Talking point: including everyone in the conversation
I’ve never thought terribly hard about how men and women interpret sexual assault differently, but the other night, there it was, right in my own living room.
My partner and I were watching Netflix’s true crime series, Unbelievable. Based on a true story, it chronicles American student Marie Adler’s story after she was raped in her university dormitory.
We follow her journey from the initial crime scene, to her reporting of the crime, and then retracting her statement. After she reports the attack, Adler is confronted by police about some inconsistencies in her story and she concedes it might have been a dream and is later charged with false reporting.
A few episodes into the series, I asked my partner: “What do you think, do you think she’s telling the truth?” His response was: “I’m not sure, there are inconsistencies in her story.”
“Don’t you think the police are coercing her into withdrawing her statement?” I followed up.
“Not necessarily,” he said, aware that I was slowly becoming enraged with his answers.
I was gobsmacked. I had just watched a harrowing tale of a victim, forced to retell her own traumatising rape story over, and over again, to several different police officers and detectives.
For me, the investigation of her rape had played out like a second assault. When inconsistencies were picked up by police, she was no longer sure it was true. I felt she was unsure because of how the investigation was handled and how many times she was forced to go over the details.
But he had seen a different story. “I just find it interesting that we are seeing the story in two completely different ways,” I offered, and the conversation was over.
We stopped watching and moved onto lighter programmes, but then recently we revisited it. I asked my partner again what he thought, and after a bit of back and forth, we both started listening and understanding each other. He told me he was scared to share this opinion with me because of my reaction, and I told him I was curious about how we had different perspectives.
This issue came up recently at a Holyrood policy event I attended about sexual assault on university campuses.
Out of a room of 36 people, seven were men and 29 women. One of those men asked sexual and gender-based violence researcher Poppy Gerrard-Abbott about “bringing men into the conversation”. He said his university had struggled to involve men in its programmes around ending sexual violence.
“I think we need to be moving from a punitive culture to a learning culture, where we invite everybody to the table and we say sexual violence is not an issue where we are blaming this group of people,” Gerrard-Abbott responded.
“It’s about inviting everybody to the table and saying sexual violence is interwoven into society. It’s about transforming and funding learning spaces where we all lean into these really difficult conversations. Men and women, regardless of your gender, play a role in eradicating sexual violence and it’s not about punishing the other gender.
“It’s not a women’s issue that women should deal with,” she said, and I couldn’t agree more.