Trigger Warning: The following post contains discussion of sexual abuse and sexual assault. It may be a trigger for survivors of abuse and assault.
At the beginning of February Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, published an open letter in The New York Times detailing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her adopted father. The alleged abuse, which took place in 1992, and the subsequent chaos that has stemmed from it has been written about and analyzed endlessly; accusations have been thrown in both directions, and everyone from the anonymous online troll to the author Stephen King, has an opinion on the subject. In response to Dylan’s open letter, Woody Allen has also published his own through the paper, categorically denying any abuse as well as accusing Mia Farrow of being a liar and of manipulating of her own children.
I was only six when the events concerning the abuse became public so I am quite unaware of the media circus that enveloped it or the exact details of what happened at the time. However, I am now 27-years-old and though I am not in a position to assign guilt or innocence to either party, I am able to see the way in which a survivor of sexual abuse is treated in the public eye. I am able to see that someone who has been through these experiences is treated differently as opposed to someone who is a victim of physical assault or theft. I am able to see that someone who has been sexually assaulted has to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they are in fact telling the truth. I am able to see that a survivor of sexual abuse and rape will encounter more obstacles and abuse after their attack, more, it seems, than anyone else who has survived a crime.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) in the United States, there are 237, 868 victims of sexual assault and rape. However, 60% are not reported to the authorities, which means the true figure is higher, and of those that are reported, 97% of rapists and abusers will not spend any time in prison. These types of statistics and low conviction rates are unheard of for any other crime.
Why is this?
The reasons for under reporting are going to be widespread depending on race, age, class, culture, and religion. However in this particular case, the anxiety or public reaction seems to be a factor. In other words, when high profile individuals are involved, the reaction of the public and the media is going to be of concern to the survivor and may contribute to the decision not to report the rape or assault.
A further factor is the law’s treatment of the survivor. Someone who has been robbed or physically assaulted is not repeatedly asked: “Are you sure you didn’t misread the situation, that you didn’t give off mixed signals?” “Are you sure you didn’t lead the perpetrator on?” They are not asked to detail their sexual and relationship history; their choice in clothes is not scrutinized; they are not asked to recount their behaviour that day as a way to explain away what has happened to them.
Can you imagine, after reporting a break in at your home, being asked similar questions? “I see Madam that you have an expensive stereo in the window, do you think that you may have been asking for it?” or “From what we know of your character you seem to be a generous person, is it possible that the thieves thought they could have the flat screen television?” It wouldn’t happen would it? If it did you (and the rest of society) would think the police were utterly ridiculous.
Another element that has been churned up with the publication of Farrow’s letter, is the gross misconception that those who claim rape or sexual assault are vicious, spiteful, revenge seeking women aiming to ruin an innocent man’s good reputation. You only have to look at the gendered language used when describing both Dylan and Mia Farrow’s motives: irrational, crazy, and vindictive. These are all the more amplified when a powerful man is being accused. Think Julian Assange, Dominic Strauss-Kahn, and in this case, Woody Allen.
It also seems that the media and by proxy, society are looking for an easy, neatly packaged description of what an abuse survivor should look, sound, and behave like. It feels that for the purpose of easy viewing and quick sound bites the individual should meet a certain criteria: someone who is pure, innocent, and virginal. This was evident in remarks made by American Senator Bill Napoli when asked in what circumstances he thought abortion would be acceptable. He commented: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim…the girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married” (excerpted from Full Frontal Feminism, Valenti, 95).
In other words, the characterization avoids taking into account the complexities of the big issues.
And it’s not just the abuse survivor that has to fit into this weird, fetishized representation. The perpetrator too must fit a certain role. He must be a scary, deranged, psychotic monster who jumps out of the bushes at night and attacks innocent young girls. To me, this stereotypical rape scenario sounds more like a caricature from a badly made movie than real life. The idea that an assailant could be a well-known, well-loved and powerful man who makes award winning films or who heads the IMF, seems to be beyond the comprehension of the public. It seems it is easier to believe the weird movie narrative than the real one we are confronted with on a daily basis.
This is why it’s important to talk about Dylan Farrow because when we see that those who are victims of theft are treated with more respect and compassion than a survivor of rape or sexual abuse, you know that things are not okay. It’s important to talk about Dylan Farrow because women who report abuse can’t continue to be delegitimized and shouted down, all because we don’t want to confront the truth that seemingly nice men can abuse. We need to talk about Dylan Farrow because we need to get over the idea that there is a one-dimensional rape or abuse survivor and that anyone that doesn’t fit this model is a liar. And most of all, we need to talk about Dylan Farrow because assault survivors should not have the sole responsibility of convincing a police officer, a jury, or their own family that they were in fact attacked.
This kind of narrative lacks a critical awareness of the complexities, of not only the politics of race, class and culture, but of people in general who are not one-dimensional characters in a badly made movie. It is not a one size fits all mentality that can fit easily into a blog or five-minute segment on the news. It requires that we as a society examine our treatment of survivors of sexual assault and rape, even if it reveals some ugly truths.