SHaME: Words from an “Unideal” Victim
An interrogation of the "ideal victim" myth in rape commentary, written for SHaME Research Group at Birkbeck University.
Are you an ideal victim?
In allegations of sexual assault, there exists an “ideal victim.” A good girl. Someone pure. The embodiment of virtuous. The personification of innocence.
Only in cases of rape is the burden of innocence placed on victims. Victims of sexual assault are forced to prove not only the guilt of their perpetrator, but also their own innocence. The ideal victim is seen innocent in the eyes of the public, the judge, the jury, and the representation and description of the rape itself. The ideal victim cannot be blamed whatsoever for violence committed against them. It is only then, when the victim has been deemed completely innocent, that perpetrators are evaluated for their guilty.
The stereotype of an ideal victim has been shaped by a long history of false representation and rape myths. Rape myths are prejudicial, stereotyped and false beliefs about rape, victims, and perpetrators. Acceptance of rape myths includes the cognitive, affective and behavioral effects of beliefs that tend to exonerate perpetrators and blame victims. It includes blaming victims for their own rapes, expressing disbeliefs in claims of rape, exonerating the perpetrator, and alluding that only certain types of women are raped.
Rape myths have created the way female victims are portrayed and treated. Throughout history, representation of rapist and victim has created the social standards in which we treat rape. How ‘rapist’ was described and treated, and how the rape victim was subsequently described and treated, has built what we imagine when we hear the word ‘rape.’ It is deeply engrained in cultural history.
The victim is the first to be scrutinized. Rape myths work to place blame on the victim, and in doing so, exonerate perpetrators. The moment there is something “unideal” about her, the victim is no longer to be trusted, and furthermore, she is often blamed. She has a sexual past. She was drinking. She knew him. She was wearing something provocative. She’s flirtatious. She’s lying. She just regrets having sex. These commonly uttered phrases, these rape myths that “justify” the victim being raped, chip away at the victim’s perceived innocence, her ideal victim status. That’s when the blame sweeps in, circumventing the rapist and landing securely upon the shoulders of the victim, relieving the assailant’s actions upon the victim’s actions. As soon as blame is placed on the victim, the perpetrator is exonerated.
Rape myths, and the way they permeate our society, demonstrate the immense cultural sympathy for the sexual abuser and the inclination to do whatever it takes to blame the victim. Rape myths serve to smear the characters and intelligence of victims.
The misrepresentation of rapists and victims has shaped how we classify these terms, and how society treats either. False depictions of rapists versus victims has allowed rapists to get away with their assaults, and furthermore, has established a culture in which rapists do not classify what they’ve done as rape, because they do not believe they fit the imagined picture of a “rapist.”
As Joanna Bourke wrote, “The rapist is not a ‘social virus.’ He is human.” The representation that a rapist is exclusively a crazed man on the fringe of society has done devastating damage. Because of the ways victims were historically blamed in order to exonerate men, the rapist typically went unlabeled. In the rare cases that a victim was “ideal,” and a man was proved to be a rapist, he was labeled a monster and a psychopath. These stereotypes allowed society to brush rape aside as a rare occurrence.
Victims do not receive justice because they are treated in accordance with how we treat the rapist. The conceived notion of a “victim” has created a system in which survivors of assault are shamed, blamed, criticized, or disbelieved. Representation plays a huge role in allowing rapists to exonerate their actions, and plays an equally large role in determining what a victim should look like.
Perhaps the cruelest nature of the myth of the ideal victim is the reality that it impossible to be ideal. Women are forced into these mere outlines of human beings in order to be deemed ideal enough to deserve justice. Every once in a while throughout history, someone has been labeled innocent enough to be ideal. But for the rest of us, for the 99.9 percent of us failing to reach this unachievable status, where is our justice?
For don’t we all deserve the exclusive right to our own bodies? Do I not have a right to live, to go out, to stay home, to be free, to wear what I want, without being raped? According to rape myths, no.
Therefore one of the greatest, and most entrenched, rape myths that plagues our society is the one of an ideal victim. The ideal victim is a culmination of myths and false representations. It destroys the legitimacy of very real rape allegations and of survivors. It exonerates perpetrators. It blames and shames victims. It can singlehandedly prevent justice. And it is deployed constantly. Every victim who steps forward is examined with the lens of whether she is ideal.
A world without rape is possible. To wave it off as some fantasy or as a theory beyond the bounds of possibility is to justify and exonerate rape and label it as normal or inevitable. It’s not normal. It’s not justified. It’s not inevitable. We can, and must, eradicate it. This requires the uprooting of deeply entrenched rape myths and rape culture, especially the false narrative of an ideal victim.
About Birkbeck University’s SHaME Research Project: SHaME is an interdisciplinary research hub at Birkbeck University for scholarship on the interlinks between sexual violence, medicine, and psychiatry. Sexual harms are experienced by people across different societies and are often shrouded in complex feelings around shame. SHaME aims to move beyond shame to address this global health crisis. Professor Joanna Bourke is the PI for SHaME. She is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy, and the prize-winning author of thirteen books, including histories on modern warfare, military medicine, psychology and psychiatry, the emotions, what it means to be human, pain, and rape, as well as over 100 articles in academic journals.