Why it’s so hard to speak up about assault

Night buses in London are wild – on busy nights you’re just grateful to catch one that isn’t full up but the things that go on in them are sometimes really sketchy. I once saw someone showing off a gun to his friends. I don’t live in London anymore but I had many a night bus journey when I did, travelling back to Camberwell in the early hours.

Melania Geyonat and her girlfriend Chris, were a couple amongst those travelling home on a night bus recently, only they got attacked on their way home, because they were two women in a relationship. The couple were verbally and physically assaulted, and they spoke out in the news about it.

Speaking out about an assault is incredibly difficult to do. Common post-assault psychological reactions include shame and self blame, both of which are associated with talking less about what happened.

Imagine something that you feel ashamed about – even a tiny bit: something you said that you then felt bad about, perhaps, or something you did that you knew wasn’t how you wanted to behave. Call it to mind and how do you feel? Maybe a bit hot and bothered? Maybe you’d prefer not to think about it? What if I asked you to tell someone about it? What would you do to make that ok? Make a joke of it perhaps? Or leave some bits out to make it sound a bit better, or maybe you’d refuse to talk about it, or get cross that I’ve even suggested that.

Shame is a powerful emotion. It makes us feel “outside the group”, on our own. It’s linked with ‘shame-avoidance behaviours’ which include not making eye contact, being fidgety or agitated, and avoiding talking about the thing we are ashamed of. These same behaviours also get associated with lying, which is really problematic for people trying to talk about something bad that has happened and that they feel ashamed about, that absolutely isn’t their fault.

It might sound weird to feel shame when we are the victim, but it’s really normal, as are self-blaming thoughts like “I should have done something differently” or “It must have been something I said or did”. Maybe this is us trying to make sense of a nonsensical event and feel some control again about it, but again, this can really get in the way of talking about what’s happened. It can also make people feel less certain about themselves when they are telling others.

An additional problem with reporting is memory. When we experience something traumatic our memories of it tend to be more fragmented and our narrative less coherent. This can make it hard to explain. Together with those shame-avoidance behaviours and undermining, self-blaming thoughts, it’s a major achievement whenever anyone reports an assault.

Other people’s reactions to someone who reports an assault make a difference. It’s sometimes hard to know what to say, if someone tells us something so big that it’s hard for us to imagine, or feels too sad and shocking to be able to say enough. It’s important, given that people already usually have some thoughts of self-blame, that whatever we do or say, we try to let them know that there is no reason to feel ashamed or at fault. Taking time to stop and acknowledge what has happened, and taking time to say we’re sorry that it did and that it’s not that person’s fault, can go a long way. Negative reactions can stop people talking about something, sometimes silencing them for years.

One of the women who was attacked spoke about how she felt the attack was to do with being women, as well as being gay women. The way the group of young people tried to coerce the couple into kissing for their entertainment before they attacked them makes me think of tired porn tropes. There is much involved in how cultures are created that enable this sort of attack to happen. This includes ideas about female sexuality that young people are steeped in from an early age, a lack of tolerance of diversity of many kinds that is very much part of mainstream discourse at the moment, and whatever it was going on for those young people in their personal contexts that may have contributed to them lashing out on a night bus.

Trying to understand the context is not to dismiss the horror of the attack or diminish responsibility for it. Neither does it make the daily extra emotional load that LGBTQ+ individuals experience any easier, whether it’s worry or fear about others’ reactions, or the extra thought needed just in coming out in everyday conversations. What can help? We know that one of the things that reduces shame is connection with others. Stonewall’s ideas on ‘how to be an ally’ speak to that. There is a lot of work that we can all share, on tackling homophobia, calling out the ‘small things’ (which are never small), and helping children understand from a young age that love is love and it really doesn’t matter who it’s for if it isn’t hurting anyone else.

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