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Bad enough to count?: The problematic creation of a hierarchy of sexual assault

By Kate Astbury

TW: Discussion of sexual assault. 


After high-profile testimonies involving sexual violence are made public, conversations often ensue about the victims credibility, and an assessment of how much of a ‘grey area’ the incident was. The allegations earlier this year surrounding Russell Brand, which he denies, have followed the same familiar pattern. Whilst most of the public conversations rightly admired the bravery of the victim-survivors prepared to give their testimony, a familiar and worrying narrative was perpetuated amongst that praise. That is, the narrative that only some kinds of sexual violence are ‘bad’ enough to warrant their place in that category. This narrative conditions us to see sexual violence on a scale, at one end deserving of our concern, and at the other end, too murky and contentious to comment on. We consciously or unconsciously tend to place sexual assault testimony somewhere on that scale, and then treat it accordingly by either sympathising and supporting the victim or questioning and critiquing them.


Of course, there are undoubtedly sexual experiences that whilst morally questionable, fall outside the legal definition of rape, which should rightly be the subject of further reflection on the nature of sexual ethics. However, the testimonies that this kind of narrative tends to affix to, and the focus here, are instances of non-consensual sex. 


As demonstrated in the wake of the Brand allegations, testimony detailing instances of non-consensual sex are often described within public discourse as ‘grey’. Describing these kinds of allegations as ‘grey’ signals that the general public don’t deem the account to be severe enough to be labelled as sexual violence outright. The introduction of this ‘scale of violence’ in which only some sexual assaults are ‘bad enough’ to really count results in many testimonies of sexual violence being discounted, and the victims credibility challenged. In reality, accounts of non consensual sex are not grey at all, but a difficulty in communicating one’s experience coupled with the prevalence of rape myths within society means that they aren’t called what they really are, rape. 


As a society we know, or ought to know, that the notion that there is a ‘perfect victim’ when it comes to sexual violence is fuelled by harmful rape myths that create an inaccurate understanding. Yet when we consciously or unconsciously place cases of sexual violence on this imagined scale, the practical implication is that those whose experience doesn’t fit neatly into what we imagine to be an incident of sexual violence, can feel unable to call themselves a victim, and therefore this narrative has the effect of unintentionally silencing those individuals.

The author and philosopher Susan Brison reflects on​ this in her 2014 article for Time. Brison, a victim of two rapes, recounts the difficulty she felt in talking about one of them. In one instance, Brison is violently assaulted by a stranger in a park. In this case she notes that she was “the best kind of victim” in terms of credibility. She felt able to speak about it, she received legal justice, and even felt comfortable reflecting on the experience in her book. The second rape, committed by someone she knew in her university accommodation, left her feeling powerless and unable to report it or talk about it at all. Although the legal definition of rape pertained to both instances, Brison reflected on the fact that her ability to give testimony on the experience and her credibility as a victim differed dramatically. Many factors may be at play here, but the scale of perceived violence could have influenced how Brison felt her credibility as a victim would be judged, demonstrating how this narrative often played out in public discussion of victims’ testimony, can affect how the individual understands and reflects on their own experience.


This narrative, that a victim's credibility is in some way affected by the level of severity the incident is judged to be, particularly affects those who have experienced the non-consensual removal of a barrier method of contraception, also known as stealthing. Whilst legally understood as rape, as the removal violates consent, stealthing is often falsely seen as a less serious form of sexual violence. This leads many of those who experience it to downplay the experience to themselves and others, in fear that it is not considered ‘bad enough to count’.


The sense that some kinds of sexual violence like stealthing are not ‘that bad’ creates a problematic comparison to other kinds of sexual violence which are seen as more extreme and warrant public condemnation. But this comparison is unhelpful. Ultimately regardless of the act, all sexual violence has a distinctive commonality: that the individual’s body has been violated and consent ignored. As Olivia Petter - herself a victim of stealthing - poignantly notes, regardless of the kind of act, the psychological ramifications of sexual violence all operate around the same one principle, a lack of consent. 


When victims come forward to give their testimony, as they did in the case of Russell Brand, the subsequent public discussion is important. The way society treats this testimony really matters. Not just for the individual who is giving their testimony but also for those victims sitting quietly in the shadows. They will be listening, judging reactions, and reflecting on whether their experience will be deemed ‘bad enough’ to count.


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