced by the system, and by individuals like Sherl who understand and exploit the fact that we are living in a culture that desperately wants to deny rape. Sherl, like many abusers, knows that as soon as Certa and Dixon stop making a fuss, the whole issue will be swept under the rug. He knows that all these women have are their voices.
Certa and Dixon have refused to be silent. They have refused to comply with the rules for ideal victims, the rules that say you should be polite, you should be fragile, you should be broken. They are angry. We should all be angry. Angry that we live in a society where rape is the skeleton in our closet, the one we laugh at because we don’t know what to do with all this fear.
After Certa and Dixton refused to go away for eleven whole months, Sherl (or person’s associated with Sherl) took to Twitter, trolling victims and their supporters in an effort to discredit, harass, and stalk them into silence.
The FBI was alerted after the troll tweeted an intent to turn up at the library I was about to go and study at. The accounts disappear and reappear periodically, generally using the #GregorySherl hashtag, cycling through a series of intimidation tactics in the hope that something will stick, including tweeting my employer that I am sexually inappropriate with my students.
In late November, Sherl served Certa with a summons indicating he was suing her and several Jane and John Doe’s (also a Jone Doe—typo? You decide!) for libel and defamation of character. At this point, the trolling began to make more sense: in an effort to build a case, Sherl or person’s connected to Sherl, were using Twitter to try and draw out “evidence” against Certa, Dixon, and other victims—and, if that failed, to scare them into silence.
To a predator, one angry woman standing up against rape culture is bad enough. It’s when they start to band together that you have a real problem (which may also account for why Sherl attempted to shut down the Domestic Violence Relief Fund, started by Kat Dixon to raise money for survivors of abuse). Perhaps Sherl and his lawyers targeted Certa because, as his most recent victim, she’s the one for whom they have the most documentation. Perhaps they are having difficulty with jurisdiction in Dixon’s case, since she does not currently reside in the United States. And perhaps, in part, it’s an attempt to isolate Certa from the voices who scream in chorus with her—to psychologically bully her into retreating, tail between her legs.
The exhaustive legal document is 40+ pages of absurdity. It’s suggested that Certa is confused about the definition of rape, as if she is a child struggling to comprehend an adult concept. It’s suggested that she is evil and vindictive, as if women periodically set out to “ruin the career” of the man they intend to marry. It’s suggested that, after initiating sexual contact on a drive from Mississippi to Minnesota, Certa was obliged to “pull over and finish what she started”.
Certa is a young mom, a single parent without the income or resources to single-handedly fight this battle. It will cost her some $5000 to retain a lawyer—money she simply doesn’t have to spare. It would have been more than understandable, had she decided to back down, to give in to the oppressive culture of silence that surrounds so many victims of rape and sexual assault.
But Certa, like Dixon, refuses to be silent. She refuses to be shut down. She will fight this, and she will win, because we have to believe that things can get better. We have to believe that the rape culture narrative can be changed, can be re-written and re-worded until it is leeched of the ugly mythology that further oppresses victims.
The Ideal Audience: Listen
It is difficult not to be disheartened, in the face of all this. It is difficult not to bow our heads and accept the roles written for us, the ideal victim or the attention-seeking shrew, the gold digging harpy or the mentally unstable woman gone crazy from lust or rejection or both. Rape culture deflects the attention from rapists by putting their victims center stage, by setting an impossibly restrictive standard for the kind of person whose story we’ll believe.
The world has its fingers in its ears. It does not want to listen to the truth about rape and abuse, would prefer to swallow the fairytale that says it can’t happen to me. I am safe. I am okay.
To those who feel able to speak up, to those who continue to scream even as they are torn down, threatened, harassed—to those people, we owe our attention. We owe our belief. Because there is no ideal victim, just as there is no textbook rape. And if we are too afraid to listen, we become complicit in their silencing.
This, too, is a crime.
If you would like to donate to the Domestic Violence Relief Fund, where proceeds go to help Hope House aid women and children to rebuild their lives, you may do so here.
If you would like to assist Sarah Certa in funding her legal defense, you may do so by sending a contribution through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kia Alice Groom is a British-Australian living in New Orleans & on the internet. She teaches freshman composition at the University of New Orleans, is associate poetry editor of Bayou Magazine, and founding editor of Quaint. Her poetry has been published in Westerly, Cordite, and Curbside Splendor, and her short-fiction and essays in Midnight Echo and Going Down Swinging. You can listen to her yell about stuff on twitter: @whodreamedit and Tumblr: alicedescends.