June 27, 2012

Denying sexual assault on women assaults them once more

The accounts of horrific sexual assaults against women in Cairo have been accumulating in the last weeks on social media and garnered a lot of attention by users of twitter and facebook. Reports of women attacked by mobs - sometimes up to a hundred -  of sexually crazed men, ripping off the women's clothes in public places, raping them with fingers and tearing at them to a point where the victims believe they will die, are hard to bear - both in their description of an unimaginable amount of aggression as in their conveyance of utter helplessness and anxiety on behalf of the victims. Reading such accounts can be a harrowing experience and is an emotional challenge to say the least.

Perhaps this is the reason for reactions that - to put it mildly - are hard to take for the victims on top of the horrors they experienced. When Natasha Smith, a British freelance journalist and documentary film maker living in Cairo, published the account of an unbelievably horrid and aggressive sexual attack on her by hundreds of men during the celebrations of the outcome of the presidential elections in Egypt, the social media world was in shock. Comments of disgust and true compassion made the rounds and her blogpost describing her ordeal was posted and reposted in huge numbers.

Not long after the blogpost got viral however a reaction set in that seems to become typical in such cases: the questioning of the credibility of her account. Was it true what she told us? Could this have happened in the way she described it? Was the account logical and coherent or were things missing, unclear, incomprehensible? Was she in fact just making all of this up to be in the limelight, get attention and become famous?

Apparently there are not few who think that writing in detail about how you get gang raped is a pleasurable way of garnering attention and becoming famous. The numbers of those who seemed to think so and started questioning the credibility of Natasha Smith rose after the first tweet started to tip off the wave. As with a rumour that spreads, the discussions in minutes flushed across social media platforms, now concentrating on the questions "who is she?" - "has she ever done something credible before?" - "is she lying?" - "does she want to makes us believe...?" - and away from the actual thing that needed discussing: the indisputable gross sexual aggression against women rampant on the streets of Cairo.

Often women deny it happened

While it is always good to not immediately fall for every story that is posted on the net the willingness to suddenly flatly reject the possibility of this sexual assault happening came close to denial. And the most troubling - and this I have not seen for the first time - was the fact, that it was almost only women who quickly jumped on board and called out that this female not necessarily had to be trusted. Not because they know her personally - but because ... - Yes, because of what?

Why is it that women much more than men so often in such cases resort to insinuating the story of sexual assault by a woman is fabricated, is a lie, is only made up to garner the attention of the world? Why are women not naturally inclined to take the side of the female victim that after all represents them as possible target of another assault tomorrow? Wouldn't this be the natural reaction and not the opposite?

Psychologists have studied for decades the reactions of humans on emotionally charged and troubling accounts of victims and found several reasons why one of the reactions almost always is to deny the victim's credibility. There are reasons that both genders have and reasons that are specific to women when it comes to accounts of sexual assaults and rape. In both cases it would be good to reflect on them.

It didn't happen, so I have nothing to fear

One of the main reasons in both genders for denial is the urge for 'self-protection'. By discrediting the victim's account one can brush it off with no fear to become victim oneself one day. Humans need a feeling of safety to live and continue to do what they are doing without the constant fear that all this could - as in the case of the victim of the accounted assault - break into pieces within minutes and shatter their lives. By looking away and denying this truly happened, lives can continue trouble free. And apparently this urge is so intense that inflicting hurt on the victims by discrediting them or questioning their credibility is willingly accepted.

It didn't happen, so I don't have to get emotionally involved

Another reason is the emotional self-protection many feel in need of. Getting emotionally engaged in what horror has happened to another human is energy draining to say the least and can seriously jeopardize being able to continue a happy, contented life. Empathy, showing sympathy for a victim, almost always needs a lot of emotional power that people are not willing to sacrifice for someone they do not know. There seems to be the belief that resources on this per person are limited and one better be stingy. And the easiest way to do this without feeling remorse for being selfish or cold hearted is by doubting that there is any story that would need such an input in the first place. If the victim's story is fabricated, no emotions, no empathy is needed, no energy must be put up and now power sacrificed. There is nothing to be empathetic about because there is no assault that happened. The human mind is full of tricks when it wants to get off the hook and shy away from personal responsibility and the urge to emotionally protect oneself and not get involved seems to be intense in many.

