This blog is from M. Crawford, PA Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) downton

Anna, a beloved character in the show, was brutally raped in the second episode of season four. She also begged the one person she confided in to not tell anyone – especially not her husband, a kind man with a brooding temper who just escaped the gallows for allegedly killing his ex-wife. This set off a firestorm of criticism about how dare they do this to her character, how dare this character remain silent and how dare rape enter into the glossy art of theatre.

This episode of Downton Abbey is set in 1922. It’s now 2014; we have Senate committees investigating military leaders for failure to address sexual assault, students marching on their campuses demanding better handling of rape cases and there’s even a Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and survivors of sexual assault still beg the people they confide in to not tell anyone.

Why do survivors do this? Lots of reasons; first, survivors rarely trust that their communities will respond to them with support and without judgment. Many survivors fear they will experience additional emotional, and sometimes physical, harm if others find out what happened to them. Steubenville and Maryville are recent real world examples of how invasive and cruel some community responses can be. Survivors – and offenders – know it.

Downton Abbey uses Anna’s fear of crimes of retribution as the reason for her silence, and this too is not uncommon among survivors. Not in 1922 and not in 2014. Advocates de-escalate fathers, friends and other family in more emergency rooms than they can count. Many survivors don’t want the additional trauma of having another person they love face harm or prison, and neither did Anna.

Finally, some of the outrage over this episode is rooted in the concept of “it can’t happen here.” Society likes to imagine sexual assault only happening to people in bad neighborhoods who were making bad decisions and thus targeted by bad people. Reality check: people who commit sex offenses, especially acquaintance rapists, carefully choose their victims. As Downton Abbey shows, they infiltrate groups, they endear themselves to the community and, when the opportunity presents itself, they betray trust.

There are plenty of other generic reasons for survivor silence and plenty more on an individual level. Instead of trying to crucify the show’s writers, we should have taken this topic and held it up as a shining example of how the realities of sexual assault have not changed in nearly a century. Because not only can it happen here, it does happen here.

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