We’ve made it far too easy for perpetrators of sexual violence to harm people without consequence.
Recent media coverage of the sexual assault case involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn has served as another chilling reminder that too many of us would rather believe that rape doesn’t actually happen. We’d prefer to think that women can avoid rape by being virtuous, and we unfairly scrutinize sexual assault victims to identify the flaws in their judgment or character so that we can blame them for what happened or simply not believe them (and say it’s not really rape). This is the kind of magical thinking that allows us to feel a pseudo sense of security (i.e., “I’m safe because I would never . . . “) when all we’ve actually accomplished is to teach victims that they should not come forward and to teach rapists that they will get away with their crimes, especially if they assault someone who is less than perfect.
Any woman can be raped and portrayed as flawed. We are fed such a constant diet of this basic message through the responses of the public, the media, and a variety of systems that rapists and their defense attorneys don’t have to work very hard to erode victims’ credibility; we as a society have been trained to automatically do that ourselves. We are quick to remember another well-ingrained message—that defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty—but somehow think that it’s perfectly acceptable to presume that the sexual assault victim must somehow be guilty of causing or contributing to her assault. No other crime victim is viewed through this highly inappropriate and justice-degrading lens.
We must recognize the ways in which we allow sexual assault to continue, and we must put an end to our complicity. Our responses impact how rape victims are portrayed and treated and whether they will come forward. Our responses impact whether prosecutors think that they can successfully prosecute rapists and whether perpetrators of sexual violence feel empowered to continue assaulting without consequence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified the lack of institutional support from police and judicial systems as well as weak sanctions against perpetrators are two key risk factors for perpetration of sexual violence. Clearly, our responses impact the safety of our communities.
We have a responsibility to hold perpetrators adequately accountable, and I urge each of you to do your part. When responding to victims or covering cases, remember that only two pieces of information about a victim determine whether or not she was raped: (1) whether she was able to freely consent to the sexual activity; and (2) whether she actually did freely consent to the sexual activity. We must focus on the perpetrator’s behavior. Nobody deserves to be raped, and whether we are reporters or friends or prosecutors, our actions must convey that we will not stand for sexual perpetrators raping anybody.
Joanne Zannoni, MSW