It didn't happen, so men are not as bad after all

While these reasons are common in both male and female they do not satisfactorily explain why so many women especially dispute the credibility of sexual assaults recounted by other women. There must be additional reasons for this reaction that surprisingly is quite the opposite of the solidarity one would have expected to find.

One reaction that one encounters is the unwillingness to accept the other gender as potentially dangerous and harassing as it often is. As one female tweep wrote to me on one such occasion a few weeks back when I was criticizing men for assaulting women: "You are not allowed to speak like that of men! I like men! And I want to love men!"

Fine. But what if they don't love you back? Is that too hard a truth to take? Apparently so, for the amount of energy put up in defending the men - be it in an isolated incident or as a gender - is often remarkable to read. In denying the victim's story the attempt is clearly made to rehabilitate the men that are accused in the account, men as such, men women need, men women don't want or cannot be without. A natural reaction, one would say, as there is only one other gender for any one of us to have (leaving out those for a moment who find more inventive ways to solve the drawbacks of this minimal variety on offer).

Of course, if women would have to concede that men are sexually assaulting animals the idea of bonding with them for partnership would seem less tempting. Yet hormones do not care, so for reasons of hidden forces steering the gender through life, the urge to acquit men of blame is going strong in women. Men must be likable, lovable for partnerships or marriages to work. In blaming men, this dream many women have of men - the most intense version is of course the famous knight in shining armour - would be crushed. Then what? - As this is not allowed to happen - acquitting it is.

But if men are not to blame, the victim surely must be the one to take responsibility. The easiest way for this is discrediting her credibility. If she told a lie, if this horrific report is untrue, it only proves what we have known all along - that men would never do such things to women, that some, few women only make this up. - And women would find peace of mind that life with a man is yet possible and something to strife for. No questions asked. Mission accomplished.

If it happened, it was probably her, so it can't happen to me

The other only method of reaching acquittal of the men is to acknowledge the incident happened - where witnesses attest to it so that the truth of the story cannot be denied - but immediately asking questions if not the victim is to blame for this in the first place. "Why did she have to be there at such a time?" is a common question posted on social media, basically saying nothing else but that no decent, acceptable woman would have gone to a place like that at such a time and therefore would not have been attacked. As - for all to understand - undoubtedly the author of such a line only proves too well. She didn't go to such a place so she didn't get assaulted. So clearly it is the victim's own fault if something goes wrong  - which also relieves of the task to ponder on the men's behaviour that is part of this story. In more blatant versions one can even read a "well, some men are like that" - which is usually accompanied with a shrug of a shoulder ("such is life") - and the pointing out that everyone knows this and who doesn't act accordingly has to blame only herself.

A remarkable way to get the attacking men out of the limelight and an astonishing lack of solidarity. And that for a good reason that once more is embedded in the wish to self-protect. If as a woman I have to admit to myself that vicious attacks by men on women actually happen and - worse - can happen anytime to any women, I as a woman will have no peace of mind anymore. If however I pinpoint the blame for this assault on this one particular woman (aka "slut" in worst versions) then of course I myself will not ever get into this trouble and can wholeheartedly be both denying such incidences for myself and thereby be at peace of mind. A famous example of this is the Muslim Brotherhood MP Azza El-Garf who pointed out to the stunned Egypt that there was no sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, as she herself had never been harassed. A flawed logic taken up by others who now point out that they too were in Tahrir joining the celebrations on presidential election and - take note - it did not happen to them! So clearly, again - was Natasha Smith making this up or doing something wrong? Was she perhaps to blame?

Men would not do it if women would not tempt them

Often the attacks by women on female victims of sexual assault are clear and outspoken. She dressed wrong. She walked wrong. She did not wear a veil (which as experience shows does not protect from sexual attacks). She was blonde. She looked foreign. She wore high heels. She looked men in the eyes. - The possibilities are innumerous and all boil down to the same: it was her that was at fault to produce this reaction in men. She alone is to blame, so I - as a women dressing rightly, covering up, lowering my eyes - will never have to fear such an attack (oh please, dear God, please!).

