Refusing to empathise with survivors

I recently found myself in a discussion about the article “The Politics of Denunciation” by Kristian Williams ( I’m not going to say much about this article except that was pure rape apologism. A good critique of it by Dave Negation can be found here

Anyway, during the discussion I just couldn’t get across to the men I was arguing with why this article was so damaging to survivors. I found myself desperately trying to get them to see things from the survivors point of view. To understand the impact that sexual assault has. To empathise with survivors. I was met by a brick wall. People just responded with comments like “We still find the article useful” and “The article still stands”.

The whole thing felt icky. I felt like I’d exposed my most vulnerable side to a bunch of people who not only didn’t care, but seemed to feel some kind of vindication from my becoming emotional. This kind of sentiment is stated explicitly in a comment under Dave Negation’s article, “The harshness of the reaction to the [Kristian Williams] article illustrates why many of us find the piece valuable”.

Refusing to show empathy is a display of power. A survivor depends totally on the sympathy of the community for justice or to be able to heal. You’re in a position of power when you are able to sit back and judge, choose whether you want to show solidarity or not, knowing you’ll never likely be in that person’s shoes.

Rape culture is deeply ingrained in our society and our individual psyches. It operates on many levels. From the most blatant examples such as jock culture in which men bond over gang rapes – to the most subconscious levels which will cause staunch feminists and even rape survivors to join in attacks on other survivors.

Men are socialised not to empathise with women. And most people don’t empathise with survivors. In fact, people are trained to feel disgust at someone who’s been raped. Rape isn’t considered just a crime. Someone who’s been raped is considered “defiled”. There is the perception that they are ruined and can never recover.

I have noticed people are a lot more comfortable talking about preventing rape than supporting survivors. When people do talk about supporting them it tends to be in the context of giving them emotional support, counseling, going to the police, etc. But rarely do we talk about how we can empower survivors to be involved in activism again.

There is also a disproportionate amount of attention given to “rehabilitating” perpetrators. Often far more than is given to rehabilitating survivors. I understand that this is partly motivated by wanting to stop them raping again. However, I think it is also because people, especially men, empathise more with perpetrators than survivors. People are far quicker to recognise contributions to the movement made by perpetrators than survivors. Perpetrators are seen as damaged people who can be helped, while survivors are written off as casualties.

I don’t think that all this is just a subconscious reaction due to our socialisation. I think that men have a material interest in not empathising with women. Men do enjoy privileges in the left. Their voices are prioritised over those of women. They are more likely to be in leadership positions. They are given more credit for the work they do – and often for the work that women do.

I suspect that male solidarity against women is often more conscious than many of us believe. For example it is routine in all-male work places for men to bond over misogyny, homophobia and rape jokes. Female solidarity on the other hand isn’t that strong. While I’ve worked in some wonderful all female environments, they are just as often rampant with sexist ideology and victim blaming.

For women, believing that rape is something that could happen to them is very scary. We have a motive to believe that we are more in control than we are. This often means that women will blame survivors because they did things like walking down a street at night, getting into a strangers car, getting too drunk, etc.

A lot of women have also been sexually assaulted and are in denial about it. Or have internalised anger which they project onto other survivors. Reactions to the Assange case are a good example. A lot of women responded with “well that happened to me and I don’t consider it rape”. Accepting that certain things are rape make it difficult for us to continue repressing our own feelings around them.

Left organisations also have a material interest in not empathising with survivors. Accepting that sexual assault really was a big problem would mean making some huge changes. We’d have to do something about the misogynist group culture that enables it. It would mean having to face that some of our friends, people we respect and people who play (some) useful roles in organisations are predators and will have to stop being involved in the left.

Its a lot easier to avoid having to do all that stuff. But the only way to do that is to either not believe survivors or not have empathy with them. Usually in that order.

First a survivor is questioned and disbelieved. If they are finally able to prove that they really were abused, or get enough support that they at least can’t be ignored, then people find reasons not to empathize with them. The assault is minimised; “it wasn’t that bad”, “it wasn’t really rape”. The survivor is partly to blame. They did bad things too. They reacted badly. They’ve been too aggressive in the way they brought it up.

Sometimes an attack on a survivor is justified as being in defense of other more worthy survivors. For example calling what Assange did “rape” trivializes “real rape”. That is the typical way it’s done, but I’ve seen other versions.

Finally if all else fails people just distance themselves from it. It didn’t happen in our group. It didn’t happen in our branch. It is a personal matter. That means not having to think about it. Not empathizing.

This process is extremely traumatic to the survivor. Rape itself takes really dehumanizing the victim. So then being dehumanized over and over in people’s responses just keeps reinforcing that.

So here are some suggestions about how people can show some empathy with survivors:

Don’t treat discussions about sexual assualt as abstract or theoretical. They are not. They deeply affect real people.

If a survivor brings up that they were assaulted, but you don’t like how they brought it up… Get the fuck over it. Sexual assault is traumatic. People respond to trauma in ways which are often unpleasant. Have a sense of perspective. They were sexually assaulted, you were offended; what is the more important issue here?

If someone says they were assaulted show some sympathy. It doesn’t cost you anything to say “I’m sorry that happened”. This is especially important in a context where survivors are often doubted and perpetrators (or the mostly hypothetical “falsely accused”) are given way more sympathy.

Do something. Don’t try to distance yourself from the situation. If you’re part of an organisation where this is happened then bring the issue up. Work to change things. Often there isn’t much that an individual can do. But little things matter a lot to survivors. Tell them you believe them, defriend the rapist on Facebook, etc. Show some solidarity!