In a previous article for this column, I talked to a gay rights activist who gave a unique insight on queer pageant culture. One of the things we’ve touched on was how pageant culture relates to the experience of being a transwoman which, after a while, inevitably turned into a conversation about what it means to be a transwoman and a woman. I’m aware that way of phrasing it is going to make a few people angry, so as a disclaimer, I mean it in a “how it’s conventionally understood” kind of way.
It wasn’t the first time we’ve talked about it. After all, he’s one of the reasons why I eventually started learning what it means to be an ally. But as we kept talking and he kept pressing me for what social differences I see in transwomen and ciswomen, I slowly began to understand that part of how I understood this “divide” was the distinct brand of fear that ciswomen are raised to have.
That isn’t to say that transwomen never have to be on the lookout for violent attacks. A press release by the UCLA School of Law revealed that transgender people are roughly four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes, like rape or sexual assault, than cisgender people.
Transgender people were also on the receiving end of higher rates of property destruction — 214.1 for every 1,000 trans households compared to 108 for every 1,000 cis households. The kicker? Only half of the violent crimes against transgender people are reported to the police.
The stats aren’t better for cisgender women. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one out of every five women in the U.S has either experienced rape or attempted rape, but in 2018, only 25% of these rape and sexual assault cases were reported.
If anything, we are, in a way, bound together by our fear of being brutalized.
But as you’ve probably noticed, despite how widespread it is, the sexual violence that transwomen and ciswomen are subjected to isn’t as obvious to us as it should be. You always have someone who wants to “call B.S.” because it’s never happened to them and they’re not likely to be victims of sexual violence the way ciswomen and transgender people are.
One of the most common arguments for rape culture denial is the low report rates. It’s a fairly intuitive line of thinking. Something bad happens to you so you’re expected to report it to the authorities who will, in turn, deal with the problem for you.
It’s a charmingly idealistic way of picturing how sexual assault victims are treated and it’s similar to the thought process that led Hanna, a 23-year-old med student, to help a teen girl she ran into on her way home.
Indifference and Blame Keep Sexual Assault Victims Unseen and Unheard
On December 4th, Hanna posted an Instagram story talking about how she brought a sexual assault victim to a police station only to be brushed off by an officer who refused to even take a report.
I replied to ask what happened.
“I found her sitting at the stairs of a footbridge,” she told me. “I was on my way home from an appointment with my derm when I saw a middle-aged woman and her daughter standing next to this girl, looked to be about 16, 17 years old. She was sitting on the stairs and she was crying, just shaking all over and biting her fingernails.”
This was when she realized the girl was covered in dirt and scratches.
“I knew something was wrong. I didn’t have a good feeling about it,” Hanna explained. “So I went over to try and help.” Aside from being a med student, Hanna is a psychometrician with training in psychological first aid and experience working in a mental health ward.
“She could hardly speak. I didn’t want to force her but we were all running out of time. It was getting pretty late so I asked the woman and her daughter to help me get her to a police station.”
She kept pressing the girl for more information so she could at least help her find more help. The girl didn’t have relatives nearby. She was new to the city, having moved to look for a job.
When they got to the police station, what they found was the coldest reception from a police officer who, as Hanna puts it, “seemed more bothered by the fact that we woke him up than there being an assault victim in front of him”.
“I gave up. He wouldn’t make a report, he refused to escort her home. When I tried to ask if he could at least radio the city’s patrols about a suspected assault in the area, he told me the women’s help desk didn’t have its own patrols so he couldn’t just radio for it.” She was furious. It was clear to her that no one cared enough to listen to this girl.
“In the end, I could only get her back to where she’s staying at. It’s a pretty shady area so I was really nervous myself. But I couldn’t leave her like that. I just asked her to stay safe and then I went home, too.”
I want to say that’s the first time I’ve heard a sexual assault story, but it isn’t.
When I was in high school, a friend opened up to me about how her mother used to turn a blind eye to her being sexually assaulted when she still had custody. When I started my internships at mental health institutions, I met even younger victims, including a 4th grader who didn’t want to talk but lost it when I made the mistake of trying to help her “dress” her dolls. In law school, the victims are on paper, except they’re younger now and their abusers are closer to them. Brothers, fathers, stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers, and cousins.
The victims and the abusers change names, ages, and faces. What doesn’t change in these stories is the victim’s refusal to talk. Along with the fear of sexual violence that’s ingrained in women from an early age, there seems to be a fear of talking about experiences of assault as well.
In one of the cases I’ve read, where a young girl didn’t talk about three years of rape at the hands of her stepfather, the victim says she was afraid her own mother wouldn’t believe her.
As for the 4th grader I used to play with sometimes at a mental health clinic, it was someone else who reported her strange behavior. From the time I started to the time I left the clinic, she never spoke a word to anyone.
My friend from high school who told me she actively tries to destroy what physical attractiveness she has by overeating in a desperate bid to “protect” herself? She whispered it like a dirty secret. As if she was the one who had something to be ashamed of.
An integral part of women’s fear of being sexually assaulted is the shame that comes with rape.
Rape Is a Woman’s “Shame”
There’s a sense of shame that comes with sexual abuse. More often than not, victims of sexual assault struggle with feelings of shame from being “tainted” by the sexual abuse they went through. Or, as my friend described it, “feeling dirty.”
One of the ways victims of abuse try to cope with the shameful feelings that come with sexual assault is silence. Shame is a public feeling, one we only experience out of fear of what other people might think. If no one knows about what happened, no one knows the victim has something they feel ashamed about.
And then there’s the fear of not being believed.
Admitting you’ve been a victim of sexual assault exposes you to attacks on your honor and dignity. It sounds antiquated but think about the way some people react to hearing about a rape case.
It’s often “Well, what was she wearing?” or “What was she doing out at that hour?” or “Why didn’t she look after herself?” It’s any question that isn’t “What makes the abuser think they have the right to do that to someone?”
When a woman talks about experiencing sexual violence, she’ll often find herself subjected to longwinded ways of saying she’s a liar or, at the very least, that she deserved what happened to her.
So it’s no surprise that many women take months or even years to find the courage to talk about their assault. When they do get around to it, reporting sexual assault is like playing a game of “Russian roulette for survivors,” as writer Bri Lee puts it, where you “make a complaint and cross your fingers you get a cop who respects and believes you.”
As if the fear of going unheard, unbelieved, and shamed weren’t enough, there’s a rising conspiracy that false sexual assault claims are more prevalent than they really are. This isn’t to say they don’t happen. They do. But false claims are a drop in the bucket at just 2 to 8 percent of all reported rape cases.
But for some reason, there’s more fear around hypothetical good people going to jail for reasons that are statistically non-existent than there is concern about the thousands of real, literally-have-already-happened sexual assault cases that go unreported for fear of not being believed.
In The Iliad, an epic poem best known for the Trojan horse story, there’s a character called Cassandra. Cassandra is a princess of Troy who, according to the myth, is a classic jaw-dropping beauty. The kind you often hear of in fairytales and legends.
As much as it was a gift, her beauty was also a curse. When Apollo, god of the sun, decided he wanted her, she refused him. But who would believe a girl like her over a god like him? Apollo gave her the ability to see the future, to foretell the truth of how things will be, and the curse that she would never be believed.
We have reason to believe that there was no singular Homer who wrote The Iliad. That there was, instead, a long tradition of poets who built on the original story until we got to the one we have today. Something about Cassandra gives me the impression that one of these nameless, faceless poets was herself a woman who knew exactly what she was alluding to.