The almost unbearable extreme of this thinking - powered by fear the story could be true after all - is to blame the victim of such an assault to make the streets more dangerous "for all of us" by inciting men to think along the lines of attacks. Which - clearly - men do not do on their own if women do not make them. An even more flawed logic that perfectly blends in with the identical conviction of men in patriarchal societies who do not tire to point out that women are an evil temptation that make men do what they would never otherwise do. Hence the covering up, the shutting out, the keeping them in the house. Women who echo this logic resemble people handing the key to their prison cells to the warden asking them to shut them away. One would think this impossible but unfortunately one reads more of this on social media than is imaginable.

To the victims of sexual assault this is impossible to bear, because the collaboration with the attackers feels as if the rest of the women condone what happened and leave her, the victim, with the guilt. And psychologically it boils down to another attack on top of what was endured already. It will leave even more scars on the victims souls that will need years - if ever - to heal. Inflicted this time not by the men that sexually attacked but by the women that pretend to find fault in this only with the female victim and not with her attackers.

For the egotistic urge to have peace of mind and be at peace with men these women sell off their sisters who are in pain. And thereby too allow these gross human rights violations against women to continue.

Telling of sexual assault to become famous?

But blaming the female victim for apparent misconduct is usually only done when all else fails, when for reasons of witnesses present the incident as such cannot be denied. Where this is not the case, the easiest way yet to get out of the fix remains to dispute that a sexual assault as described in a testimony ever happened. For this, any argument will often do. As someone with regard to questioning Natasha Smith's account wrote on twitter yesterday: "I'm not suggesting she's making it up but people lie. Gay Girl in Damascus anyone?"

A not too convincing argument, for if one points out that people lie one is of course already short of suggesting "she's making it up". Why else would one doubt her credibility and point out that "people lie"?

The comparison to the Gay Girl in Damascus - which was in fact a 46 year old idiotic American male obviously lacking all comprehension of what empathy and human feelings are about - is in addition flawed, because it ignores the fact, that as much as the Gay Girl in Damascus wrote fantastical stories, 'she' never pretended to recount a story of a sexual assault on herself with vivid details of her genital zones.

That's where the thinking once more goes wrong trying to ward off the horror, a victim of sexual assault could actually tell the truth. A truth one would have to face, which apparently is harder for many women to do than to spread doubt it ever happened.

The insinuation that a victim only tells such a story to become famous and interesting shows an astonishing lack of understanding what telling such a story for the victim actually means. It is not like telling some story of everyday life or political pressure, as the Gay Girl of Damascus did. Telling of a sexual attack is like stripping yourself in public, giving people insights into the worst happenings to your private parts, which doesn't come easy to anyone. It's for a reason we call them 'private' parts, because out of shame we do not expose these voluntarily in public. To tell the story however how men groped and shoved their fingers into your private parts, these become public. And it feels like you might as well stand on the market square and rip off your clothes for all to see and watch you naked - knowing well, all will. No one wants to be stared at, but in recounting such a story of sexual assault this will happen, if only in the minds and imagination of the readers.

That is a very unpleasant knowledge the victim has and is anything but easy. To imply anyone would do this just for getting attention or becoming famous shows that the critics - luckily - have never experienced sexual assault personally and do not know what goes on inside a victim when it takes the courage to tell the world.

To recount a sexual assault is a horror relived

A few months ago one night on twitter a hashtag suddenly sprang up called #IDidNotReport. With starting their tweets with this hashtag women suddenly began to recount what happened to them days or years ago with regard to sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse and even rape. "I did not report", they said, and went on to explain what it was they did not report and why they didn't and why now they thought it was time to let it out. The accounts that were coming in suddenly with the force of a tidal wave were harrowing and innumerous and tweeps I followed started to open up and tell stories I would never have imagined happened to them. I was stunned, shocked - and paralyzed. For I too did not report many years ago and had promised myself never to tell.

