25 or so years ago, marital rape researcher Diana Russell wrote about the frustration she’d encountered when attempting to educate not only the general public, but also workers in the helping sector, about the topic of marital rape. Other writers on intimate partner sexual assault have experienced similar blocks. They’ll tell you about free seminars offered and cancelled due to lack of interest, rape crisis workers making statements to the effect that the partner rapist is a “known entity” and therefore his crimes are not as serious as those of the stranger rapist; not dealing with survivors of marital rape because it was not yet a crime, refuges not admitting women because they were “only raped” and survivors of partner rape being asked not to speak about their experiences of rape in support groups. 1 The more recent studies of Melanie Heenan and Raquel Bergen indicate that there is still much room for improvement in terms of service provision to survivors of intimate partner sexual assault. 2 I have a repertoire of horror stories but I will spare you.
It has been my good fortune to witness change, and I’ll provide a link below to organisations doing excellent work with partner rape. But I do think that perhaps I have become somewhat complacent about positive change, and if there is evidence of change, it is also evident that we have yet miles to go.
Recently, I gave a short talk to a group of professionals on what is important for them to know when intersecting with survivors of intimate partner sexual assault. I shall not name the date or location; it is not my intention to single anybody out. But I walked away saddened. The lack of interest was, at the time, quite chilling – for sheer ennui it did seem to be, if the facial expressions were any indicator. Of thirty people – not a general sector of the community – people in the therapeutic/helping professions, domestic violence workers and others, perhaps three displayed any real interest.
I’m going to make some assumptions about why this was so:
- It was after a sumptuous lunch (and the sandwiches were plentiful and delicious!); people were full and drowsy
- Bored workers had been told by their bosses to come but didn’t really want to be there
- Attendees were bored because they already know everything there is to know about partner rape and have nothing more to learn, thank you very much.
- I and my talks are a snorefest (not that this is about my ego but I am not that bad a speaker and I expended considerable pains to make certain the talk was tight, salient and interesting)
Or could there be other reasons such as:
- The same old befuddlement about ownership of this issue that we have encountered in the past
- Already strained workers who can’t possibly do any more with their limited resources
- Discomfort with hearing the word “rape” frequently eviscerating the air; in the same vein discomfort with the sexual side of domestic violence
- Triggered survivor workers
- An unwillingness to hear that accepted ways of approaching domestic and sexual violence need some change if survivors of partner rape are not to keep falling through the cracks when help-seeking – or in other words, comfort-zone issues combined perhaps with a very human dislike of being challenged to lift one’s game
- Lethargy; change is too hard
- A mixture of all the above and beyond
It’s baffling, because this is not always the case; I have quite often met with warm interest and enthusiasm. Perhaps I am impatient. I would admit that part of my sadness stemmed from the fact that what I was seeing seemed to replicate the grey fog of silence I encountered as a young, traumatised survivor trying to find help for the unspeakable – and unspoken – things my partner had done. It saddens me – and I made this point to my audience – that we have been talking about rape and domestic violence for a few decades, yet I routinely get emails from women who have survived partner rape telling me they have felt so alone; they didn’t know that there were any resources especially for them. Is it any wonder when still too few people – especially the right people – are talking about it?
And I was angry too – not at anybody in particular, just at the old “We don’t want to hear about it” thing..I am talking about an issue which if picked up and acted upon, can save women’s lives, to say nothing of their psyches. That is not melodrama, that is realistic. Aren’t our clients who have experienced the indignity of rape by men whom they loved worth the focus on a form of abuse that hurts them so much – often worse, in some ways, than the other forms?
A couple of years ago, I was invited to give a talk to a local group of social workers. Two – count ‘em – two people turned up. Talk cancelled, wine enjoyed instead. To be sure, it was a most inclement night, dark and pouring rain; hence two friends made the point that people were not likely to come out of comfortable, warm homes to hear about marital rape. Point taken, but, well…that for an attitude will get us a long way, won’t it? Nothing changes if nothing changes.
I have to hope, indeed I believe there is reason to hope, that continuing to speak plants seeds. It is also a comfort to know I am not doing this alone – and I will take this opportunity to again thank those also striving with the issue of intimate partner sexual assault – a few of you can be seen on this page. You are stars.
1. Bergen, R, Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers, Sage Publications, California, 1996
Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K., License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York 1985;
Russell, Diana E.H. Rape in Marriage MacMillan Publishing Company, USA 1990
2. Bergen, Raquel. “Still a Long Way to Go: Comparing Services to Survivors of Wife Rape in 1994 and 2004.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Royal York, Toronto, Nov 15, 2005 Not Available. 2010-12-01
Heenan, Melanie. ‘Just ‘keeping the peace’: A reluctance to respond to male partner sexual violence’ (2004) 1 Issues Australia Study for the Centre of Sexual Assault at http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/issue/i1.html