If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few years, you may have heard references to several so-called “watershed” moments about how various societies treat the crimes of rape and sexual abuse:
- The brutal gang rape of a woman on a bus in Dehli, India in December was supposed to be a watershed moment for how that country treats women. At least until a virtually identical crime happened in early January.
- In Britain, the release of a report detailing six decades of sexual abuse by television celebrity Jimmy Savile is being called a watershed moment for how the UK police will handle sex crimes. Many aren’t convinced, though, since the report comes only four years after the police last questioned Savile about the many abuse allegations levied against him. The interview, according to the report, was “perfunctory” and Savile himself set the tone. Savile died without ever being charged with sexual abuse though police now admit that his offenses may number in the hundreds.
- Back here in the U.S., the conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 charges of child sexual last year was hailed as a watershed moment for how our society views sex crimes against children. Yet large organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church still spend millions of dollars in legal fees fighting efforts to force open their records of abusers to law enforcement.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that it seems to take incidents of immense proportion or brutality to get a society’s attention about crimes that truly happen every day, let’s talk about watershed. A watershed moment is, by definition, a critical moment when a group of people changes course. They stop doing things one way and begin doing it a different way. For a watershed moment to occur in regards how rape and sexual abuse are discussed, prosecuted, and understood in a society, it can’t be because the media decided it should happen – things actually need to change. We can start with the following:
1. Stop Assigning Guilt to Victims:
“What was she doing on the bus alone?”
“Why would she wear that?”
“If she hadn’t had so much to drink…”
Victim-blaming takes many forms. Whether it’s calling a sixteen year-old Ohio girl who may have been gang-raped at a party while comatose a “slut” or telling an Indian woman that she must marry her rapist in order to preserve her honor, it transfers some or even all of the guilt for the crime from where it rightly belongs – the perpetrator – to the victim. Why does it happen? Sometimes it happens to re-enforce cultural or religious norms – such as when Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu reportedly said the following in regards to the first Delhi victim:
“Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”
In other cases, it may be a subconscious way for others to reassure themselves that such crimes could not happen to them. The victim did something to put herself/himself into the situation therefore, he/she is suffering. I would never wear that/go there/drink that much, etc. Other times, victim blaming occurs as an attempt to maintain whatever status quo existed before the assault was reported. This was case of the 17 year-old victim of Jerry Sandusky who was bullied to the point he had to change schools in the middle of the year. The students bullying him were blaming him for the firing of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno. Yes, you read that correctly, people actually found a way to blame a child sexual abuse victim for his abuse…and that way involved football.
Whatever the motive behind victim-blaming, it is one of the fundamental reasons why ending sex crimes is so difficult. Victims who believe they will be blamed for their own attacks don’t come forward. Unpunished offenders become repeat offenders. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they feel remorse if others are all too willing to lay the blame elsewhere?
2. Stop Trivializing Sex-based Crimes:
Just as societies are willing to blame victims for sexual assault and rape, they are often just as willing to minimize the seriousness of sexual crimes. Returning to the Jimmy Savile case in Britain, one victim who complained about his actions towards her claims she was told “Oh, that’s just Jimmy. That’s just his way.” Jerry Sandusky managed to elude detection as a serial child rapist by convincing his employers at Penn State that he was “only showering” with young boys. Both adult and child victims can be confused and distraught after an assault and can be very susceptible to the suggestion of others that their experience was not serious or that it was a misunderstanding, or even a misinterpretation of actions that were innocent in their intent.
It also doesn’t help when lawmakers and law enforcement officials create artificial distinctions about rape: “forcible rape” (from Congress in 2012), “legitimate rape” (U.S. Congressman Todd Akin in 2012), “serious rape” (UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in 2011). Such distinctions give victims the impression that unless they are assaulted by the proverbial “stranger in a dark alley” with the bruises and broken bones to show for it, their assault isn’t worth the justice system’s time. Date rapes, acquaintance rapes, assaults where the victim is intoxicated or unconscious – they simply don’t make the cut. The common perception among victims is that law enforcement won’t take the crimes seriously. And often, law enforcement lives down to this reputation. The intervention of the Internet activist group Anonymous into the investigation of the alleged rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Steubenville, OH earlier this month came about due to the widespread belief that local law enforcement were not taking the case seriously.
Regarding child sexual abuse, if the abuse happened several years ago and the victim has just recently worked up the courage to come forward? It’s not unusual for such victims to be asked, “Well, it’s been years hasn’t it? Aren’t you over it by now?” Or worse, victims of child sexual abuse are increasingly accused lying in of hopes to “cashing-in” with lawsuits.
