Emily Howlett: The ‘R’ Word – Why we need to start talking about it

Posted on June 25, 2012

During our time together here on The Limping Chicken, I like to think that you, the Reader, have become accustomed to the habits of me, the Less-Interesting-and-More-Funny-Looking-Than-Others Writer.

One of these habits, as nicely evidenced in the previous paragraph, is a tendency to present everything from the funny side. I take the humourous angle over the depressing one any day; after all, if you don’t laugh you are in danger of crying.

However, recently, I’ve been unable to avoid being in danger of crying. Occasionally, this has tipped over into actual leakage of the eyeballs. Therefore, today’s article is a departure from the usual jaunty waffle. I give you fair warning; unfortunately there are some things in life that just cannot be laughed at.

Recently I was in a meeting where the discussion turned to rape; a topic which has featured quite strongly in my life, not least because of the suffering of close friends, but also through the intrinsically shocking nature of all sexual assault.

So, the subject turned to rape, whereupon the person in question snorted, flicked a biscuit crumb across the table and said; “Well, we can’t make the laws stronger or every man who ever has sex runs the risk of being accused of rape.”

I had to sit on my hands. Not to prevent myself signing an inappropriate response, but to prevent my fingers accidentally closing around her neck. Yes, her neck; the questionable person was indeed a woman. Which was, for some reason, even more shocking. A faint notion of ‘sisterhood’ or something, perhaps, and further evidence of the array of nonsensical myths, legends and preconceptions surrounding the subject of rape.

Rape and sexual assault are hugely contentious topics. People are unwilling to engage in discussion around these themes, which further mystifies the whole thing. There are very few verifiable rape statistics available, due to both the fact that a huge percentage of victims are unlikely to ever come forward, and also disinclination towards research in this area.

People just don’t want to know about it.

Which is a problem. A problem and a pity. Personally, I have no less than five friends who have recently come forward and ‘confessed’ to having been sexually assaulted.

‘Confessed’ is a terrible way to put it, as is ‘admitted’, but there just aren’t the words available to truly depict exactly what is going on here. Anyway; of those five friends, four are Deaf. Even within my small social circle, that is a shockingly high percentage…

So, some research. General rape reports are few enough, but there is next to nothing regarding sexual assault within the Deaf community specifically. However, what little there is all points to a shocking conclusion. Forgive me the following glut of statistics and referencing; it’s the only way I can get this across with the impact it deserves…

Research shows that an estimated 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Stimpson & Best, 1991). Additionally, women with disabilities experience abuse for longer periods of time and by more perpetrators than non-disabled women. (Nosek, Howland, and Hughes, 2001).

However, research regarding the perceptions of the Deaf community around sexual abuse is minimal.

The Deaf community mirrors other minority communities in their experience of oppression, isolation, segregation and distrust of mainstream society. (Obinna, J. 2005). One of the only studies to specifically explore sexual assault within the Deaf community suggests that 50% of all Deaf individuals experience childhood sexual abuse compared to 25 % of hearing females and 10% of hearing males (Sullivan, Vernon & Scanlon, 1987).

And if you don’t find that shocking, I’m not sure why you are still reading.

We know rape and sexual assault are happening. We also know that people are afraid to face up to and report abuse. Why is there this cloak of secrecy and victimization? A lot of this comes down to a lack of awareness, fear of not being believed, a breakdown in support and the prevalence of inaccurate and damaging myths. For example, it is a widely held belief that stranger rape is the most prevalent, whereas reports show that rape or sexual assault within a relationship is much more common. However, despite this, relationship sexual abuse remains somehow more socially acceptable and therefore harder to denounce than stranger rape.

A few more statistics:

Research indicates that approximately 5% of adult rape victims report recent rape attacks to the police and 5% seek rape crisis center services (Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Fisher, Cullen & Turner, 2000). This makes a full 10% of the estimated number of able-bodied adult rape victims, male and female. Within the Deaf community, the projected percentages are even smaller. Minuscule.

Deaf victims of sexual assault face more preconceptions and fears than their hearing counterparts. As well as concerns for privacy, feelings of shame or guilt, fear of recrimination and other conflicting emotions, Deaf individuals also face communication barriers and community issues.

Deaf women have said they feel they cannot rely on the support of their associates; while there is a tendency for Deaf communities to be small and close-knit, allowing huge support, there is also the contradictory potential for very little privacy within social groups. The risk of being rejected and shunned by the Deaf community is often considered too high for victims to dare report their abuser.

