This month, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was released in the UK. The film stars the Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert as a woman named Michèle, who, in the opening scene of the film, is violently raped by a masked home intruder. As Michèle begins to suspect who her rapist is, she enters into a complex dynamic of self-preservation and provocation as she engages with him socially and even sexually.
As a film critic, I found the film mixed. As a survivor of sexual assault, I was disturbed – not by the film itself, but by how reviews of the film criticised Michèle’s reaction to her rape. The ignorance, privilege and victim-blaming inherent in so many reactions to the film was not just infuriating, it was harmful, perpetuating so many of the reasons sexual-assault survivors don’t speak out about their experiences.
Many comments made by the director, Oscar voters and (mainly male) film critics revolved around the idea that Michèle’s reaction to her rape is strange and “unexpected” because she doesn’t report it to the police; she goes on with her life and work, and even has interactions with her rapist.
This is not unusual or strange or unexpected. It’s actually the experience of most survivors of sexual violence. It was mine.
I, like Michèle, was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. It happened on a weekday, in his house, in a part of Dublin I didn’t know. Afterwards, I had to get two buses home, where I had dinner with my family, as I did very evening. I didn’t cry or break down or tell anyone; I was numb and processing and clinging on to normalcy and routine like a life raft. The next day, I went back to university as per usual. I sat in my English tutorial with him and only six other students, calmly discussing the assigned readings. I saw him nearly every weekday in college, was occasionally in situations where we had to make small-talk.
To call this reaction “unexpected” is to ignore the fact that the stigma surrounding sexual violence prevents 90 per cent of rapes being reported. It also ignores that 82 per cent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, so having to interact with your abuser is a common experience.
Carrying on as normal, breaking down, moving on were my reaction to sexual assault. One stage wasn’t more important than the other; no stage was ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker'
Rape culture has forced survivors into a position where speaking out about our experiences more commonly results in judgement and blame, rather than justice – but remaining silent and withstanding seeing our abusers is also used as evidence that it must not have happened, or must not have been that bad. If we don’t immediately emotionally break and tell someone, we’re lying. If we do, we likely won’t be believed anyway – and we’ve opened ourselves up to the court of public opinion.
And, in the court of public opinion, everything is up for scrutiny. Michèle’s reaction to her rape has also been described by critics as “strong” and “infuriating”, implying that there’s a hierarchy of correctness for how survivors should react. This contributes to the rape-culture-enforced idea that there’s a “perfect victim” of sexual assault, who reacts in one specific, palatable way – and only they are to be believed and supported. There’s a limited amount of empathy for survivors and, in order to get it, we need to perfectly recite the approved emotional script.
I didn’t adhere to the script. Like Michèle, I went through a period of wanting to have sex with the man who assaulted me – a desire that critics have described as “perverse.” How about “self-preservation”? In my mind, having consensual sex would undo what had happened; saying “yes” now would retroactively change him having ignored my “no”. He rejected me. I’m grateful for this and hate that I have feelings of gratitude towards him. Like everything about my recovery, it was complicated.
But society’s constant policing of how sexual-assault survivors react ignores individual complexity and the evolving nature of trauma, and instead asserts that recovery is simple, linear, identical. Women who are assaulted must break. Immediately. Publicly. Palatably.
I did break, emotionally – but not until two years after I was assaulted. The numbness finally faded and turned into searing self-loathing, paralysing panic attacks and debilitating depression. I dropped out of university, spent my days in bed crying, didn’t let any man touch me.
I wonder how the critics and voters and audience members who criticised Michèle would have judged me for not having an emotional reaction sooner. What adjectives would they use to describe the unacceptable gap between my assault and the socially required response? “Infuriating.” “Cold.” “Strange.” “Unsympathetic.” And when I emotionally broke? Would I have finally been sympathetic – or just “weak”?
Ten years on, I’ve come to terms with my assault and no longer feel much about it at all – not because I’ve repressed my feelings, but because I’ve dealt with them. Like many things, it’s now just something that happened to me a long time ago. It does not define me. All of these stages of my response to sexual assault – carrying on as normal, breaking down, moving on – were my reaction. One stage wasn’t more important than the other; no stage was “stronger” or “weaker” than the other, nor more valid. The responses and experiences of other survivors are just as valid.
Survivors of sexual violence don’t need to adhere to a response to trauma that is identical or predictable or uncomplicated. Because we are not the problem. Sexual violence is. Society’s response to sexual violence is.
If only we spent more time criticising that.