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SSJA SHORTLIST - The Perfect Victim

This year, Gender Equal Media Scotland is sponsoring a Scottish Student Journalism Award to highlight the importance of treating women equally - as employees, as contributors and as subjects of media attention - to a new generation of journalists. Six entries made the shortlist and in the lead up to the awards ceremony - taking place on 30 May 2019 - we'll be publishing them here. We wish all the shortlisted authors the best of luck, and we hope you enjoy reading these pieces as much as we did.

Kaitlin Easton is in her final year at the University of Stirling. For her final year project, she investigated victim blaming within sexual assault and she says it is an honour to have one of her pieces shortlisted for the GEMS award. Victim blaming is still rife in our society, and she hopes that her work challenges and dispels the myths surrounding it.

You’re walking from Edinburgh city centre, it doesn’t take long. You cut down a side road, next to a block of flats. Continuing right, you walk down the old cobbled road. You’re on Hardwell Close – you made it.

You take a deep breath, open the white door, and walk inside. You’re soon shown to the room. It’s claustrophobic. A wooden circle table separates the other chair from yours. A box of tissues occupies a smaller square table to your left.

You look up to the wall. The splash of colour on the paintings reduces the paleness of the space. The counsellor walks in. You release your breath. It’s the first step to being okay.

Fiona Thompson is service manager for Edinburgh Victim Support. Counselling victims of rape and sexual assault is much more than just a job. You become increasingly aware of the world around you, as a parent, and as a friend, she says.

Working in Victim Support has taught Fiona to be open – sometimes too open – with her daughter about sexual crimes.

She says it’s about managing people’s expectations and being as honest as possible: “We’re not going to tell you that everything is going to be all right – because it’s not.” She pointed to the reality of it: “You’ve been through a horrendous experience, but we can help you.”

Typically, the offices will have their two appointment rooms booked out – there can be up to eight appointments a day. As well as having drop-in sessions, Victim Support is a third-party reporting office. This means that if someone doesn’t want to walk into a police station, they can report the crime here. Victim Support will then support them in making that complaint.

Fiona does voluntary work with homeless organisations to encourage homeless people to report crimes, most of these being sexual crimes. She attends suppers run by Social Bite – a homelessness charity – to speak to some of the women.

It’s taken her months to form a relationship with them and build up trust. A lot of the people she comes across have been raped. They blame themselves for the attack and think no one will believe them.

“Why would I take it forward? I don’t have a home. I don’t have an address. I don’t have anything credible on me.”

Fiona works hard to challenge the myth that it was a victim’s fault: “I don’t care if somebody is wearing a miniskirt or a pair of hot pants. Nobody has the right to assault any man or woman.”

Trying to build a partnership between Victim Support and Social Bite, Fiona says it is a “humbling experience” to spend time with the women. Many of them have been assaulted, sexually assaulted and trafficked.

People will congregate around the food vans that make their way around Edinburgh. But, this is where the traffickers are – picking people out. Those chosen will then get trafficked from the food vans. “It’s horrific. It’s been an eyeopener,” Fiona says.

One of the homeless women she worked with previously was a drug user. When she went to pick up her drugs, the dealer and his friend held her hostage in the house for two days while they gang-raped her.

She didn’t want to report it to the police – she believed it was her fault - if she hadn’t gone to pick up her drugs, it wouldn’t have happened. She spoke to other people in the homeless community and they eventually convinced her to report it.

The case went to the High Court and the two men were jailed. But, speaking to the police and walking through the door of “that establishment” – the High Court – was “hellish” for her.

Another homeless woman that Fiona was working with went missing for two weeks. When she finally resurfaced, Fiona discovered she had been picked up by a Serbian man and “passed from pillar to post” for the two weeks. She never reported it.

The High Court deals with serious cases such as murder and sexual violence – Fiona says most of the cases heard there are sexual crimes.

Victims of rape and sexual violence will go into Victim Support. But, Fiona pointed out that they’re not counsellors. If they feel Victim Support isn’t enough for someone who has been referred to them, they’ll signpost them to another organisation.

Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre (GCRC) is located on Bell Street. The offices occupy the fifth floor of the building, with the support rooms being on the floor above. Similar to the offices at Edinburgh Victim Support, the upstairs reception has a black couch and homey decorations. Hannah and Ciara are both counsellors there. They’ve been given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

“I’m personally on the support team, and we do core support – which is working with women aged 25 plus. It’s personal centred emotional support. It’s about giving women a safe space to talk about their experiences,” Hannah said.

Ciara works in advocacy on the ‘Support to Report’ project, going with people on their journey through the criminal justice process. “Helping them to know what options are out there and managing their expectations. Also talking to people on the phone a lot.”

Hannah and Ciara sometimes work with the same person at the same time. This means the victim-survivor will have someone to provide emotional support, and someone to provide practical support. The Crisis Centre has different projects and offers a range of support, a drop-in service, a helpline and can provide support over email, phone or skype. They also support Scottish citizens living abroad.

Reducing her caseload from 80 to 60, Ciara’s day begins when she switches on her phone on and sees what has happened overnight. She helps people understand what is happening at each stage, making sure they don’t feel responsible for the outcome.

Hannah also writes letters for people who are on welfare support, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), because of the psychological injury they have suffered. Some of the people she supports will get letters saying they need to go back to work.

