Content note for rape, domestic violence in the following piece
The world of the Archers is often seen as middle England at its most comfortable, an everyday story of country folk with farming advice shoehorned in. (I really know more than I ever needed to about herbal lays and the different types of milking parlours that exist). It’s very coziness though means it explores serious issues in a far more subtle and nuanced way than its flashier TV cousins. Jacks slow decline into dementia, taking place over years, Vicky and Mike’s late pregnancy, and the birth of their child with Downs Syndrome, storylines which developed over months, and draw us in.
With this in mind I hoped that when the Archers approached domestic violence it would do so with its usual belief that these things are far more complicated than fiction often portrays. I have written before about Rob and Helen’s relationship, how he has groomed her, how his real character is occasionally shown when the mask slips. (Chillingly this is often when he is alone with the toddler Henry).
This week the storyline took a very bleak turn as Helen was raped by her partner. The show did not graphically depict this. Instead in one episode we heard Rob encouraging Helen to drink, and the next episode began with Helen weeping.
When partners violate boundaries.
First, the legal bit. Under UK law it is judged that an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex. Marital rape became a crime in England and Wales in 1991. This was a reflection of changing attitudes to victims of rape. Society began to accept that previous behaviour, dress, being sexually active, did not mitigate the crime of rape. Simply having given consent to sex on a previous occasion does not mean you have given blanket consent to sex in the future.
We live our lives in more complex tangled ways than the law might reflect however. Couples will often have sex without expressly, one might say formally, asking. Couples may also have drunk sex, both willing and with no feeling of being coerced or abused. What matters here is someone’s experience, and how that experience is interpreted by them, how it makes them feel. Therapy rooms are not courts of law. It may well be that one partner believes the sex was consensual whilst the other does not.
One of the hardest things when we have a boundary violated by a partner is accepting the person we love, who we believe loves us can hurt us. It is not only a betrayal of trust, but can cause us to doubt ourselves, our judgement. How can we have been so stupid/blind/carried away? Victims blaming themselves is all too common, as this report about Chrissy Hynde demonstrates. This can partially be to convince themselves that they have at least some power in their lives, some ability to choose, to be active not passive in what happens to them. Rape removes someones agency and personhood, reducing them to an object on which the desires of another are acted out. It should not surprise us then that some victims cling to the idea that they were responsible, since this at least lets them believe they are not completely powerless.A powerful tool for recovery in therapy here can be to help a survivor understand that the choice they made to survive was the most powerful one possible.
In case of intoxication though the blame can be why did I have that last drink/leave the bar/accept a lift. Rob, who gaslights Helen frequently plays on this by suggesting that she chose to drink heavily (when in fact the show made clear she tried to decline more alcohol) and that they both “got carried away.” Gaslighting is incredibly destructive within a relationship. By always positioning the victim as at fault, and mentally unstable, the abuser undermines the victims self belief, and encourages the idea they are responsible for anything that happens. It transfers responsibility for the abuse from where it lies (the perpetrator) onto the victim.
Helen has to not only deal with her conflicting emotions around someone she loves hurting her, but how others perceive their relationship. Helen’s friends and family initially distrusted Rob, and opposed their relationship. She fought against this, claiming they did not know Rob, that she should be trusted to make her own choices, that they were biased and unfair. Now they have decided they were wrong about Rob it will be a huge step for Helen to say they were right all along.
All of this feeds into the victim blaming mentality, one which turns responsibility from the abuser onto the victim. For, let me be clear here, no matter how drunk Helen was, how many times they have had sex in the past, how nice, or terrible, Rob’s behaviour is, or how much friends and family might want to say “I told you so” no one is responsible for rape except the rapist.
I have written previously of how I would approach counselling a couple where one of them had an interest in exploring kink. Could counselling, as a couple, help Helen and Rob? You might be surprised to hear me say yes. If Helen wants the relationship to continue, and both were willing to engage in therapy it could help. It might be one of those rare situations where separating for the course of therapy was advisable however, for Helen’s safety. There would also have to be a full admission from Rob that what he did was rape. It is easy to say leave someone, it ignores that love does not work like that, it cannot be turned off like a tap and someone may want to work on a relationship the outside world disapproves off.
Support for Helen.
Whether she decides to stay in the relationship or not Helen needs a lot of support right now. Many victims of rape find counselling incredibly helpful, as they work through the maelstrom of emotions, often conflicting, it brings up. There are practical considerations too, such as emergency contraception. Whilst in this case Helen may feel she does not need STD testing it is another awful hurdle victims of rape have to go through. It may be reassuring to know that in the UK GUM clinics are trained to handle this testing sensitively and with total confidentiality.
If a friend or family member discloses to you they have been a victim of rape it can be incredibly hard to know what to say. Covering everything would take another post, however some points to remember are;
- Reassure the person disclosing you believe them
- Do not defend the perpetrators actions
- Do not pressure them for details
- Do not suggest they may have caused the rape because of their behaviour
Simply being listened too, without blame or judgement is what most survivors want. It can be painful, for both parties, but it is a powerful step towards healing.
If you are a survivor of rape or sexual abuse counselling can be incredibly beneficial. If you need to talk to someone immediately you can contact Rape Crisis (EW) Rape Crisis (Scotland) or Broken Rainbow, an LGBT+ domestic violence charity.