Equally, the response of hearing professionals and communities has been massively inconsistent, further discouraging Deaf victims from reporting their experiences. Deaf individuals may need to use an interpreter to communicate with service professionals, such as the police or counsellors, which immediately affects privacy. There is also an underlying fear that the interpreter will not relay everything which is shared accurately.

It’s all very dark and depressing stuff, and I am in no way inclined to try and lighten the seriousness. It is abundantly clear that rape and sexual abuse have a tremendous impact on victims and survivors, both psychologically and physically. However, it is not all doom and gloom; victims of sexual assault can, and do, fully recover and even thrive. But nobody can do it alone.

There are a number of charities who can offer a variety of support services to anyone with concerns or questions regarding rape and sexual assault. The most important thing for a victim is to realise that they are not alone, and that they are not to blame.

It is irrelevant what you were wearing, how much you had to drink or whether you were in your own home or out for the evening – you did not ask to be raped. The blame is entirely the perpetrators. If you have not given your consent to have sexual relations or were unable to give your consent (asleep, passed out, drunk) then this is also rape. Even though rape involves forced sex, rape is not about sex or passion. Rape has nothing to do with love. Rape is an act of aggression and violence. (www.rapecrisis.co.uk)

Rape Crisis are an advisory and support service, with a website full of advice, information, facts and myth-busting reports. The site gives clear information and notes on understanding and coping with sexual assault at any stage. There is also a ‘no tracks’ tab to enable people to clear the site from their browsing history. Rape Crisis Centres specialise in rape trauma support and counselling. They can be contacted through Freephone: 0808 802 9999, email: info@rapecrisis.org.uk, or post at Rape Crisis (England & Wales), BCM Box 4444, London, WC1N 3XX.

Immediately after being raped there are decisions that you will have to make, the consequences of which will last for a long time afterwards. The first is whether or not to report to the police. Rape Crisis, friends and family can help you by obtaining information for you about the procedures of the police and criminal justice system, and Rape Crisis will support you through that process if you do choose to report your assault. If you do not wish to take legal action, it may be important that you receive medical attention. You do not have to have a forensic examination if you go a SARC, A & E or your GP. You may need to receive treatment for your injuries, emergency contraception, and checks for STIs. You are the only one who can make the decision and no one else should make that decision for you.” (www.rapecrisis.co.uk)

Deaf Hope (www.deaf-hope.org) is an international charity focusing on ending domestic violence towards Deaf women. The group was founded and is run by Deaf individuals, and are fully contactable and able to offer advice and support. Deaf Hope UK is part of Sign Health and their website is still under development, but will be up and running soon. In the meantime, Deaf Hope UK workers can be contacted through email (deafhope@signhealth.org.uk), SMS text message (07970350366) or by post at Deaf Hope, The Bridge, Falcon Mews, 46 Oakmead Road, Balham, London, SW12 9SJ.

Meanwhile, Deafax (who wrote this piece for Limping Chicken last month: http://limpingchicken.com/2012/05/02/deafax-how-does-your-hearing-affect-your-sexual-health/) has launched a Deaf E.A.R.S campaign: to provide Education & Advice on Relationships & Sex to deaf people and to encourage schools and healthcare services to do the same.

These charities and support services are just a few out of many, many others available both nationally and locally. Police forces also have their own guidance and support networks. There are sympathetic, helpful people, websites and groups; it is just a matter of victims and survivors being aware of their existence and taking the right action for them. There is so little literature out there, and so little inclination to throw this whole thing open and stop the shroud of secrecy…. But this will change.

It is changing already. It is changing with every person who stands up for what is right and refuses to keep silent. It is changing with every mind that becomes just a little less closed, every person who is a little more aware, and every survivor who becomes just a little stronger.

So, where does that leave me, in the little meeting room, trying to doge flying biscuit crumbs while sitting on my hands?

Well, Reader, you know me. You can probably guess what I did…

Emily Howlett is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and horsewoman. She describes herself as being “equally fluent in English, BSL and Gibberish, and completely rubbish at French.” Emily can be found all over the place on various escapades, but divides her time between Derby and London. She can often be found behind a large packet of crisps or any halfway decent book, and insists she can still play characters in their early twenties despite having a grey eyebrow hair.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancyDeafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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