As I saw a wave of testimonials sweep across my timeline and women showing an unbelievable bravery in speaking out what had happened to them, I began to realize the importance of not hiding what happened, of not pretending it didn't, which obviously - see above - is so much easier for society to bear.

It took me a while and I first confided silently in a woman friend, but then I took up my courage so as not to fail these brave women speaking out and I started to tell my story. I thought it was important, that a man too admits that this happened to him because especially men think such assaults are 'unmanly' and are convinced that they should never tell. As did I.

It took seven or eight 140 character tweets only in which I described that I did not report the sexual attack on me many years back on a trip home in a sleeper from Luxor to Cairo, when I was seriously ill with high fever and the elderly tourist in the bed below made use of my incapacitation and assaulted me in my sleep. Due to my illness and very high temperature I could hardly fight him off, battled what felt like hours until he seemed to give up and I fell asleep again exhausted. When I woke up the next morning he was gone from the compartment and so was my necklace. He had been at me once more at night and to this day I don't know what else he did after I had fallen asleep again.

Telling this story in those few lines on twitter without going into any more detail was sheer horror. I had always imagined to have put off this unpleasant incident long ago and never felt it had in any way interfered with my sexual well-being or self-confidence. I worked this out for myself, classified it as an unfortunate incident that I could not prevent - wrong place, wrong time, wrong circumstances - but not as something that could easily happen again any day to come. That probably made it easier for me to put it aside. So much more surprised and shocked I was to see that when that hashtag appeared on my timeline and I started to read all the reports from others, this long settled story came up like a wave of hot and cold hitting me and the idea of telling the world what had happened - 26 years after the assault occurred - seemed impossible to do.

After I had pulled myself together and had told my story in those few tweets, a wave of positive reactions set in with tweeps - both female and male - praising me for my courage and telling me how undoubtedly strong and brave I was. Only to the woman friend from before did I confess that I was neither, but that I was in fact and literally shaking, trembling and sweating to such an extent that I had to take a shower at 2 o'clock in the morning to get back into normal life. Sweating like this, feeling dirty, abused, disturbed, hurt and confused on an incident that had happened so long ago - only because I took it upon me to finally speak about it. And only in a few tweets.

There is nothing more hurtful than to encounter disbelief

If this personal experience is anything to go by, I can assure you that telling the story of how you were sexually assaulted - and that even in detail and only a few days after it happened - is anything but easy, is anything but something you would do for fun or to get attention or to get famous. You would more than gladly miss out on such fame, thank you very much, if only it didn't happen or if it did you could keep quiet about it. Anyone taking up the courage to tell his story however to alert the world that these attacks happen, that sexual assaults must be taken seriously and not ignored or put off as figments of the imagination, suffers hugely inside and will encounter an anxiety that compares to the initial horror experienced.

For this reason the attempt to discredit victims of sexual assault - be they female or male - by insinuating they only tell such a story to become famous and garner attention borders on the malicious. It blatantly ignores the pain inflicted by recounting such an attack and the emotional stress a victim is going through when it tells of what happened, knowing only too well what images the account will invoke in the readers. The private parts will become public parts, the readers will visualize what you tell, you will thus become the victim again to what happened - only this time it seems in front of everyone's eyes. And what after that? Will you still be able to hold your head up high now that everyone sees you as a "sexual victim", sexualizing you in every aspect as if this was what you were made up of, the only thing that mattered about you?

It is incredibly difficult to do. And if Natasha Smith told her story the way she did - and others did before her too - then partly due to still being severely traumatized but also because with every detail you describe you know that the imagery in readers minds will begin to tick like a clock gone wild. And these images will stick to you - and it will be difficult to rid yourself of this knowledge.

To whoever picks up the courage nevertheless to tell the story of sexual assault in order to shake up the world and say: Hey listen! This happens! - there is nothing more hurtful than to encounter disbelief, discrediting, ignorance of the pain inflicted. The worst that victims of such crimes report when going to police stations is having to face officers who shake their heads in disbelief, disinterest, disregard and show willingness to believe the accused more than the victim - is to be treated like a liar, not taken seriously - left in the end alone with the horror one barely survived.

