What We Need To Do To Have a Real Watershed Moment About Rape

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

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.

PSA from Scotland's "We Can Stop It" Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign. Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

PSA from Scotland’s “We Can Stop It” Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign.
Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

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.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


Honey, We Have to Talk About Your Friend Wayne. He’s Really A Problem.


Editor’s Note:  If you maintain a well-appointed arsenal of heavy weaponry and have six months worth of food and water stockpiled in your basement in anticipation of the imminent breakdown of society, this letter is not addressed to you.  Please pass it along to that neighbor of yours who likes to go hunting sometimes.  Thank you.

Dear Responsible Gun Owner,

I’ve been seeing it all over the place lately, on Facebook and Twitter and other online forums; a lot of you are feeling persecuted.  I see a lot of you railing against people (like me) who want to talk about gun regulation:  “Why do they hate us?” and “It’s not the gun’s fault, why are they mad at the guns?”  For the record, I’m not “mad at” you personally, or the guns per se.  But we do need to talk.  Honey, it’s about your friend Wayne.  He’s really a problem.

The screenshot above is from a real-live firearms enthusiast’s forum.  Clearly, it even seems to be occurring to Mssrs. Riflemaster3000 and MegaGunDude99 (names changed to protect the innocent) that the NRA and Mr. Wayne LaPierre may actually be more to blame for the anti-gun sentiment in America than actual guns or gun owners themselves.  That’s right: yes, there are lots of people “mad at the guns,” but the truth is, you have a PR problem, responsible gun owner, and its name is the National Rifle Association.

The town of Columbine is a mere half hour from Denver proper.  It was an unfortunate coincidence for the NRA that their convention happened to be scheduled there less than two weeks after the Columbine High School massacre.  After all, it’s not as if they planned their gun party around a school shooting so that their appearance in town could cause the maximum amount of emotional distress to the locals.  But nevertheless, cause distress it did. Representatives from the city of Denver pleaded with the NRA to postpone or move their convention.  They refused.  The gesture would have been appreciated by a local community traumatized by the Columbine shootings, and would have cost the NRA nothing, since the city was even offering to pay for losses incurred as a result of doing so.  And yes, the community’s objection was about the guns, but it also wasn’t:  if the massacres had been perpetrated with golf clubs (which would have been pretty weird, but let’s pretend) and there was a high visibility golf club convention coming to town a scant two weeks later, the city of Denver would have probably asked for the same thing.  But the late Mr. Charleton Heston’s idea of sensitivity was to treat America to a defiant speech about the divisiveness of anti-gun rhetoric that really stopped just short of victim-blaming.  This has been pretty much emblematic of the way this organization has chosen to represent you ever since.

This is because, really, they aren’t representing you.  Controversy, after all, spurs more gun sales.  I wonder who might benefit from that.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre used his press conference to blame just about everyone and everything for gun violence except guns (though amusingly enough, he had the room swept for guns before he came out to speak.  Shouldn’t he have had it swept for people?) … and then after blaming “society” (ie, “us”) for several minutes, followed it up with a call for more guns in schools.  Guards with Uzis!  Teachers and janitors packing heat!  Creative solutions that involve … oh, uh… more guns.  Again, does this particular position benefit you, responsible gun owner?  Unless you are the CEO of a gun company or owner of a local firing range, probably not.

Fast forward to this week.  Their requisite sham-meeting with Vice President Biden was interrupted by… wait for it … another school shooting.  For most people this would represent an epic fail.  For the NRA, it’s just another excuse to get mad on TV about the government coming for your guns.

Meanwhile in Tuscon, AZ, home of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, the city held a completely voluntary gun buyback, collecting 206 guns in total (an impressive number considering Tucson is the Gun Capital of Everywhere).  NRA members stalked the event, trying to outbid the Tucson P.D. for these guns and to their surprise, getting no takers.  Naturally, they then threatened to sue the police department to prevent it from destroying those poor, defenseless guns.  A voluntary gun buyback becoming the precursor to “jack-booted government thugs” marching in missile parades down Congress Street is something that could only happen inside the minds of people who really don’t listen to anyone but themselves.

These are people who think it’s in good taste to throw a “National Gun Appreciation Day” on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death.  (Did we mention that there are apparently almost no black members of the NRA?)  Insular isn’t even the word.

It’s like Wayne LaPierre is constitutionally incapable of showing sensitivity in the wake of a tragedy, or adult behavior in the face of his “principles” being rejected.  And the problem, gun owners, is that many people conflate you, the largely reasonable, responsible folks that you are, many of you who grieved along with the rest of us after Sandy Hook, with these poster boys for insanity, for man’s inhumanity.  You wonder why there’s so much gun hate, and whom the “anti-gun” people are mad at?  That’s a good place to start.

If I may humbly suggest something, you might want to cancel your NRA membership; there are other gun enthusiast organizations, ones that don’t make a habit of embarrassing you at parties.  Most states have other sporting and/or hunting associations, or collectors’ associations if that’s more your thing.  Maybe your membership money doesn’t matter to Mr. LaPierre, but doesn’t that underline the point that just maybe, he’s not really representing your interests?  Controversy might be great for gun sales, but it sure has a way of tarring regular, reasonable people such as yourself.

No, really.  Grammar Nazis, help.  What is the subject of this sentence?

No, really. Grammar Nazis, help. What is the subject of this sentence?

This would be a difficult issue regardless, because we are navigating a problem that is real and trying to do it without interfering with a part of the Constitution that is particularly vaguely-written (and also grammatically strange, has anyone else noticed that?), but every time there’s a gun-related tragedy, NRA leadership gets beset with Tourette’s and come out to rub rock salt in everyone’s wounds on TV.  It’s really not helping.  In fact, it’s probably making some anti-gun people want to come for all your guns.  Just out of spite.

And spite is probably not the best motivator for making public policy.