Victims shouldn’t be blamed for sharing their truth.
In Rita Ora’s new book Hot Right Now, she writes about being in a relationship with a 26-year-old man when she was only 14.
Ora talked about the relationship in an interview with The Sun, where she said:
“I was very new to the whole world of a man and a female… I felt like I had a form of respect, I felt like he listened to me. Now I know he listened to me because he obviously wanted to have sex.”
“I don’t want to say I suffered, because I wanted it,” the 24-year-old added. “I don’t want to say that I was forced to do it. I don’t want people to think I was abused but I was definitely more mature than I should have been at 14.”
Ora’s feelings about a long-ago relationship that was legally abusive are complicated. Its this narrative complexity that the media doesn’t quite know how to frame, resulting in headlines like “Rita Ora Reveals She Was Sexually Active At 14” and “Rita Ora Slammed For ‘Child Abuse’ Relationship Comments: ‘I Wanted It.'”
Ora’s story has been met with sympathy, but also confusion and criticism on social media for admitting that while she was groomed and manipulated by the unnamed man, she also “wanted it.”
Her comments are a reminder of the ways underaged girls are exploited by older men, but the reaction to the admission also proves that we still don’t know how to have nuanced conversations about sexual abuse.
Some have found Ora’s comments harmful for supposedly implying that what happened to her was not actually abuse. A rep for the UK charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children chastised Ora for failing to “think about the effect [her] words” can have on young people dealing with abuse. “We know from calls to ChildLine that abuse can be life shattering,” the rep added. “It is essential that people are given the confidence to get help to overcome the often devastating impact of abuse.”
It was The Sun interviewer who pointed out to Ora the unsavory nature of the relationship, to which the singer and actress replied: “It is child abuse really, isn’t it?”
It’s true that we need to be more transparent about what abuse is or isn’t, and be careful not to undermine the pain and trauma said abuse may cause, but Ora’s own hesitance at calling her experience abuse isn’t all that surprising. There’s currently a single dominant narrative about sexual abuse, a narrative wherein the only real victims are those who don’t “want” it at all, whose lives are irrevocably ruined, who deal with a trauma so profound and so complete that it’s easy to spot a mile away.
But when we paint sexual abuse victims in such black-and-white terms — often in a well-intentioned attempt to highlight just how terrible sexual abuse is — it’s no wonder that those who don’t identify with that kind of trauma find it hard to call what they experience actual abuse. They feel, as Ora seems to feel, that they do not have the right to take on the label of “victim” because they never felt victimized in the way the dominant narrative expects that they should.
There’s a gray area to sexual abuse and rape that we don’t talk about, a gray area that Charlotte Shane eloquently described in a 2012 piece for The New Inquiry, writing:
One woman’s lack of trauma need not be construed as a judgment against a woman who struggles to regain her equilibrium after a sexual violation. It is only one of many possible responses, all of which are equally valid because rape is an individual’s experience, not a collective one.
Why is Ora being criticized for not thinking about how her words might affect young women, when it is her words that highlight the unfortunate results of not acknowledging the inherent complexity of sexual abuse?
It’s important to remember that Ora’s feelings about her past relationship don’t change the fact that what happened to her was sexual abuse. Giving consent does not automatically mean that a sexual encounter or relationship is not abusive, especially when one party is below the age of consent. The context in which consent is given and the power dynamics at play are just as important as the actual act of saying “yes.” But it’s also important to remember that the way that women deal with, react to and understand experiences of sexual abuse are completely dependent on the individual women.
As a society — and especially as the media — we need to allow survivors of abuse the agency to craft their own complicated narratives while still condemning abusers. It’s an important and heady task, and one we haven’t quite figured out how to take on yet.
Looking at Ora’s words, it seems clear that even though she “wanted” the relationship, looking back she realizes it was ultimately unhealthy and inappropriate. She, and young women like her, should be able to live in that truth and live in that complexity without being criticized for it. Victims should never be blamed for not identifying as such.