Warning: This post addresses gender-based violence. It also includes a handful of minor spoilers pertaining to Kate Atkinson’s award-nominated Life After Life.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life: A Novel, which is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a grim depiction of an English woman’s alternate lives, including one in which she repeatedly endures sexual assault and domestic violence.
As I discuss in an earlier post, Building a Novel on a Cliché or Two, Atkinson’s Life After Life is an interesting work of fiction, even if too severe and, at times, too tedious for my taste. The hardest part for me to slog through was in the first half of the novel, when Ursula Todd is raped at the age of 16, an experience that initiates a pattern of violence in her life. Finding herself in a subsequent abusive relationship, she wonders, “Was life to be lived as a continuous punishment? (Why not, didn’t she deserve that?).”
Then, after Ursula’s death, the book returns to her 16th birthday, only in this version, Ursula punches her would-be rapist in, apparently, “a very unladylike way,” when he tries to kiss her. This act alters Ursula’s future, putting her on a better trajectory; not only does she avoid being raped, but she also never marries the man who killed her in that alternative life.
I applauded Ursula’s so-called “unladylike” resistance, but it would have been nice if in the alternative life there had been no need for Ursula to defend herself because the would-be rapist had learned to respect women. That’s probably an unrealistic dream for 1926, when Ursula was 16 years old. It may even be unrealistic almost a century later, considering the fact that sexual violence remains prevalent across the world, including in England and Wales.
The way Ursula changes her life — by punching her would-be rapist — left me thinking about a murky area of sexual assault research and advocacy: Should victims fight back?
Some research** suggests that resistance strategies generally help prevent the completion of a rape without increasing the likelihood that a victim will sustain greater physical injury, with physical resistance (punching, hitting, biting, etc) possibly being more effective than forceful verbal strategies (yelling, screaming, swearing, etc). Non-forceful physical resistance, such as fleeing, can also be effective. But the efficacy of various resistance strategies depends on the circumstances, such as the number of perpetrators, whether he/they have a weapon, whether the victim knows the perpetrator(s), and whether they are in an isolated location.
Even if resistance may help women avoid the completion of a rape, there should never be an expectation that women must resist. While some women flee or fight, others freeze.
The good news in my part of the world, the United States, is that the law has largely changed to recognize this variation in victim responses to rape. Pennsylvania, for example, no longer requires victims to prove that they resisted an assailant’s sexual advances or to corroborate their testimony with physical injuries (two requirements that were based on the myths that women lie about rape and that rape isn’t common). That doesn’t mean judges and juries apply the law appropriately, though, with far too many people in our society continuing to harbor rape myths that discredit victims of sexual violence. Maybe things are better in an alternative universe.
*Sexual assault disproportionately affects women, but men are also victims of sexual violence. For the first time since its implementation more than 80 years ago, the Uniform Crime Report will finally include male victims in its statistics.
**See Sarah E. Ullman, A 10-Year Update of “Review and Critique of Empirical Studies of Rape Avoidance, Criminal Justice & Behavior 411 (2007).