There is no excuse for this at all. In all statistics done on women reporting sexual crimes the number of fabricated stories turned out to be insignificantly low. And yet disbelief rather than belief seems for many the initial name of the game. Apparently it still makes more sense to doubt the credibility of a victim than to trust that no one in her sane mind would make up such a horribly story - which once told excessively burdens the victim and her sexual privacy. Not only after surviving such an assault but too after telling about it, nothing for the victim will ever be the same. To imply a women would do this easily, is baseless and inexcusable. If not malicious, it can only result from the sheer ignorance of what truly goes on in a victim after a sexual assault.

With denial the victim is assaulted a second time

With all the stories we find on the internet, posted and reposted via social media tools, it does make sense to be cautious and awake and to think twice when hearing a story that is unpleasantly bold. However in the case of sexual assault testimonials this has become an automatic reaction for many, and sadly many women. The shying away from the horror told and the wish not having to acknowledge the truth about such attacks leads into denial mode and starts to discredit the victim. With that nothing is gained. The situation - for all women believe it or not, not only for the 'liar' or worse the 'slut' - will stay like it is, but above all the victim will be hurt even more.

And if you find out Natasha Smith did not lie about the assault but told it as it is - will you then let the horror of what happened to her reach you or will you find another reason to not let it touch you? - And will you then apologize to her for inflicting even more pain on her by doubting her credibility? - Or will you just pretend your public doubting never happened and look away? - How decent is this then? Is it truly her story you worry about or not much more your own?

Even if the urge is felt to go into denial mode for reasons shown above, the victim will seriously feel that it is assaulted a second time - on top of what it already had to endure. Out of of fairness, compassion and responsibility it would therefore be vital and wise to tread softly. If you are in doubt, wait and watch and do research if you must but don't discredit publicly, creating wrongs that cannot be undone. And don't think it is cool - when others show empathy - to go against the wind and openly question the victim's credibility. There is nothing cool about being in denial and the issue at hand is too serious to use it for playing games.

It would be better to first give the victim the benefit of the doubt and not the culprit. Otherwise, whether you like it or not, you become unwillingly the collaborator to such horrific, inexcusable attacks on women. And then, as much as you deny it to yourself now, the next victim could be you after all.


  1. Eloquent and comprehensive. -- Elaine

  2. Wow, I could never put it all into words like you just did, but you have spoken powerfully for all sexual assault victims everywhere, including you and me. I hope many will read this and open their eyes to this horror and ugliness, no matter the cost. Only by telling each other the truth do we have a chance to change this world so that there are no more victims and no one stands alone. Thank you!

  3. I read the Natasha Smith story and it reads false to me and I know sexual harassment of women in Cairo is a problem so it's not trying to deny that it could happen or that it won't happen to me. It is the details she put in, the tone pandering to the stereotypes and her (for a journalist)inaccuracies on descriptions (women don't wear burka's here for starters, the doctors reaction to her not being a virgin, they would have presumed she wasn't, far to many for those of us who live in Egypt) the sensationalized way she wrote it. I could go on and on about why it reads so false but what really horrifies me is that this story when proved false or inaccurate is that it is going to make the legitimate stories all that harder to be believed. It will set back all the hard work that organizations are doing to have police and society admit to the problem of sexual harassment of women in Egypt.

    1. Thanks for your comment, that I found interesting because it proved once more the necessity for writing this blog. For reasons I don't know you react exactly the way I often see it and have described in my essay. You find fault with the account of a sexual assault but do not harshly speak out against the crime. "I know sexual harassment of women in Cairo is a problem" you say - but your tone shows that you don't want to acknowledge the dimension. First it is not "harassment" we are talking about but sexual assault bordering on rape - a serious crime in any country and a brutal attack on a person's sexual integrity -- secondly Natasha is not the first to report such horrific incidences, yet your response is all around not wanting to believe her - not however crying out that such brutal sexual attacks happen. That exactly is the denial I was talking about, and only you can decide why you react like that and are not willing to side with the victim that is of your own gender.