“I think six months is enough, off you go, back to work.” This isn’t a realistic to expect of someone who has had these experiences, she says.

The counsellors come across examples of victim blaming almost every day. To Ciara, victim blaming comes from a belief that someone is to blame for their own rape and therefore, the perpetrator shouldn’t suffer the consequences of their bad choices.

She believes the ‘not proven’ verdict can be used when jurors who believe the myth feel someone could have prevented their own rape or is responsible for part of it.

Hannah used to work on the prevention project which provides support and education to young people aged 13 – 25. When she delivered it in a school, one of the questions was ‘do women ever lie about being raped when they regret having sex?’

In every single class she visited, two-thirds of pupils agreed with the statement. She asked what percentage of women who said they were raped were lying. The class answered 60 – 80%. Only 4% of sexual violence allegations in the UK are false accusations, according to Home Office research.

She says there is a prevalent belief that women are lying to get attention, to get back at someone or to gain money.

Ciara also pointed out that people think victims have just cheated on their boyfriend, and then felt bad about it, so lied. They’ve been asked multiple times are you sure you’re not making this up because you regret having sex?

The counsellors say this is an unrealistic myth. Court cases often go on for years, and the process can be detrimental to a victim’s health.

The irony is uncanny, Hannah said “Have [the defence] read your medical records, sexual character, your underwear – a physical examination because you’re embarrassed about something,”

Ciara’s voice was laced with sarcasm “And you would like to tell a room full of strangers in a courtroom that? Yeah.”

While women are often sexualised by other people, Hannah said that to be the ‘perfect victim’ you must not be seen as sexual at all

“If you have a very fulfilling sex life, you’re a bad victim. We should just expect that sex is going to be horrible,” Hannah said.

Ciara has worked on court cases where everything has gone perfectly because someone was ‘the perfect victim’.

Explaining you can’t create that backstory for everyone, Ciara said: “If you have a woman that has even remotely complex needs or issues, and they’re not a teacher, or a doctor or a pillar of the community, then it doesn’t work out by the time it gets to court.

“They get very flustered; defence lawyers will go for that stuff immediately if they see a vulnerability. Then that woman is left feeling that is all my fault.”

Hannah thinks we’re ‘grooming’ young women to discredit themselves further down the line. They face social pressure to post sexualised pictures of themselves online.

Young people have told her that you can’t go to a party or get a boyfriend unless you have 400 likes on a picture.

Hannah spells it out. “A young woman is 14 and posts a provocative video or selfie or trying to be like Kim Kardashian: if something happens to her when she’s at university, that may be brought up as sexual character history.”

Ciara has watched defence lawyers dissect hundreds of messages in court, reading them out degradingly. Elements of the defence argument are then that a message could be misconstrued as being flirtatious.

Ciara says: “You can flirt with somebody absolutely, but you shouldn’t expect to be raped by the person.”

Lawyers will go over the messages and try to interpret them in different ways to fit what the defendant has said. People don’t realise how messages can come across until somebody puts a different spin on them, she says.

Hannah thinks the law needs to better understand what coercion means. The law is predicated on a consent requirement - but saying yes is not the same as giving consent in some situations.

Sexual violence is about power and control, perpetrators will use different tactics to disempower the person they’re hurting. Someone can be pressured to give consent.

“If you don’t say yes, I’m going batter you. I’ll severely injure you. I’ll kill your pet dog.”

Threats like these take away the individual’s choice and they have no option but to give consent. Hannah believes that this is underexamined in court.

Ciara says victim-survivors have nobody during court proceedings, while perpetrators are heavily instructed by their lawyer. She thinks they should be allowed to have advocacy, someone to speak for them in a courtroom and say: ‘I’ll explain why they’re asking that’.

The public thinks sexual violence is primarily about the rape of young women. But the centre helps a variety of people. They see people who have been abused as children by members of their family, sometimes multiple perpetrators. They counsel people who have been trafficked and people who are elderly and have been abused in care homes by those supposed to look after them.

Ciara says older women have usually experienced sexual violence more than once in their life by the time they reach GCRC. A woman might come forward when she sees a report in the news about an ex-partner going to jail.

By the end of the trial, after they’ve given evidence, “you’ll find out that you’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the abuse this person has suffered.”

Ciara says there is usually so much more behind it. When they went to the police the response wasn’t great, so they shut down. Then after that, they’ve gone on to experience abuse from a different partner, Ciara says. “You then find out that their dad abused them as a child.”

The psychological impacts of rape or sexual assault can be traumatising. How far someone will get into their recovery depends on how good their support networks are.

But, this only dulls the voice in their head that chanting ‘you are partly responsible for this’. That voice stays with the person for the rest of their lives.

When they’re filling out compensation forms for the people they support, they don’t usually put much in the physical harm box – if anything. It’s the psychological harm that’s devastating and that’s why they go to the Rape Crisis Centre. They have reached a point where they can’t cope. Or they think they can get over it – but it’s not a case of that.

Ciara says: “It’s like grief – you kind of create distance from the pain, but it doesn’t go away completely.”

Many victim-survivors feel frustration at the pain no one can see. They often say of their attackers: ‘I wish they had broken something, so I can prove to other people how much they’ve harmed me’.

Hannah wonders how many women have experienced sexual violence. “Having that trauma and trying to be a mother, trying to function in society. It’s so harmful.

“The legacy of that in someone’s life - it impacts whole communities.”

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