Let’s be clear, all instances of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse are real crimes. Serious crimes. They are as deserving of the time and effort of law enforcement as any other crime. It’s long past time that we treated them that way.
3. Stop Prioritizing the Reputations of Organizations Over Victims:
Late in 2012, the Boy Scouts of America was forced by a series of court orders to begin releasing decades of its so-called internal “perversion files” – records of the scout leaders and other employees who had been dismissed by the organization for inappropriate actions with children. As reported by the Washington Post and others, the records show that in many instances the offenders were dismissed quietly, without being reported to law enforcement. In some cases, the parents of the victims agreed to this method, both to minimize trauma to their children and to “save Scouting” from negative publicity. The idea was that the BSA would flag the offenders in their files so they could not be admitted to Scouting programs in the future. There were two key problems with this plan, the flags didn’t work. Due to inaccurate record-keeping and failures in communication, dismissed offenders resurfaced again and again in BSA programs in different states, often abusing more children. The second problem with the “go quietly” plan was that the dismissed offenders were often men who had access to children through other aspects of their lives – they were teachers, coaches, counselors, and yes, priests. Barred from joining the BSA, they simply found victims elsewhere. By not reporting them, by placing the reputation of the organization above the safety of children, the Boy Scouts of America allowed offenders to abuse again. And again.
There have certainly been allegations that the same “reputation first” existed in the Catholic Church, at Penn State and now most recently at the BBC over the Jimmy Savile cases. Sadly, there are likely countless other well-respected organizations for whom reputation trumps all, even the safety of others.
4. Rethink Sexual Assault Prevention
A lot of sexual assault prevention advice seems to originate from the same school of thought as victim blaming: potential victims put themselves situations where sexual assault is inevitable. They wore provocative clothing. They drank too much. They ventured into dangerous areas alone. This attitude is not only demeaning to victims, it reduces men into immoral beings who are powerless to fight the inevitable urge to rape when they see a scantily-dressed person or a person in a vulnerable situation. Moreover it is ludicrous to assume that only provocatively dressed women get raped. Women in burkas are raped, elderly women in housecoats get raped, wheelchair-bound hospice patients get raped. Men get raped. Sexual assault is about power, not about clothing.
More recently there has been a movement in several countries to rethink how to approach rape prevention. There is now messaging directed at men reminding them about what constitutes consent and assault. One of the first of these was the “We Can Stop It” campaign from Scotland, which featured men making declarative statements about not being a person who would commit sexual assault.
Similar campaigns have been used in other countries and advocacy groups directed at educating men about sexual assault have formed as well. Among these is the U.S.-based Men Can Stop Rape which directs its education initiatives to college-aged men. This is where sexual assault prevention needs to go if we are to have true watershed moment: we need to teach people not to rape, not simply warn people to not get raped. There can be no real prevention until we acknowledge that the decision to commit the crime is one the offender does not have to make.
5. Value All People, Including Women and Children, As Human Beings:
This isn’t necessarily about offenders needing to see their victims as human beings. Psychiatrists have debated for years about how sexual offenders truly view others. No two sexual offenders are exactly alike and I’m obviously not going to get to the bottom of that question in a blog post. No, I’m taking about how ordinary people treat one another and victims of sex crimes. Why does it take someone saying “What if it were your kid?” for people to care about victims of child sex abuse? Can’t we care about strangers? Why is it OK to speculate that the alleged Steubenville victim is a “slut” only until someone reminds you that she could be your daughter. It seems that the first inclination for many people when they hear about a sex crime is to distance themselves from it. While this is a natural reaction, it can’t be the only reaction. This distancing too often leads people to being comforted by decisions to keep assaults quiet, to not prosecute offenders, and to not think about the fact that if an offender is not stopped, there may be future victims. Those victims may not be people they know, but they are victims just the same. People who deserve empathy.
There are many huge issues that the cultures of the world do not agree on but as human beings, we have to hope that we can at least summon the shared empathy to agree on these:
- Children do not exist for the sexual gratification of adults; all sexual acts committed on children should be considered crimes.
- Any sexual act committed against adults who have not fully consented or are incapable of consent should be considered crimes.
No exceptions. That’s valuing people as humans.
If we can agree to these, and have these principals guide our actions, we can have a real critical moment of change about sex-based crimes.
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