Guilt and shame: why do many rape victims not press charges?

The victims are almost always women who know that at some point someone will blame them. Someone will say that she “got into shape”, that she shouldn’t have worn a provocative outfit or that she shouldn’t be walking down the street alone at night. And that blame can come from a friend or even an authority figure.

Guilt and shame. These are the two feelings that rape victims struggle the most with and that’s why they so often find it difficult to report this crime to the authorities, explains psychologist Daniel Cotrim, technical adviser to APAV – Portuguese Aid Association to victims, at CNN Portugal, where he is responsible for the area of ​​gender violence. When discussing whether or not rape should become a public crime, it is important to understand why victims so often choose to remain silent.

Talking about rape victims is almost always talking about women. According to the latest Homeland Security Annual Report for 2020, rape crime victims are overwhelmingly female (92.3%), while accused are overwhelmingly male (99.1%). And, therefore, we also always talk about gender inequality and how differently men and women are educated about sex.

“We are a deeply and structurally unequal country,” says Daniel Cotrim. “We live in a patriarchal and misogynistic society, where men are praised for their sexual conquests, they are stallions, but, on the contrary, women who have more partners are already labeled as sluts or worse.”

“Women are educated to be ashamed of everything sex-related, with huge taboos,” explains the psychologist.

These different perceptions that men and women have of sexuality are crucial, in the first place, to understanding men’s sexual violence against women – because they grow up to feel that they “entitle” women’s bodies. And then, they are also fundamental to understanding the reaction, almost always of self-blame, of the victims of this type of abuse.

“The first question that victims ask themselves is: why me? What did I do to provide this?” Reveals Daniel Cotrim. Women blame themselves because they know that at some point someone will blame them. Someone will say that she “got into shape”, that she shouldn’t have worn a provocative outfit or that she shouldn’t be walking down the street alone at night. And that blame can come from a friend or even an authority figure.

“And the worst thing is that this type of story is often legitimized by justice, which excuses the man and feeds the idea that it is the woman who becomes irresistible for the rapist”, criticizes Daniel Cotrim.

“When they go to file a complaint, women know in advance that they may not believe them, that many people will doubt their word.” Thus, it is better to understand that a woman finds it difficult not only to report the crime to the police, but even to admit it to her own family.

“Not to mention that a lot of violations happen within relationships. Women are already starting to talk about domestic violence, but they still have a hard time assuming they’ve been raped by their partner, because there’s this idea, which is rooted in both men and women, that her body belongs to her husband, that he can do with her what he wants.”

“This cannot continue. Rape is a crime, the offender must be held responsible and the victim must be supported,” defends Daniel Cotrim. It is important that offenders stop feeling impunity for these types of crimes. And it’s important that victims believe the system is working and worth reporting because ultimately justice will be served.

Whether or not they decide to press charges, victims – who can also be called survivors – need full emotional and social support.

How to support a victim of rape?

The first thing to do is to listen to the victim and believe them, without being judgmental.

Currently, rape is not a public crime, which means that only the victim can file a complaint. Thus, if someone is a witness or has knowledge of an offence, he must “advise the victim to lodge a complaint with the judicial police as soon as possible”, specifies Daniel Cotrim. If you do not want to go to the police, the victim can always go to a support association for victims of sexual violence.

However, for the reasons mentioned above, we know that it is very difficult to take this step: “Respect the choice of the victim. She is the one who must make the decisions. With your help, she will know to whom address when it is ready”, reads the Manual of Good Practices for Professionals in Assistance to Victims of Sexual Violence, created by UMAR – União de Mulheres Alternativa e Response.

“We know it’s normal for rape victims to feel disgusted, with what happened and with their own bodies. The first reaction is to wash, shower, wipe away all traces of what happened. that happened.” Unfortunately, that’s what you shouldn’t do. “The victim must go to the hospital and explain what happened so that evidence can be collected,” explains the psychologist.

“We know it’s a painful process. That’s why there’s a six-month time limit to file a complaint, which is the time of the decision, or other evidence that may be relevant.”

Even if you are not so affected by feelings of guilt and shame, filing a complaint can be extremely violent because it involves reliving a traumatic experience. “It is important that the people who listen to them are, indeed, experts on the subject. So that they ask the right questions and know how to guide these surveys,” says Daniel Cotrim.

“At APAV, we agree that rape is a public crime, even to start talking about this subject, as has happened with domestic violence. But we consider it essential to provide services with specialized professionals who really accompany the victims. In these situations, it is necessary that they are really specialized, whether they are psychologists, doctors, judicial police officers or magistrates. “

Additionally, he points out, it is important that, as with the crime of domestic violence, “an exit door from the process” be created in case the victim wants to leave the process if they are not feeling well. “You have to understand that we are talking about a person’s private life and that such a public process can affect their family, personal, social and even professional life. These people need to be very supported and their wishes respected.

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