After the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s time to focus on the victims of rape

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Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege’s award should make us consider the impact on those who suffer sexual assaults

By: Winnie M Li

Ten years ago, when I was raped, I never could have predicted a single six-character hashtag would come to symbolise — at least for the media — all the world’s survivors of sexual assault and misconduct. But #MeToo is apparently a trend, and news stories around rape are now “topical”, even though this crime has been taking place for all of human history. So a year on from the start of the so-called #MeToo era, how can we take stock of everything that has emerged since the Harvey Weinstein scandal first broke?

Certainly, the awarding of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad places the issue of sexual violence front and centre on the international stage. I applaud the honouring of both a survivor (Murad) and a frontline doctor (Mukwege) in drawing attention to the enormous impact of rape as a war crime. But the spotlight here is clearly on sexual violence at times of conflict, in war-torn countries. Rape and sexual assault affect many lives in peaceful, prosperous societies, and these more private traumas are insidious often because they remain so hidden and normalised.

Survivors such as me find the continuing #MeToo media coverage both validating and emotionally exhausting. But much of this public conversation is missing an important trick: in focusing so heavily on questions of criminal justice — of he said, she said — we are ignoring the long-term, cumulative impact these crimes inflict on the lives of their victims: The very individuals whose voices and stories form the heart of the #MeToo movement.

The media consistently frame sexual misconduct and violence as a story of crime and punishment: Will this perpetrator be caught, or receive a suitable penalty? Is he really a perpetrator, or is the alleged victim just making it all up? My own rape, in Belfast in 2008, was heavily reported in the local media, but it all centred around the developing news that my rapist was at large, then arrested, then eventually convicted. There was little mention of me, the victim, a nameless “Chinese tourist” — the implication being that I would probably live out the rest of my life in silent shame and misery.

Even in 2018, this obsession with criminal justice continues. Republican senators in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings obsess over why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t report her alleged sexual assault to the police at the time. In the United Kingdom, recent reports that prosecutors have been urged to weed out “weak” rape cases unlikely to result in a conviction continue to intertwine the issue of sexual trauma with the public perception of crime and punishment.

Let’s step away from our obsession with criminal justice, and value these survivor stories on their own merit: As revelations from individuals whose lives have been negatively — often indelibly — impacted by sexual trauma. The full lived experience of victims appears so rarely in the media, except as testimony to prove the criminality of a man’s character. Dr Ford said Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her affected her life for many years, so much so that it came up 30 years later in her therapy sessions. But we would never consider her trauma — or even know who she was — had it not been for the United States President Donald Trump nominating Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. For every Dr Ford, there are thousands of other teenage girls sexually assaulted at drunken parties, who grow up bearing the burden of this trauma, whose individual struggles we will never know.

Sexual assault brings with it post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, a shattering of self-confidence. It can cause years of flashbacks and nightmares, decades of a constricted life, lived in a way to avoid panic attacks and further anxiety. Job and academic performance get impaired, career trajectories are permanently altered, finances suffer, as do our relationships with others. We lose friends and family in the wake of rape, and we may have long-term difficulties with romantic love and sex. As a result, some of us may never find partners, or have families. Or if we do, our family relationships often bear the imprint of our previous trauma and anxiety.

This is not to say that recovery is impossible, but a victim’s life will never be the same. And it takes years, even decades, for a survivor to feel recovered. If we consider the indelible impact this crime has on individual lives, and if we compound the number of affected lives over a population, it’s clear sexual violence isn’t just a criminal justice concern: It’s a public health disaster. After my rape, it was three years before I was employed again, five years before I could consider myself adequately recovered and, 10 years on, I am still living with the consequences of what that one person did to me. If one in five women experiences sexual violence, how many more years, how many other lives, have been spent trying to recover from sexual assault, rather than live the lives we intended?

So, in the wake of #MeToo, we must reframe the way we think about sexual violence. It’s not solely about criminal justice, or rape as a war crime. Of course it’s important to hold perpetrators accountable. But that is just one side of the equation. Sexual violence is also about public health. There are millions of survivors of sexual violence in the UK alone — a significant swath of society. Let’s consider all the resources that need to go towards helping victims rebuild their lives, so instead of being diminished and depleted, these lives can regain their full potential.

We can measure the health of a society by how honest, empathetic and understanding we can be with each other. And if we cannot speak openly about the crimes that have damaged us, then our entire society suffers.

The #MeToo movement wouldn’t exist were it not for the efforts of so many survivors, performing the emotionally draining, unpaid work of speaking out and advocating. How much more productive would we be as a society if so much energy didn’t have to be spent fighting the injustice of sexual violence?

If there is one thing #MeToo can accomplish, besides raising awareness about the widespread impact of sexual trauma whether in war-torn or peaceful societies, it is improving our systems and institutions so that the whole of society can relieve the burden on individual survivors, and start to address the reality of these crimes.

- Winnie M Li is an author, producer and activist. Her debut novel, Dark Chapter, about her rape, won the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize in 2017. Courtesy: Guardian News & Media Ltd

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