      While you say that Natasha's account "reads false to me" - something I do not share for her account compares very credible with other accounts of such attacks in the last year - you yourself give many wrong reasons and stereotypes as arguments.

      You say "women don't wear burka's here for starters", which is absolutely not true. Roam the streets of Cairo and you will see many women wearing Burkas. I do not understand how you can come to such a false statement. If you don't believe it - which would be strange because it would mean you are not in Cairo after all - there would even be enough photos to prove it.

      Then you find the reaction of the doctor to her virginity doubtful. And you are truly not aware of how the topic 'virginity' is treated both by doctors and society in Egypt? I find no fault at all, but for the fact that the reaction of the doctor is totally flawed and puts the importance on the wrong detail. Society in Egypt is obsessed with women's virginity as we all know and you prove with your comment that the doctors "would have presumed that she (Natasha) wasn't" - adding "far too many" (not being a virgin) in Egypt. Why would the doctors have presumed that Natasha was not a virgin? Because she was foreign and blonde? Is this the insinuation you make against a victim fo a sexual assault? Then it is you more than the doctor who automatically presumes a blonde young foreign woman is not a virgin. In that you are in the best of companies with the army of Egypt that has violated women with virginity tests on just the exact thinking you show. The reaction of the doctor Natasha describes is hurtful to the victim but definitely not an "inaccuracy" as you write. Your reaction insinuating about Natasha's virginity and lamenting there are too many without virginity in Egypt on the contrary is an additional insult to a victim of a sexual assault that has to prove to no one whether she is a virgin or not. But you automatically take it that she is not a virgin anymore. Which is more a concern you lament about than the sexual attack on her by a mob of sex crazed men almost killing her. - How disturbing a reaction is that?

      (continued below)

    2. That you say Natasha wrote this in a "sensationalized" way only shows to me the little empathy you are willing to have for a victim of such a mob attack - which are not an invention of this victim but very well documented in many cases now. Her report, from what I have read in other testimonials, was in my eyes even subdued, taken back in tone and definitely not sensational. It was carried by the deep traumatization that occurred, something you don't even acknowledge.

      What was sensational horrific was what happened. But to that you don't find one single comment. That is not something to discuss or confront, you just ignore the attack as such and only concentrate on the stereotypical reaction I describe in my essay to a) doubt the story told is true and b) blame the victim for the way she tells her story.

      You ask yourself what will happen when her story is proven false. And worry much about the consequences. Interesting. But didn't you read my essay above? I asked another, more serious question.

      What - again - will happen if you have to learn this story is true, for which there is much proof? Will you then write another comment on this blog and apologize to her for wronging her? Will you admit that you did not take this serious assault against a women seriously and will in earnest think about that? Or will you not just retreat then and think - well tough, better luck next time?

      I miss the empathy a victim has the right to. I read denial and a proof that what I described in my essay is founded. You are a woman. But you don't stand with the woman that has been so horrifically attacked and wronged. This is not only sad with regard to the victim. In doing so you are hurting yourself, because - as you in this one point rightly say - it could happen to you.

      I do hope not. Should the unfortunate happen however, I hope you find women that other than you show empathy for you as the victim and try to help you overcome the most horrific attack on you sexual privacy and the integrity of your life.

  4. For all those who are still in doubt about the credibility of Natasha's account, watch her tell her story on CNN. It might help you - and her.


  5. Another excellent well writen piece. The point that people are more concerned by the legitmacy of her story than the actual assualt is very dissturbing. I know of many women in Cairo who have been violated in some degree or another. They have not been dressed in revealing clothes etc they have been targeted because they are western. They are not niave people, culturally aware and respectful.
    Even if you choose to believe she exagerated the story, it does not and should not distract from the fact these acts do happen, you only need to check out various countries FO warnings and without sounding flippant there is no smoke without fire. To deny/argue against hers and others stories you should be appalled. Those that do claim these and other reports are false or at worst exagerated are equally quilty of these hideous crimes.


  6. This account from an American female journalist does not sound exaggerated to me. Compare the accounts and decide if there is a reasonable match: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO12X1nhzzk